Serving a Purpose

Dog apparel has always had a fun and silly side to it— which are still important qualities—but as more pet owners look to apparel to protect their dogs from the elements, the category’s tone and mission is changing.


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It is time to have a serious conversation about one of the most fun categories in the entire store—dog apparel. Sure, there is a fair amount of merriment surrounding dog apparel, and for good reason. Some outfits—particularly the Halloween and holiday costumes—are hilarious. Who could resist smiling at a dog dressed up like Superman, a Ninja Turtle or a reindeer? But increasingly, apparel is also regarded as an essential component to canine health, offering protection from the elements, keeping dogs safer and more comfortable, while making a bit of a fashion statement in the process.

 Pet owners are becoming increasingly more dialed into the reality that dogs experience many of the same issues that cause us to don jackets, sweaters, T-shirts, shoes and boots. Social media is also fueling some of this awareness, for example, with dog lovers pointing out that if it is too hot for people to walk around on pavement barefooted, then it is also too hot for dogs to go out in the heat of the day with unprotected paws. It is a message that can’t come too soon for pet apparel manufacturers.

“I wish more people knew how important apparel is,” says Rebecca Gadd, CEO of Gold Paw Series, a Clackamas, Ore.-based company that focuses on harnesses, blankets and apparel. “I hear the argument that ‘dogs already have fur coats’ so often, and that’s true, they do. But their bodies grow fur appropriate to the conditions they’re exposed to. You’ll notice that most dogs don’t grow much of a winter coat because they’re just not exposed to winter weather nearly as much as they are to household temperatures.”

Consequently, although dogs might stay warm enough without a jacket when outside running or playing hard, for those walked on a leash in cold weather, their exertion level isn’t enough to keep them warm without some coverage, says Gadd. 

Gretchen George, president of PetRageous Designs LTD, a Burlington, Mass.-based designer and producer of hard lines and soft lines for dogs, also says she wishes there was a broader appreciation for how important this category is for the dog’s well-being. 

“A heavy coat on a cold snowy day will keep dogs warm and dry,” says George. “At the same time, a coat eliminates the need to towel off the dog’s wet fur and keeps the elements outside, much like our human garments do.”


Fashion & Function
Pet owners want it all—fashion and function—when it comes to apparel, says Julie Jurrjens, design manager for Best Furry Friends, a Minneapolis-based manufacturer of pet apparel, costumes, toys and accessories. It is strikingly similar to what people demand from their own clothing, requiring that pet apparel manufacturers stay current with what’s hot in the two-footed arena.

“We follow human fashion to understand silhouettes, fabric and color in  outerwear so the looks we offer are on trend,” says Jurrjens. “We also follow performance apparel to improve functionality in our garments. Finally, we consult with pet owners to improve fit and make sure the garments work for dogs.”

According to George, pet owners are looking for quality, human-grade fabrics when it comes to serious outerwear, along with styles that match what people are wearing.

“Patterns and fabrics that are trending for kids and adult fashion are paralleled by trends in dog apparel,” she explains. “Dog owners want their pets to look as snazzy and fashionable as them. Pet owners can further express their own style through their dogs’ fashion. With this in mind, we look for the smallest details trending in human fashion.”

Consumers are looking for value, says Sue Kim, CEO of Hip Doggie Inc., a Los Angeles designer of pet apparel and accessories. “If it costs a little more but the quality and features justify the price, it’s a good buy for them.”

Demand is strong, she continues, with apparel becoming mainstream in some areas. “Ten years ago in New York, you might see a few dogs wearing a coat. Now, almost every dog has a coat. But there is more competition and players in the space, so brand recognition and product design and quality are important to stand out in the crowd.”

At the same time, people are still keeping an eye on pricing, although there seems to be less sensitivity, says Gadd. “I think it’s starting to come in line with children’s wear,” she explains. “There are plenty of lower prices to be sure, but also plenty of kindergartners in Patagonia jackets. Yes, dogs are dogs, but I don’t think the movement of dogs into full-fledged family members has stopped. So, there are a lot of consumers expecting the same level of quality they want from their own apparel and are willing to pay appropriately for it.”

Susan McCann, national marketing manager for Ethical Products, Inc., sees the same dynamics at play. Based in Bloomfield, N.J., the company provides a variety of products for dogs and cat, including a complete line of dog apparel. There are consumers willing to spend huge amounts of money on designer purses, shoes and so on, she says, while others are more ‘frugal” and go for the bargains.

“But overall, more and more consumers will pick a higher-priced fashionable item as long as it does what it’s designed to do,” she says. “Once dogs are close to a year old, they’re the size they will always be, so spending a bit more on a coat that will last two or three seasons is becoming more acceptable.”


Evening out Sales
Demand in this category is still growing, says Gadd, although it is prone to seasonal ups and downs. However, there are strategies that can make the swings less pronounced. For one thing, more pet apparel manufacturers are offering products to meet the needs of all seasons, even the hot summer months, giving pet owners more options and pet specialty retailers more opportunities.

“As a whole, the apparel category has changed over time; it’s no longer a seasonal item, and more pet parents are dressing their pets in styles suitable for every climate. This is where the ‘fashion’ side plays a key role during more reasonable weather, and the ‘functional’ side plays a role during the more aggressive climates, such as rain, snow and so on,” says McCann, mentioning that Ethical recently added several items to its year-round offerings.

Yet, it makes sense for retailers to offer more seasonally appropriate apparel for spring and summer such as tees and tanks, suggests Jurrjens. “Not all of these items are strictly for fashion,” she explains. “For example, a tee can protect short-coated, light-colored dogs from sunburn when used in conjunction with pet sunscreen on the exposed areas. And screened tees sell year-round as a means of social expression.”

George agrees there is a market for apparel throughout the year. Still, she adds, there will always be seasonal spikes, especially during the fall and holidays—activity retailers should capitalize on by planning ahead to make the most out of the September through February selling window.

“We suggest bringing in apparel early, so consumers can see the product and know you have it,” she says. “Take advantage of the spike by participating in offering these products.” 


Dressing up Profits
This category can provide pet specialty retailers with several desirable advantages, says Kim, offering them a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. These items can also help add to the ambiance and style of the store, drawing in repeat business as customers come in looking for what’s new, sparking impulse buys and resulting in some very healthy sales activity during peak times. But, she cautions, it has to be done right.

“You must have a dog model or dress form that brings the products to life,” Kim explains. “Photos of dogs wearing the products can be key as well. It really helps to see the products in action; hanger appeal isn’t always sufficient to properly showcase the items. And having the shop dog wearing outfits is always a great sales tool.”

It’s important that retailers and pet owners understand there is a lot of variance in fit, says Jurrjens, explaining that unlike human apparel, there is less standardization throughout the category. Consequently, it is essential for customer satisfaction that storeowners know the fit of the lines they carry and help customers understand the necessity of correctly measuring their dogs. Sales people should also inquire about the breed and weight of the dog, and what purpose the garment will serve, she adds.

“Understanding the dog’s temperament is helpful too,” Jurrjens says. “You may want to recommend easy pull-on outerwear for dogs that aren’t eager to wear clothes but still need protection.”

Retailers can also boost sales by:

• Keeping offerings focused and well merchandised. “I think sometimes stores try to have incredible assortments, which makes it tough to keep sizes in,” Kim says. “Sometimes it’s best to stick with some core styles for the season but have full stock of those styles.”

• Making recommendations. For example, in the winter when dogs tend to stay indoors more, they also tend to shed more, says George. This is where pajamas can come in really handy.

• Getting it noticed. Put apparel front and center, not tucked away down an aisle, says McCann. Remember that apparel can be an impulse buy, so place it accordingly—for example, on a spinner rack near the registers or near the food aisle. “Another creative way to bring attention to apparel is holding a fashion show and inviting pet owners to bring their dogs in, dressed to the nines for all to see,” McCann adds.

• Cross-merchandising, says Gadd. Depending on the apparel, appropriate locations may be next to skincare remedies or other solutions, in the travel area, next to collars and leashes (especially since many sweaters, jackets and so on come with leash holes) and the senior pet care section.

• Telling a story with your displays, says Gadd. For spring or summer, think about creating a picnic scene that incorporates not only apparel but other items, such as portable food/water bowls, toys, etc. 

Of course, don’t forget the holidays. “Garments have a higher ticket price than the vast majority of non-consumable pet products,” George explains. “Taking advantage of the holiday season is highly advised. Holiday-themed garments are great gifts for pet owners, and having these items available is a great way to bring in additional traffic during a time of year when people are looking to spend.”

 

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