Small Animals are a Pet Store’s Main Attraction

October 3, 2017

Mice are nice. Cavies are cuddly. And bunnies are fun and fundamental.

But let’s face furry facts: hamsters and gerbils serve as essential staples for most pet stores that offer a small animal set. And it’s easy to see why— they’re adorably compact, soft and gentle and represent an inexpensive starter pet for many families as well as low-maintenance companions for singles, too.

This begs the question: how invested is your operation in these small mammal mainstays, and to what extent are you missing out on opportunities to capitalize on gerbil and hamster live animal and product sales?

Gerbil Craze

At Walter’s World of Pets in Lubbock, Texas, hamster- and gerbilrelated sales constitute a considerable slice of the small animal revenue pie. Manager/co-owner Vicky Blakley says they’re a go-to animal for many shoppers hunting for a miniature and manageable companion; in fact, 80 percent of the starter pets sold by the store to a first-time owner are hamsters and gerbils.

“We carry up to four different hamster species and three different-colored gerbil types, but that’s enough,” said Blakley, adding that the key to increased sales of these critters is to keep them highly visible in cages and displays that patrons are quick to see upon entering the store. It’s also important to encourage holding and petting. “Once the customer has a hamster or gerbil in the hand, they tend to buy that same animal.”

Blakley also entices with attractive price points: $14.99 per gerbil or hamster, $39.99 for an in-store assembled starter kit that includes a basic habitat, exercise wheel, food dish, water bottle, daily diet, bedding and care guide; buy all of the above and the shopper gets $10 off and a two-week money-back guarantee.

Leslie Ellis, consumer communication manager for Healthy Pet in Ferndale, Washington—previously founded as Absorption Corp. in 1985 and currently the makers of carefresh small animal bedding—likes these strategies.

“It’s important to feature habitats with all the accessories so that small animal pet owners see everything they need or even additional items they may not have thought of,” Ellis said. “Put together a starter kit for new pet owners with a special package price.”

Fundamental Foods

When it comes to foods, aim to off er a diverse array of products, and don’t skimp on SKUs that boast healthier ingredients.

“The natural category is growing rapidly in this space due to an increase in consumer awareness of health benefits provided by natural foods,” said Stephanie Carbaugh, design and marketing assistant with Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania-headquartered F.M. Brown’s Sons, Inc., a family owned-and-operated pet food vendor now under the supervision of the fifth generation of the Brown family. “It’s a big reason why natural Timothy hay is popular today, which stimulates the natural foraging instinct, satisfies the urge to chew, and helps relieve cage boredom while also providing a safe place to nest, sleep and play.”

F.M. Brown’s new Tropical Carnival Play Barn with Hay satisfies all of the aforementioned; this chewable enclosure, in fact, took second place in the 2016 Global Pet Expo New Product Showcase for the small animal category.

Timothy hay is becoming more of a staple in packaged foods, too, as evidenced by products like Kaytee Complete Hamster and Gerbil Food, a premium fiber diet containing the hay as a main ingredient; Blakley says this SKU is her biggest selling brand of edibles.

Other companies produce complete formulas worthy of shelf space. Oxbow, for example, offers Essentials Hamster and Gerbil food, which mixes Timothy hay with oats, barley and canola products for a proper mix of fiber, energy, protein and fat. Another in-demand option is carefresh Complete Menu Hamster and Gerbil Food, containing 10 real vegetables and fruits.

Home Sweet Habitat

Mary Ann Loveland, senior associate brand manager for Kaytee Hard Goods—the Chilton, Wisconsin-based maker of pet products founded 151 years ago—says a big part of the appeal of gerbils and hamsters is the flexibility for owners to create modular, expandable enclosures with the help of connectible add-ons, tubes and tunnels. That’s a capability kids love and that can’t be as easily enjoyed by owners of guinea pigs and rabbits.

“Our individually sold CritterTrail Fun-nel tubes have inspired consumers to create their own ultimate habitats for their pet hamsters or gerbils,” Loveland said. “And the possibilities are endless when pet parents and kids can connect and expand any of these habitats by building and adding on.”

Kaytee recently launched several new CritterTrail Fun-nel products, including Mystery Tubes (which include special edition glitter tubes); the Hideout Outhouse; the LookOut; and the Loop-D-Loop. The company also won “Best in Show” at Global Pet Expo 2017 for its new LED Lighted Run-About Ball, an illuminated sphere with lights that run on a 10-minute timer (the suggested duration of exercise).

Not all owners prefer plastic and expandable cages. So long as it has a deep base for extra substrate to burrow in, any appropriately sized wire cage can serve as an ideal hamster or gerbil home. A new model to consider stocking is Prevue Pet Products’ Universal Small Animal Tubby 528, with 3/8-inch wire spacing, an included large platform and ramp, and a dark gray base.

Bring the Ka-ching

To grease the exercise wheel of gerbil- and hamster-associated sales, so to speak, follow tried-and-true tactics.

“It’s very important that all store associates be well versed on the features and benefits of hamsters and gerbils and their products so that they’re able to answer questions,” Ellis said. “Also, let customers touch and feel the various merchandise.”

Prepare to think outside the box, too, by pursuing creative marketing strategies.

“Have a contest with store associates to create the most natural or most colorful habitat, and then feature those in an endcap display or take photos and post on social media,” Ellis suggested.

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