THE PURR-FECT SOLUTION

As part of the growing trend to create pet destinations in Center Store, retailers are using cat accessories and other nonfood items to keep cat owners coming back for supplies, as well as cat food.Fleming IGA stores, Oklahoma City, is putting more and more pet destinations into its stores, according to Tom Rose, category manager for pet supplies. To take up the slack in cat food, as well as dog food,

As part of the growing trend to create pet destinations in Center Store, retailers are using cat accessories and other nonfood items to keep cat owners coming back for supplies, as well as cat food.

Fleming IGA stores, Oklahoma City, is putting more and more pet destinations into its stores, according to Tom Rose, category manager for pet supplies. To take up the slack in cat food, as well as dog food, he said, IGA is trying to grow the treats, snacks and supplies.

In the United States, canned cat food outsells dry in dollars and in units, but for the year ended Jan. 3, 1999 unit sales dropped a lot more in the canned segment than in dry, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

Dry cat-food unit sales were 347 million, a 2% drop, vs. canned-food unit sales of 3.3 billion, a 7% drop, according to IRI data.

John Corcoran, category manager for cat food at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., thinks the introduction of new varieties of boxed slices and morsels will spur sales.

Four-packs of 9 Lives, introduced two years ago, "are doing OK" in Big Y, Corcoran said.

"We carry a large variety [of cat food], much larger than our competition, and we also have a large variety of general merchandise."

Total canned cat-food dollar sales last year were $1.2 billion, down 1%, while dried food was at $1.1 billion, down 2.9%

Brand leaders in canned are Friskies, Fancy Feast, 9 Lives Plus and private label, according to IRI. In dry, private label leads, followed by Purina Cat Chow, Purina Meow Mix and Friskies. As for manufacturers, Nestle, the maker of Friskies, is clearly the leader, with $629 million in annual sales or more than 50% of the market, said a spokesman for IRI.

Some retailers, like Big Y and Acme Markets of Virginia, North Tazewell, Va., said they are having success with the multipacks. But Fleming's Rose blamed the four-packs of 9 Lives for an actual decline in that brand's canned cat-food sales.

"With us, canned cat food is good, but we haven't gotten behind the Heinz initiative to force the consumer to do something they don't want to do -- buy a four-pack that is all the same flavor. What [the manufacturer is] saying is, 'If you get her to buy four kinds of this flavor, you'll get her to buy more.' I don't see where the consumer has really embraced it yet."

Some flavors of cat food are slower-moving, which has presented an opportunity for Grocers Specialty Co., City of Commerce, Calif. Some varieties within top lines would not warrant warehouse space, yet consumers still want them, said Michael Ortiz, new business development manager for Grocers Specialty Co./Grocers General Merchandise Co., part of Certified Grocers of California, Fresno. "We are able to provide those, as a specialty company," he said. "Almost all the chains pride themselves on being able to get customer requests. We do a fair amount of business in slower-selling cat foods in this segment."

The 3,000 IGAs that Fleming supplies and the 300 it owns carry some cat food that usually is available at veterinarians' offices. Dental Diet, made by Nestle, for tartar control in cats, is one, but Rose said it sells only "fair" because it's a specialty item.

For the IGAs, Rose continued, "canned cat food does better than dry. Canned has done exceptionally well, because we promote the heck out of it. We do very well on Friskies and Fancy Feast. We are constantly featuring different promotions, pallet programs or loose cases."

Litter is tied in with the pet-store concept, and it is doing well, he said. "I'd like to move more of our business [in litter] toward the clumping type and away from the clay, but it's easier for the consumer to buy the cheap end.

"If they can spend a couple bucks and get litter vs. $8 to $10 for the clumping kind, they will."

Rose says the cat-litter industry has not done a good enough job of convincing the consumer to move up to the clumping variety.

"But that's the direction we are trying to move our retailers in -- the higher-end clumping stuff, also known as scoopable litter," Rose said.

The strategy for retailers now is to intermingle all the pet supplies. Rose said, "We'll set all the canned dog food, then supplies, then the dry; we do the same with cat, including litter. Then we set wild bird food, and food and supplies for small animals, all interspersed.

"You've got to tie the pet foods in with the nonfood. You have to find more room to sell those items. The consumer is looking for that and is having a hard time finding that in grocery, so she goes elsewhere," Rose said.

Where space allows, retailers have been creating pet centers.

In May 1998, Certified Grocers of California introduced a new pet-supply program designed to respond to the PetCo and PetsMart concept stores. The 35 stores participating have reported significant increases in volume and profit, according to Chuck Pilliter, corporate vice president and president of Certified's northern California division, speaking at the company's annual meeting.

Since that meeting, in February, stores with those centers have experienced 15% growth, said Ortiz of Grocers Specialty Co./Grocers General Merchandise Co.

"We've been adding about a store a month to that program," he said.

For its stores in inner-city areas, Ortiz said, his company will soon supply J-hooks, clip strips and shippers to display accessories over the food where there isn't much shelf space. Retailers in cramped stores tend to overlook the accessories, even though they are profitable, he said, because they lack space.

Grocers Specialty customers in upscale areas, like Draeger's Supermarkets in the Bay Area and Bristol Farms in southern California, serve customers who look for natural cat food, made without additives or preservatives, Ortiz said.

It is important for a retailer to know his customers, he added. "Some people breed cats for show, or to keep rodents away, or as a substitute child," he said. A breeder would buy a different type of food than would a child who just got a kitten, he noted. Many people have moved from the supermarket to the pet store, in order to have another choice of food for their cats, Ortiz said.

Mike Jadrich, corporate manager of in-store solutions for Supervalu, Minneapolis, said the chain is testing a new pet-center program in every region of the country. "The key for us is merchandising cat food and nonfood together; having a coordinated promotions plan for the variety of accessories and food.

"In dog and cat, it's food that drives the volume; accessories drive the profits," Jadrich continued. "So, the adjacencies of the toys and accessories to the food and litter are critical."

Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., has also devoted more space to the pet aisle, and many units have large pet-store-within-stores. In some units, the pet destinations, called W-Pet, even have a separate entrance.

Sometimes chains will find new ways to promote pet food. Wegmans, for example, is a sponsor of the mobile adoption unit of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Serving Erie County. The SPCA brings its Whisker Wagon to the various Wegmans parking lots. Animals that are up for adoption can be viewed there, and adopted if the customer meets certain requirements.

A sample of Wegmans' premium pet food and coupons are given to people who adopt animals, said Patty Moll, the mobile adoption coordinator with the SPCA. Tops Friendly Markets, Buffalo, N.Y., the other leading grocery chain in the area, also works with the SPCA, Moll said, but is not part of the Whisker Wagon effort. Through Wegmans, Moll said, Kal-Kan has come on board, adding the Kal-Kan logo to the material handed out. Wegmans is in the second year of a three-year commitment in sponsoring the mobile unit, Moll said.

Carlisle, Pa.-based Edwards Super Food Stores' newest units on Long Island and in New Jersey have large pet aisles, and the Quincy, Mass.-based Super Stop & Shop units in New England also have them. Steve Spellman, manager of the Allston, Mass., 67,000-square-foot unit of Stop & Shop, told SN on its visit to the store last February that he was getting good feedback from customers about the new, expanded pet aisle. "Many [customers] have a great attachment to their pets -- they're like their own kids," Spellman said.