Dressing Up Sales
As more dog owners rely on apparel to keep their pets protected from the elements or to outfit them for holiday photos, the clothing category provides retailers with a profit-making opportunity.
Pet specialty retailers considering ways to brighten up their shelves, add a bit of fun and encourage repeat business would do well to think about building up their apparel inventory. Many pet owners are embracing buying clothing for their pets, particularly their canine buddies, who after all, are decidedly easier to dress than cats.
Why is this so? For one thing, purchasing booties, coats, sweaters, cool or warm-weather gear, hats, costumes and so on and dressing dogs in them is an experience more dog owners are buying into, especially among younger demographics for whom dogs are often stand-ins for children. Adding to the clamor for apparel is the fact that people are taking their dogs virtually everywhere with them; it seems that nothing is off limits these days in terms of where dogs are allowed to go. As such, there are more opportunities for dressing dogs up. Dogs also often play a starring role in their owners’ social media accounts, and apparel provides a fun way to enhance pets’ cuteness factor.
But the apparel category isn’t just for fun. Also contributing to the interest in this category is the growing realization that, just like people, dogs need protection from the elements. Depending on where they live, this could be the case throughout the year, making this category more than just a seasonal opportunity.
“There’s a growing market year-round because of the various apparel options for cool, wet and warm weather,” says Lisa Paxton, president of Ultra Paws. Located in Baxter, Minn., the company provides an array of apparel and boots for dogs, along with other items.
“We’ve added raincoats, cool coats, blankets, travel pillows, clip lights and carriers in the past year and they’ve expanded the selling season beyond the Christmas holiday or winter season,” she says. “Also, dog safety is a year-round concern, so products with high visibility sell well year-round.”
Rebecca Gadd, president of Gold Paw Series, a Gresham, Ore., maker of dog-friendly apparel, says she’s seeing the same trend. “Although Christmas is always a winner, overall I would say [the category] is less seasonal,” Gadd says. “Or rather, customers expect styles for every season.”
Costumes are becoming year-round items, says Julie Jurrjens, design manager for Best Furry Friends, which has U.S. offices in Minneapolis and headquarters in Hong Kong and provides an extensive line of pet costumes, seasonal and casual apparel for dogs and some items for cats. “People celebrate more with their pets as part of the family,” she says. “Peak business for costumes is fall into winter, but it’s a good idea to carry birthday items all year.”
But there is still a prominent seasonal spike, says Gretchen George, president of PetRageous Designs, a Burlington, Mass., company offering an assortment of functional pet apparel and hard goods.
“Holiday demand overlaps with a change in the weather,” George explains. “This is where the function and fashion demands converge. The holiday spike, which starts in the early fall, is driven by both function and consumers wanting to outfit their furry friends in festive garments. It intersects with demand for more functional garments as the weather turns cold and sweaters, jackets and PJs become more of a necessity.”
The holiday-themed apparel category is growing, so take advantage of the demand, says George. “These are great gifts for pet owners,” she says. “Having these items available to consumers is a great way to bring in traffic to a retailer’s physical location and online stores during a time when people are looking to spend.”
Sue Kim, CEO of Hip Doggie, agrees that although they do see sales throughout the year, demand tends to drop off a bit in the spring and summer. However, tank tops, dresses and bellybands have strong sales during this time. Still, they’re still never as robust as coats and sweaters, Kim adds. Located in Los Angeles, Hip Doggie designs pet apparel and accessories and counts many celebrities among its fans.
“Peak season for apparel sales is typically September through February or March,” Kim explains. “Let’s face it, it’s often just too hot in the summer to wear clothes and dogs who do sport tank tops and dresses are certainly making a fashion statement as opposed to filling a real need.”
However, Jurrjens argues that summer apparel serves an important purpose for many dogs. Although cold-weather gear is essential in areas of extreme cold in particular, the winter months aren’t the only time protection is called for, she says.
“Don’t forget that thin-coated and light-colored dogs may need to cover up in the summer to protect them from sunburn,” Jurrjens says. “We have lightweight jersey pajamas that offer full-body coverage without bulk.”
Designing the Inventory
Developing an inventory that will inspire sales requires paying attention to trends and knowing what is important to consumers. Heading up the list currently is a growing desire for high-quality apparel that lasts longer than a few wears. According to Gadd, manufacturers are taking note.
“What I’m seeing is a continued improvement in the offerings and higher expectation of the consumers,” she says. “There are a lot of gorgeous coats out there right now in a space that hasn’t been very crowded up until recently. There are more refined designs and an expansion of styles beyond sporty or cutesy—a lot of very tasteful and beautifully detailed apparel.”
Customers seem increasingly willing to pay more for these items, exhibiting a higher price tolerance than in the recent past, Gadd continues. “But in return, consumers are expecting a really spot-on fit and that the garments wear well and the designs are functional as well as attractive,” she adds.
It’s important for pet specialty retailers to understand that consumers want good value for their dollar, says Susan Calles, national marketing manager for Ethical Products, Inc. Located in Bloomfield, N.J., the company designs and manufactures a variety of pet products including apparel, dog and cat toys, feeding dishes and treats.
“There are consumers that will spend a little just because something is cute,” she explains. “But then there are those who invest more for the functional aspect and know that the sweater, coat, vest and so on will last two or three seasons.”
Value and affordability are important to pet owners, says Kim, mentioning that consumers have plenty of apparel choices in this fairly competitive category. Material quality has become very important, so Hip Doggie pays particular attention to the fabrics they use.
“There are a lot of discerning pet owners who value quality,” she says. “Over the past few years I’ve seen the leading brands continue to improve quality and innovation to meet this demand.”
Higher-end fabrics and materials confer the same benefits to dog apparel as they do to human clothing, says George, explaining that these wash better, last longer, fit better and offer better protection against the elements—qualities of significance to today’s pet owners.
Kim says consumers are continuing to seek out bright colors, so Hip Doggie has focused on creating more colorful combinations. Gender-neutral and traditional colors are still popular, says Paxton, who is taking this trend into account for Ultra Paws’ original fabric designs.
How products are made is also important to consumers, says Gina Davis, who, with her husband Scott, owns Dog Threads, a Long Lake, Minn.-based pet apparel manufacturer that offers matching Hawaiian print shirts for dogs and their humans.
“Well-made matching apparel for humans and their dogs is a new market that’s breaking out,” says Davis. “Consumers are looking for quality products that have a story behind them. They’re looking for transparency from the brands they chose for their pets. Dog owners want to purchase products that are ethically made and from brands that meet their standards.”
Making the Sale
Pet apparel demands some merchandising muscle. “It’s really a category that requires some effort,” says Gadd. “You can’t put out a box of sweaters like a box of squeaky toys and call it a day. Just as the expansion of the food category has required a lot more education of employees, so too does the apparel category benefit from time spent learning the features, getting familiar with the sizing and, especially, keeping the displays orderly and attractive.”
Displaying pet apparel well is critical for maximizing sales, Gadd says. Disheveled heaps of clothing are completely unappealing to customers, she explains. Sizing is another common sales barrier, but Gadd has a strategy for overcoming it.
“If you can group different styles of garments by size, you can really open up multiple purchases once the person has gotten their size down,” she says. “They can look at an entire range and imagine their beloved dog in each garment.”
Kim advises retailers to avoid offering too many options in if it limits the amount of each size they can keep in stock. Too many choices can overwhelm customers, while not having the desired sizes in stock is a sales killer. She recommends creating organized, well-stocked assortments in a variety of sizes.
Retailers should also employ POS signage that provides feature and benefits info, says Paxton. For example, Ultra Paws provides vertical dog boot clip strips that display each size so customers can try them on, along with size and purpose charts.
Showing apparel in action is always more effective than just relying on hanger appeal, says Kim. This could be on a shop dog, or through photos or videos. Creating a lifestyle scenario, such as putting a dog coat on a mannequin and pairing it with dog bowls, a dog tent, collars and leashes, helps grab attention and promotes cross-merchandise sales, she adds.
“Like any sale, you have to lead [customers] to it and/or showcase the product in the best possible light,” Kim says. “And speaking of light, good lighting is key. I’ve seen many stores that don’t have good lighting, and as any effective merchandiser knows, good displays and good lighting are essential.”
Get creative, says Calles. “Hold a fashion show for their customers to view the different styles, as well as bringing their pets in to get dressed to the nines.” She also reminds retailers to take advantage of spinner racks, power wings and endcaps to showcase the category, both in the front of the store and in other areas that customers visit frequently.
In addition to displays’ visual appeal, timing can be key. George recommends bringing products in early before the particular season and merchandising them at the front of the store. “We can’t stress this enough,” she says. “The seasonality of holiday-themed and cold-weather apparel dictates how manufacturers stock these items to provide to retailers. If retailers aren’t bringing this product in early, they may miss [sales opportunities] since popular winter items move quickly and often aren’t reordered until the next year.”
To keep customers interested and returning to the apparel section, pet specialty retailers should freshen their inventories with new styles, while keeping a stock of proven sellers to attract customers who are new to the category, says George.
“This category is going to continue to grow,” says George. “More and more consumers who have not purchased apparel eventually will, and consumers who are already actively engaged in buying garments for their dogs will be looking to buy more.”
Above all, don’t fear apparel, says Kim. “Some stores are leery of this category because they don’t know what to carry, or don’t have a sense for fashion or apparel, or are uncertain about sizing,” she explains. “But, if selected and displayed properly, apparel can add style, flair and additional character to any store and can become a great profit center.” PB