Staying Stylishly Connected
Dog collars, leashes and harnesses allow pet owners to keep their pets safely, fashionably and comfortably at their sides, while affording retailers a revenue-boosting opportunity.
Oh, the ties that bind. Today’s dog collars, leashes and harnesses are designed to safely and securely tether pet and person together, with a heavy emphasis on looking good in the process. In fact, next to the apparel category, this is one of pet retail’s most fashion-focused sections. These accessories help dog owners make a statement about their companions and by extension, themselves.
Even so, manufacturers of these products take great pains not to sacrifice performance and comfort for appearance. Because no matter how fun, whimsical or stylish they are, collars leashes and harnesses serve a serious purpose: preventing harm to dogs and humans alike.
Among the most notable features of this category for pet specialty retailers is that not only does it add color and excitement to retail displays, but it also represents an essential category that has not come close to maxing out its growth potential. In many local markets, for example, this category is benefiting from city/municipal ordinances requiring dogs to be leashed whenever they are out in public.
“City leash laws are now as common as street lights,” says Tonto Alexander, president/founder of Nite Beam Products, a Kalamazoo, Mich.-based company that produces LED-lighted safety products for people and pets, including collars and leashes. “First, it just makes sense to have the dog on a leash, it’s safer for the pet. But cities want to protect the communities and also limit their liability [in the case of a dog bite or attack]. If the city doesn’t have some kind of leash law in place, it can be sued too.”
Another growth driver is that people are doing more with their dogs. Alexander says that he sells a lot of his product to runners who take their dogs along with them. Long work hours have also contributed to demand for lighted and reflective products, since many dog owners walk their pets in the early morning or late at night.
Still, people want the time they spend with their dogs to not only be safe but fun as well, says John Hatcher, president of Sandpoint, Idaho-based EzyDog, which manufactures leashes, collars and harnesses designed for outdoor lifestyles and recreation. “It’s helpful for a retailer to provide a solution for their customer that will result in the most enjoyable experience for them with their dog, pointing them to a product that can make an immediate and positive impact in time spent with their pet,” he says.
It doesn’t hurt category sales that society’s increasing passion for dogs has led to a preponderance of canine-related and -themed events that give people the opportunity to show off their pets and their accessories and apparel. Also, when it comes to collars and leases, people are willing to splurge. Many pet owners are upgrading their purchases, says Lanette Fidrych, president of Cycle Dog-Earth Friendly Pet Company, a Portland, Ore.-based company that makes earth-friendly dog collars and leashes.
“We see the trend moving toward people who want to spend a little more for products that look and perform better, last longer and have a stronger feature set,” Fidrych says. “There are definitely a large percentage of people that purchase the cheapest collar possible and leave it on their dog for a year, but this percentage is moving downward as customers learn of better products that are better for their dogs.”
What features do customers value? A recent in-store survey conducted by Coastal Pet Products, Inc., indicates that durability, comfort and safety rank high on the list, says Nicole Haefke, marketing specialist for the Alliance, Ohio-based company, which offers high-quality lifestyle pet products. Consumers are looking for products that reflect their active lifestyles, leading to a demand for “bright, sporty colors,” she says.
“Based on [Coastal’s] Consumer Research Project, price is not important when it comes to buying a new collar, leash or harness,” Haefke says. “The consumer decision tree goes from durability to comfort, safety, fashion, price and then training features.”
Purchasing several collars—sometimes all in one shot—is becoming the norm. In part, this may be driven by something Alexander is noticing: a trend toward multiple dog ownership. In fact, according to the 2015-2016 APPA National Pet Owners survey, more than 21 million households had two or more dogs, with nearly 30 percent of these owning three or more.
“People do tend to purchase multiple collars—either for multiple pets or even for the same pet,” says Alisha Navarro, president of 2 Hounds Design. The Monroe, N.C. company makes dog harnesses as well as high-end designer dog collars. “We have customers with over 30 collars per dog in some cases. This is their ‘wardrobe.’ Most of this demographic either doesn’t have children or their children are grown and out of the house, so their disposable income is spent spoiling their dogs.”
Yet while shoppers may not be as price-driven as they were in the past, they still want value. Hatcher explains that customers do not necessarily equate value with being inexpensive; instead, they must perceive the product as being worth the cost. This requires that pet specialty retailers effectively communicate the features and benefits to customers, and also tease out what is meaningful to them, Hatcher says.
For example, many consumers are very eco-friendly and therefore seek products with these attributes. Other consumers may only consider U.S.-made items, says Navarro. Folks who feel strongly about these issues will likely turn away from products that aren’t aligned with their value system, so the effective—and timesaving—thing for retailers to do is ask.
They may also take the discussion further, inquiring about what kinds of activities the customer does with the dog, says Manfred Bogdahn, inventor of the flexi retractable leash. The company, also named flexi, is headquartered in Bargteheide, Germany.
“Ask if there are certain times of day they walk more, and of course, what size dog they have and what the behavior is,” says Bogdahn. “After determining the basics about the lifestyle with the pet, retailers should be able to make an informed and trusted recommendation of what product and product line would work best.”
When selling during the hot-weather months, retailers should be certain to inquire if the dog spends much time in the water. “A dog that goes in the water a lot probably shouldn’t be wearing a silk brocade collar,” Navarro says. “Also ask if the dog will wear the collar every day.”
As for how to best merchandise these products, admittedly, this can become challenging. The category can get a little crowded, says Fidrych, turning the walls into a riot of colors and styles. Although certainly eye-catching, this might be a bit overwhelming for customers. But there are ways to tame the displays. Consider:
• Creating a safety section. “Customers tend to come into the stores and just stare at all the collars and leashes up on the wall, and they all start to look the same,” Alexander explains. “If you segregate some into a safety section you can at least call attention to this option.”
• Giving harnesses their own area, rather than displaying them under the collars and leashes, says Haefke, mentioning that Coastal has determined that harnesses sell better when they become a focal point. Also try color-blocking, which can be very visually appealing, she adds.
• Putting them in high-traffic areas. “The bright, bold colors grab attention,” says Navarro. “Also offer to let them try on the products to see how it looks on the dog. And ask what colors they prefer to see on the dog.” Hatcher says offering customers a “house” leash, collar or harness to use while in the store is a good way to give them a first-hand experience.
• Looking to the best apparel merchandisers for inspiration, says Fidrych. “Have a great assortment, great brands and make sure you replenish your displays,” she says. “Nobody purchases the last T-shirt on the rack or the last particular collar style on the wall.”
It is important that retailers commit to the category. “A full presentation with an assortment of colors in all sizes always makes for a more compelling display,” Hatcher says. “It shows the retailer believes in the products, and so should their customer.”