Convenience is an important part of the modern day customer’s shopping experience and, of course, that goes for pet owners as well. Whether it’s a new toy, dental chew or bag of cat litter, shoppers would like to walk into a store, find the appropriate aisle and voila: the product they need is right there on the shelf. Only, getting that product on the shelf before the customer walks in to retrieve it isn’t quite as simple as “voila.”
In fact, it’s quite a long journey that each and every product must take before it reaches its final destination—or at least, that which hopefully comes before pet owners’ shopping carts. The process can be broken down into three essential parts: manufacturer, distributor and, finally, retailer. Ask anyone who’s had any experience as one of the entities in this chain and they’ll likely tell you that partnership, in particular, is critical. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers must all have a clear idea of what each wants while also understanding the needs of the others. Achieve this and—voila!—the stage is set for a sale, and happy customers abound.
To understand the process as it applies to cat products, Pet Age spoke to three professionals within the industry who know what it takes to successfully deliver products to cat owners: Dennis Morrissey of Catfidence, a manufacturer of bamboo-based cat litter; Neda Khorami of Independent Pet Supply, a distributor that offers a range of cat products and has been operating for over 23 years; and Errin West of Cat Connection, a cat-exclusive independent retailer located in Dallas, Texas.
Dennis Morrissey, Catfidence
Why is bamboo a good material for cat litter?
It’s 100 percent organic and eco-friendly, safe for the cat and obviously a natural product. That’s where our mindset is for products—to be as organic and eco-friendly as we can… very few additives if we can do that. We noticed how [bamboo] just absorbed more than other substrates and then we started comparing it to the… traditional clay [litter] and then the newer organic stuff that’s made out of pine and corn and things like that. We figured we’d come up with a small bag that would last for a month [for] people living in urban areas… who don’t want to carry a 40 pound bag up the stairs to their apartment.
Why is it important to your company that the product be organic?
When we started this company, we weren’t even in pet products— we were in eco-friendly alternatives to plastics. We were always an organic, eco-friendly alternative to other things. And then we got into the dog bag business, which was plastic, and we started making it better, more eco-friendly, so that’s why we stumbled into the bamboo—we realized it was a good thing and we said, “It’s a good fit and organic, eco-friendly…” There’s no additives or chemicals [in the litter] so it’s completely safe. So that’s important to us; [that’s] our philosophy as a company. And we think that’s a growing sector as well… We see it growing year after year… It seems now there’s more of a willingness— especially in the urban center areas— where people are willing to spend a buck or two more for [a] product because it is organic or eco-friendly and safer for their cat or for their children, etc.
What was the process like between the birth of the concept and bringing it to fruition?
Well first we had the product… we put it in bowls here to test it—pour water into it [and compare the litter] versus the other ones and we did all that because we wanted to believe it ourselves. So then we did. So now we have a product—what are we going to call it? We worked with a little outside firm, we came up with different ideas and… we just went back and forth about what the name would be and we came up with “confidence.” And then we said, “Catfidence”—is your cat “catfident”? Does your cat have “catfidence”? So then we all agreed the name was good. And then it took another several months back and forth: what should the package look like? Well, you go to a Petco or something, all the stores [and] all the packages look the same. I said, let’s make ours different and let it stand out. So ours is in a darker blue bag which is almost an elegant look. We know it’s a premium grade with the price, [and] we think our bag looks nice and elegant. Then we had to work on the verbiage—what were the bullets that were going to be on the front of the bag, the selling points? How do we [display] the instructions on the back on how to use [the litter]? We finally had it all worked out; it probably took up four months to get all that worked out.
What did you talk about when designing the packaging?
We wanted the packaging to stand out; we wanted it to be different from the rest. We just wanted it to portray our message that there’s no chemicals, no additives, it’s eco-friendly, five times the absorption of the other products and all of that is on the package.
What are you looking for in a distributor partner?
The word “partner” is exactly it. I’ve been the manufacturing mill… and then I’ve also been the distributor before and it doesn’t work unless you work together. They both have sales force… and I think you have to work together. You can’t work together every day, but [you should] be available for each other—come in and do a sales meeting for new products, make sure [your partners] understand the products, go out and help them push it to their larger accounts or wherever they find that there’s an interest. I think to be willing on both sides—us willing to go in and do those things, [and] them willing to have us come in and train their people on our products—[is important]. Nobody’s perfect; there’s going to be things that go wrong. It’s how you fix those [issues] that is important on both sides. A true partnership.
Neda Khorami, Independent Pet Supply
What is the process for deciding which cat products to offer?
As a specialty local distributor, we look for the highest quality product that is in the industry. We go to all the industry shows and we do our research before bringing any pet lines in. We also ask for product samples to pass out to our team to see how it feeds and look at the quality of the line. We then come together and discuss the benefits and features of the line.
What are you looking for in manufacturing partners?
A partner that supports not only their distributor, but [is] also interested in the success of independent retailers. We look for manufacturers that don’t sell to online or big box retailers. We value manufacturers who partner with us and work closely to educate and promote their lines with our retailers.
What trends are you currently observing in the cat category?
We are seeing some trends that are fun for independent retailers to carry and display in their stores. One of the cool [products] that we just recently started carrying is Moderna Donut. It’s a futuristic cat bed that sparks the interests of savvy shoppers. At Independent Pet Supply, we also always take the millennial into consideration as well.
Can you briefly summarize the process of getting a product from the manufacturer to a retailer and onto their shelves?
As a distributor, we work diligently to search for new and upcoming pet foods and supplies. We take pride in being a local specialty distributor that can pioneer new and upcoming pet food and supply brands. We work with our independent retailers and get to know what they are looking for and what their vision is for their store. We work closely with our manufacturers as we have ridealongs with them in order to show the lines to each retailer and educate them on the line. This is also a great time for retailers to ask any questions that they may have on the products.
What is the most challenging thing about pet product distribution?
It’s definitely not easy being in the middle. As a distributor, you need to satisfy your manufacturers and [also] keep your retailers happy at all times.
Errin West, Cat Connection
Why did the owners of Cat Connection decide to open a cat product-exclusive store?
The current co-owners of the Cat Connection were actually employees here before purchasing the business. When the store became available, both owners jumped at the chance to really expand the Cat Connection’s mission, becoming a one-stop shop for feline health and wellness and offering services and products customers couldn’t find elsewhere. There was an obvious lack of good, accurate information about cats, and the marketplace was in desperate need of knowledgeable and experienced cat people.
How are cat owners unique from other pet owners?
Many people think that dog people dote on their pets, but they have nothing on cat people! For the most part, cat owners are very specific about what their cats like and need, and because cats can be so finicky and particular themselves, it’s an understandable response! Cat people research everything about the food or product they’re considering purchasing and ask a lot of thoughtful questions. Cat owners are very much aware that if their cat doesn’t like something, then that’s that. There’s no arguing with your cat!
What is the process for finding new products for the store?
The owners try to attend as many trade shows as possible in a year because that’s where the large manufacturers debut new and exciting products. But because the Cat Connection prides itself on offering unique, hard-to-find items, we’re always on the lookout for new stuff from other small businesses. Most of the toys we bring into the store are made by individuals with whom we develop relationships, and the quality is far superior to more mass-produced items. As you might expect, the co-owners have a pretty good sense of what cats will like and why, so we avoid gimmicky and unsafe items completely.
What do you look for in a distribution partner?
The best distributors are those that understand the products they are selling and can help us get the products to the customer. If there’s a problem, we need to be able to call our distributor and get it fixed as soon as possible. At the end of the day, if the customer isn’t happy, then we’re not happy.
What are some trends you see in the cat food and supply sectors? In other words, what are customers demanding?
Customers are more informed than ever and love advocating for their pets. They’re demanding high quality food and products, but sold at affordable prices. Of course, “affordable” means something different to everyone. It’s a difficult thing to balance, but we’re seeing more brands attempting to meet that magic balance between quality and cost