Supermarkets are stocking a greater assortment of products for birds and small animals, as part of an ongoing effort to effectively compete in the pet category with mass merchants and specialty stores.
"The reason for this expansion is that, in the 1980s, grocery stores saw their business being stolen by mass merchants and club stores, to some degree, and in the 1990s, they watched their other flank being eaten into by the pet superstores," said Don Stuart, partner at Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn. "A broader array of products gives supermarkets the opportunity to project the image of a full-service pet store."
Stuart further noted that these items add profit in supermarket pet sections that have to compete so aggressively with mass merchants on standard items, like dog and cat food.
To find out how pet-care sections are expanding, SN spoke with some retailers and visited stores in Montana and Pennsylvania.
In response to aggressive competition, Tidyman's, based in Greenacres, Wash., has added destination pet items, according to Terry Panther, category manager for the chain, which has stores in Washington, Idaho and Montana. In selected stores, Tidyman's has added pet-center store-within-stores. The chain has been growing its overall pet-aisle sales by expanding food variety and pet needs and promoting every six weeks, Panther told SN.
During a recent visit to a Tidyman's unit in Kalispell, Mont., SN observed store-within-store merchandising. Tidyman's product mix outnumbered surrounding supermarkets by nearly 100% in almost all the subcategories: bird food and treats; fish needs; alfalfa hay; rabbit and other small animal pellets; hamster, gerbil and guinea pig food; pegged items for small animals, birds and fish; and bedding products for small animals.
The pet section, located at the front of the store, is signed with gray and orange ceiling hangers, illustrated with cartoon creatures, that read "Dog Food," "Accessories," "Cat Food" and "Wild Bird Needs & Small Pet."
The area totals about 220 feet, including four dedicated endcaps. Upon entering the section from the left, a 40-foot gondola framed with standard profile fixtures holds dry cat food, cat boxes, litter and other cat accoutrements on four levels of shelving. The aisle continues the length of the store and holds general-merchandise stockkeeping units, such as hampers and cleaning products.
At the end of the 40-foot gondola for cat-related items, a 12-foot shelving unit cuts perpendicularly across the area, thereby creating the back wall of the pet center.
The left endcap, which faces the cat litter, is a peg board that holds about 36 blister packs for indoor birds, including water feeders, mirrors with beads, feeding dishes and treat sticks. Seed for domesticated birds is merchandised along a bottom shelf. Hartz Mountain sponsors the fixture, and several of the items are Hartz brand, but there are also brands such as Amazon Smythe and Avant.
In the past, wild bird food has typically been a winter stock item, when natural nuts, fruits and berries are unavailable. But supermarkets are now stocking year-round, due to these items' increasing popularity with customers. SN visited Tidyman's during the late summer, and wild birdseed was among the pet supplies.
Boxed and bagged bird food for domesticated and wild birds is merchandised on the 12-foot section facing the rest of the pet section, along with hummingbird feeders, nectar and bird houses.
Why consumers are buying more birdseed than ever before is a mystery to retailers. Wendy Mazzarella, general-merchandise clerk at Super One Foods in Hayden Lake, Idaho, speculated that people are growing more aware of nature and are buying more things for wild animals.
"I think the birds like [sunflower seeds] better, so that's what customers buy," observed Coral Lockwood, general-merchandise manager for IGA in Kalispell. The 16 kinds that she stocks are found on the bottom shelf, near indoor bird food and pegged pet needs.
In addition to the bird houses and hummingbird feeders on the 12-foot fixture at Tidyman's in Kalispell, the store dedicates two additional shelves to bird houses and various sizes and brands of packaged sunflower seeds and wild birdseed. Sizes ranged from 3-pound bags to 25-pound bags.
Panther said he is seeing growth in many of his stores in bedding and food for the small-animal category.
"We offer more in some stores, selected by region, where there is less competition. We focus on birds, gerbils and hamsters, and minimally on fish," he explained.
Indeed, the Tidyman's unit that SN visited has a substantial section devoted to small animals. Adjacent to the cat food are accessories and food for small animals. The top shelf of this 8-foot section displays plastic houses for amphibians, lizards, fish and crabs, and exercise balls for hamsters. Below those products are four shelves for hamster, gerbil and guinea pig foods; bedding, and alfalfa hay; and rabbit and ferret pellets. At Super One's unit in Kalispell, specials on products for small animals are advertised using the store intercom, according to Ron Cattron, store director for Super One in Kalispell. Mazzarella of Super One in Idaho said she relies on the visibility of her Hartz endcap to promote fish and small-animal items. "We don't feel it's necessary to promote them because we keep that end [there] all the time," she said.
Her tactics are effective, since she's seen growth in the bird and tropical-fish categories, she said. As a result, she's expanded the store's product line.
Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., is another example of a retailer that has been creating pet destination centers in its stores. Some units in New York and Pennsylvania now have "W-Pet" centers, which are set up as substantial stores-within-stores, sometimes with their own entrances.
SN visited a Wegmans unit in Scranton, Pa., which is not signed as a W-Pet shop, but still devotes an entire aisle, about 120 feet long, to pet needs. Arched across the aisle is a blue and white sign reading "Wegmans Pet Shop."
Items for small animals are placed in the front of the aisle and merchandised along 20 running feet. At the back of the pet aisle, an additional corner is used to merchandise feed and housing for wild birds. The section is marked with signage that reads "Nature's Nest."
The small-animal section begins at the front of one gondola, with 4 feet of pegged items and some shelved items -- mostly aquarium supplies.
The rest of the section is devoted to small animals and birds, with the top rows of the remaining 16 feet used for pegged items -- mostly food in tubular shapes ("sticks") that can be hung from cages. Underneath the pegged selection, bird and small-animal food is merchandised in laydown bags, which vary in quality and price.
Also in this section is bedding for the cages of small animals, made mostly of either red-cedar or pine-cedar shavings. Some gravel for bedding can be found here, as well as paper for bird cages.
The Nature's Nest section at the back of the pet aisle uses shelving made of unfinished wood, which gives the merchandising area a rustic look. Forest-green paneling is used along the back walls, against which adjacent 34-foot and 12-foot fixtures merchandise bird feeders and bird houses. Additional dark-green fixturing in a criss-cross pattern is affixed to the top of these merchandising units, from which some of the feeders are hung.
Two additional freestanding fixtures, about 20 feet long, with products merchandised on both sides, are used for more feeders and birdseed.
Wegmans has about 100 bird houses and feeders in the entire section, from a variety of manufacturers. Some of the wooden bird houses look handcrafted, with prices ranging from $14.95 to $89.95. Feeders look more mass-produced and are made mostly of acrylic materials.
Wegmans had one private-label brand of wild bird food on sale during SN's visit. The 20-pound bag was merchandised in a large cardboard bin in the Nature's section and sold for $5.49. Also available was a variety of Wegmans' wild birdseed, in a 40-pound box for $10.99. This item was also available in 5- and 10-pound bags.
Additional brands of bird food, birdseeds and sunflower seeds are also available at Wegmans, including items from Lyric Value and Attract. Prices vary greatly according to the quality of the food.
Also found in the Nature's section are garden chimes and metal "branch hooks" on which feeders can be hung. A small selection of CDs and tapes is also merchandised here, under signage that reads "Touch Tranquility."