Unleashing Category Sales
Dog collars, leashes and harnesses are essentials, bringing high margins to specialty pet retailers and traffic through their doors.
It may seem a bit of a stretch at first blush, but trends in dog collars, leashes and harnesses are oddly similar to those in the women’s shoes category. For many women, shoes serve a variety of functions, ideally all at the same time. They should look fashionable and attractive, and be comfortable and easy to wear, all the while keeping the wearer’s feet safe and protected from the elements and errant mishaps. These are the same qualities pet owners are seeking in collars, leashes and harnesses.
Gone are the days when dog owners just grabbed any old leash or collar without giving much thought to anything other than keeping their pet safely tethered. Now, thanks to manufacturer advancements in fabric and technology, consumers can select from an almost unlimited array of designs, patterns, colors, materials and hardware, along with various built-in safety and comfort features for both canines and humans. Additionally, there has been an intensified focus on quality, durability and strength.
Sara Schrekenhofer, advertising manager/graphic designer for Leather Brothers, Inc.—the Conway, Ark.-based manufacturer of Omni Pet brand products—points out that these products are a staple in any pet specialty store. “While the pet industry has continued to grow every year, collars and leads have continued to grow by leaps and bounds,” says Schrekenhofer. “Pet owners are purchasing collars and leads for every occasion, according to their needs and desires.”
So, just what seems to be important to pet owners when it comes to products in these categories; what are their needs and desires?
“The consistent trend we’re seeing is that consumers are looking for products that make time spent with their dog not only safe but fun,” says John Hatcher, president of EzyDog, which makes a line of rugged, functional outdoor lifestyle products for dogs and their owners. “Consequently, it’s helpful for a retailer to provide solutions for their customers that will result in the most enjoyable experience for them with their dog.”
Safety has become increasingly important to dog owners, especially since so many walk their dogs after sundown. As such, products that improve visibility, such as reflective materials or LED lighting, are becoming popular.
At the same time, more dog owners are expressing their personality—and their pets’—through these items, says Giannina Feuerstein, marketing manager for Flexi North America, LLC, in Charlotte, N.C. The company, headquartered in Bargteheide, Germany, makes a variety of retractable leashes.
“For some, a leash is just a necessity for walking their dog,” says Feuerstein. “But for a growing number of consumers, a leash is part of their individuality, and they own different leashes to suit their styles.”
Consequently, the idea of one style fits all is no longer in play, says Larry Cobb, CEO of The Company of Animals, a provider of pet training and behavior products with U.S. offices in Davenport, Fla. Variety in these product categories has blossomed, says Cobb, in deference to the many unique breed combinations and the wide array of lifestyles, personalities and temperaments of both dogs and their owners.
Related to this desire to express oneself through these products is the focus on style, a trend that’s been gaining traction for a while. This has resulted in rising demand for high-fashion items, says Alisha Navarro, president/CEO of 2 Hounds Design, a Monroe, N.C., company that makes harnesses, leashes and collars. According to Navarro, consumers have increasingly come to consider these items as part of their dog’s wardrobe, and as such, seem willing to pay more for the right look.
They are also willing to pay for better quality. “The market is experiencing a greater focus on quality as the [lower-priced] items are often associated with a lower quality,” says Feuerstein. “Long term, this leads to dissatisfaction on all sides.”
Education and Involvement
Lanette Fidrych agrees that people are becoming less price-sensitive. Fidrych, president of Cycle Dog-Earth Friendly Pet Company, a Portland, Ore.-based company that makes, among other products, earth-friendly dog collars and leashes, says she’s seeing a trend toward higher-end collars and leashes that last longer and incorporate more features, providing more satisfying outcomes.
But steering customers to higher-quality, safer items still requires a measure of involvement on the part of pet specialty retailers. Len Horowitz, founder/CEO of 4 Paws Tech—a New York-based company that offers LED and reflective wearables for dogs—says that consumers are looking for that perfect combination of quality, ease of use and simplicity in design and, of course, “the cool factor.”
“As families with pets are on the rise, equating to over 65 percent of U.S. households, dogs are reaching a staggering number of more than 70 million—that’s a lot of cute, cuddly faces,” he explains.
Still, Horowitz adds, there is an abundance of collars, leashes and harnesses on the market, good and bad alike. He is concerned (as are other manufacturers) that inexpensively made products with inferior materials put both humans and dogs at risk, for example by enabling the dog to get loose.
“Pet parents need to ask themselves if saving a few dollars is worth putting Ranger or Sparky in harm’s way. By educating the public that a collar isn’t just a collar, we’re finding demand is increasing,” says Horowitz.
Consumers want value; products that are worth the price, says Hatcher. With the abundance of products on the market, it is up to manufacturers and retailers to understand how many consumers are defining value today and to effectively transmit product features and benefits of a leash, collar or harness that the pet owner might not be aware of.
Knowing the Customer
One way to initiate customer education is by engaging them in conversation about their pets, helping to direct them to appropriate choices. Along with asking them about the age, gender, breed and size/weight of their pet, Feuerstein suggests that retailers inquire about the dog’s activity level, the time of day the customer walks the dog, and the pet’s behavior.
Sales associates should aim to get as much detail about pet owners’ lifestyles as possible. “For example, are you activity-driven, such as hiking or traveling? Or, is your lifestyle more connected to walking around the neighborhood and the occasional dog park visit?” Cobb says. “Also, does your dog have any walking problems you’d like to address, such as tugging at a lead or trying to stray away from the walking path?”
Cobb says employees should be certain to ask customers why they’re looking for a particular product, mentioning that the most common training issues driving dog owners into the store are problems walking their pet on a leash. With summer coming, and more dog owners hitting the trails and walkways with their pets, now is the time for retailers to wring the most action out of this category, particularly since walking and training products generally command higher price points compared to other items, he adds.
Cobb suggests running special offers during the warm-weather months, promoting these as “summertime essentials.” Other ideas include:
• Display multiple products per style, says Fidrych. Once a selection starts looking picked over, replenish it rather than leaving just one leash, collar or harness on display; which is likely to go un-purchased. “No one picks the last nacho on the plate,” she explains.
• Put the LED products on dog mannequins and display them lit (even in the daytime) in windows, at checkout counters and in the aisles, says Horowitz, adding that awareness leads to sales. Also, explain to customers that their LED collars are not novelty items, but are meant to be worn full-time, he adds.
• Allow dogs to try on the merchandise, says Cobb. This is especially important when it comes to ensuring the right fit. “And, a fitting session also allows staff members the opportunity to detail the advantages of a particular product that otherwise may be overlooked,” he says. (Also, says Schrekenhofer, inform customers that as dogs grow, the fit will likely change, requiring different sized collars and harnesses. And be sure to convey to customers the correct way to measure the dog’s neck.)
• Notice where customers are going in your store, says Navarro. “If there’s one area that gets a lot of traffic, put your high-margin items—like leashes, collars and harnesses—in that area. Also, don’t discount the impulse purchase,” she reminds. “For example, if you have customers coming in for consumables on a weekly basis, get these other items in front of them to get that impulse purchase.”
• Feature a comprehensive assortment of sizes, styles and colors. “This always makes for a more compelling story and shows the retailer believes in the product and so should the customer,” Hatcher says, explaining that not featuring a full presentation results in a poor performance when customers can’t find what they want. “Also, creating a ‘house’ leash, collar or harness for customers to use when they enter the store is a great way to give them a first-hand experience with the product,” he adds.
• Create colorful POP displays and utilize signage and display headers, all of which are essential, says Schrekenhofer. Make sure sizing is visible and easy to find and understand. Regularly introduce new, on-trend products to keep the assortment current and drive traffic. And re-arrange your layouts and displays, which will also keep them fresh looking and customers interested.
“The main thing to keep in mind with collars, leads and harnesses is that they require personal attention from employees if you want to keep this section organized and clean,” Schrekenhofer adds. “Keep the section from becoming a jumbled, overwhelming mess to customers. We recommend checking on this area daily or every other day in order to maintain the organization that will lead to higher sales.”