June 3, 2014

Bugs Bunny might just be one of the most famous rabbits in our culture, and rightly so. His sense of humor and adventure has kept generations of children glued to both the big and small screen.

It turns out there might be more to that “wascally wabbit” than the animators’ talented depictions.

As pets, rabbits are playful and intelligent companions. Like cats, they can be litter trained, which means they can have free run of the house, joining in the many family activities taking place each day. They are also a very versatile pet, with the ability to live outside in a hutch in many climates, or inside as apartment dwellers, even in places that might otherwise refuse pets such as cats or dogs.

“Rabbits are becoming a popular ‘pocket pet,’ and we are anticipating significant growth in the category in the next few years,” Susan Parker, marketing director at Scarlett Pet and Animal Feeds, said.

Attracting Customers

For independent retailers, the rabbit category is an important one to leverage when working on building a strong relationship with your customers. While experts say people tend to obtain pet rabbits through friends, relatives or by word of mouth, as new pet owners, a trip to the pet store is a necessity. Be prepared by having your rabbit section set as a one-stop-shop for customers.

By having grooming items, hutches, bedding, treats, hay and food all in one place, new rabbit owners will be able to see everything they need, and returning customers will appreciate the convenient shopping experience. You could even consider having starter kits available, which is something Living World offers its customers.

“We include bedding, a hay feeder, hay, treats, a water bottle and a booklet,” Melanie Parness, marketing specialist at Rolf C. Hagen Inc., said. “The key is that by introducing the customers to these products, you will get them coming back when they need to buy more.”

Retailers can even create their own kits, and include a food product as well.

Branding is another important part of building the relationship with your customer. According to the latest American Pet Products Association Pet Owners Survey, 60 percent of rabbit owners say brand names are ‘somewhat to very important’ to them, and manufacturers are aware of this habit.

Scarlett’s Mardi Gras, Nutra and Natural rabbit-food lines are marketed primarily to the specialty pet market, and they depend on the reputation of their brands, which come from a 5th-generation, family-owned company that’s been in business since 1986.

Carefresh is another long-standing brand in the rabbit category. With 25 years of experience creating bedding and litter products, the company recently expanded into food with its Carefresh Complete menu, a nut-free, all-natural balanced diet made with whole grains and vegetables.

“A great way to help drive loyalty is by introducing customers to a product that is sold exclusively in your store early on,” Jim Gorrell, brand manager of Healthy Pet, said. “Make sure you’re not just selling products, but you’re building relationships.”

Fun New Trends

While long-standing brands are a staple in the rabbit category, it is not immune to the trends being seen across the board in pet products. As gluten-free diets rose in popularity for human consumption, it was only natural that pet owners would seek this out for their pets as well.

F.M. Brown has launched Baked Pretzels and Baked Pretzel Stick treats that are gluten-free products in its popular Tropical Carnival brands. Living World joins the gluten-free trend as well with a new treat, Small Bites with Quinoa, which is not only a great source of protein, but also helps promote a shiny coat.

Natural ingredients are another important priority for customers, and Vitakraft has answered that trend with its new SunSations brand.

“With no artificial flavors or colors, a variety of vegetables, chopped hay, herbs, flower petals, probiotics and omega 3, we are excited to offer a high-quality product at a reasonable price,” Lisa Kniceley, marketing and trade specialist for Vitakraft, said.

Some other all-natural foods include Scarlett’s Nutra and Naturals brands and the Carefresh Complete menu.

Bedding is also seeing a shift from the tried-and-true wood shavings of old. These days, customers are interested in products that are biodegradable and made from recycled materials, in an effort to be more environmentally conscious.

Living World’s Fresh ‘N Comfy bedding and Vitakraft’s Fresh World and Eco bedding are made from recycled newspapers and magazines.

CareFresh manufactures its product specifically for small pets by using leftover wood pulp.

“We’re taking a product that otherwise would be put in landfills and putting it to good use, while staying earth-friendly by not cutting down trees,” Gorrell said.

Corn cobs have also become an earth-friendly, alternative bedding product.

“One of our best-sellers is our Twirls & Cobs Cage Litter and Bedding,” Justin Lengel, marketing and design assistant for F.M. Brown, said. “The product is highly absorbent, biodegradable and dust free, but the great thing is it can act as a toy for pets to shred and use as nesting material, creating hours of fun and exercise.”

Building the Relationship

When it comes to rabbits, it’s not just the relationship between the retailer and the customer that’s important. It’s also important to foster a good relationship between the owner and the rabbit. One way to do this is by offering a nice variety of treats and toys within the rabbit department.

The Hay Wheel from Living World is a relatively new product that is not only practical, it’s fun as well. The wheel keeps hay within it, helping extend the freshness of the hay. Plus, the wheel can be used three different ways, either freestanding, installed on the wire of the cage, or taken off its base to allow the rabbit to roll it around to play and forage.

Vitakraft is also introducing a new toy designed specifically for rabbits. The SunSations Brain Teaser is an interactive toy made up of wooden blocks and ropes. The ropes can be used to pull out compartments, where the rabbit can find treats.

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