The Imitation Game
Today, pets are more than just animals; they’re a reflection of owners’ tastes. Here’s how manufacturers and retailers are leveraging this phenomenon.
We’ve all seen pets and owners that look surprisingly alike; there are even multiple scientific studies that confirm this odd phenomenon. But even pets without a strong family resemblance often sport products that match their owners’ sense of style.
“Owners see their pets as extensions of themselves, as well as a reflection of their own personal tastes… We want our dogs to look as good as we do,” says Leah Angelos, sales representative for ZippyPaws.
In response, manufacturers are developing products that specifically cater to modern owners’ desire to express themselves through their pets.
“In recent years, there have been big steps forward in the style of pet products to more closely align to the preferred styles of pet parents,” says Bill Parsons, account manager at Pet Lifestyle and You (P.L.A.Y.). “From hip and trendy, to earth-friendly and even sporty styles, so many are now available in nearly all categories of pet products.”
One place where pet parents’ influence is easily seen is the toy aisle. As inherently playful products, toys offer plenty of opportunities for owners to express their preferences and personalities.
In addition to plush figures that feature stereotypical objects of interests for pets, such as mice and squirrels or bones and hydrants, manufacturers have begun introducing characters that appeal more to owners.
California-based ZippyPaws, for instance, has a new line of toys called “Happy Hour Crusherz,” featuring plush toys modeled after bottles of alcohol.
“You can already picture which family member would pick the rosé option and which one would pick whiskey,” explains Angelos.
Manufacturers have also taken advantage of young pet owners’ love of pop culture. The creators at P.L.A.Y., for example, found inspiration in extremely popular fantasy shows—like Game of Thrones—for its most recent line of plushies.
“At P.L.A.Y., with the return of a certain television show about dragons and thrones, we understood the pop culture trend and developed our line of ‘Willow’s Mythical Creatures,’ including dragon, unicorn, yeti, gnome and jackalope toys well in advance of the show’s final season to appeal to that customer interest,” explains Parsons.
Although not every owner chooses to dress their pet, everyone has to dress their house for their animal. It makes sense that home goods—from beds and carriers to climbers and scratchers—are another major product category under the influence of owners’ sensibilities.
“Most owners want pet hard goods that align with the style of their home. Since pets can’t pick out their own furniture, the owners act on their pet’s behalf to select pet gear that fits in seamlessly with the owner’s style,” explains Victoria Bouldin, vice president of operations for Primetime Petz.
While there currently are a variety of popular home decorating styles represented in the pet space, such as transitional, traditional or rustic, Bouldin thinks there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
“Styles such as farmhouse, industrial and coastal are currently sparse among pet hard goods. Designing hard goods that cater to these specific styles would create more variety for all owners’ respective styles instead of only catering to the most popular styles,” she says.
Rockwall, Texas-based Primetime Petz is attempting to fill in some of these gaps with its Palm Springs Collection, which features gates and lounges reminiscent of mid-century modern architecture with a chic white color for a contemporary touch.
P.L.A.Y. continuously stays on top of the latest and greatest home interior trends when developing their pet beds and furniture.
“At P.L.A.Y., we are no strangers to the trends not only in the pet industry, but also fashion, design and home décor, too,” says Parsons. “While always striving for functional products that are washable, durable and fun to use, we are also always working to encompass those trends and developing trends into the products we produce to better suit the desires of the customer.”
The San Francisco-based company was one of the first pet manufacturers to bring teepees, which were gaining traction in the kids’ aisle, to the pet space. Then, the creators at P.L.A.Y. took the fun furniture pieces to the next level by incorporating a trendy Moroccan-inspired print in that year’s official Pantone Color of the Year.
Of course, it’s not just owners’ personal style that impacts the design of products for pets. Innovative manufacturers also try to incorporate pet parents’ desires in terms of function.
Bozeman, Mont.-based company West Paw frequently conducts durability tests using the “West Paw Chew Squad”—a group of dedicated brand users that actively provide the product development team with feedback from their dogs’ perspective regarding durability and quality.
“Recently, we have taken our ‘Chew Squad’ nationally to get a deeper understanding of what dog owners want and how dogs play with our toys,” explains Spencer Williams, CEO and president of West Paw. “We go to this effort and expense all in the name of creating the safest toys that are marketed for the right type of chew and or play behavior.”
One product that emerged from that feedback is West Paw’s award-winning Qwizl toy. The super durable chew is designed to hold treats inside, making it a solution for pet parents who are frustrated at how quickly their pups gobble up expensive bully sticks.
Lessons for Retailers
These steps taken by manufacturers’ in recent years to incorporate owners’ tastes hold powerful takeaways for retailers. First, it’s crucial to stock brands that continuously seek out customer responses—which you can find out from manufacturers themselves.
“West Paw shares feedback we receive with our retailers to best equip them with information that will help them suggest the most appropriate toy for their customer,” says Williams, who adds that the company also handles replacements directly. “Simply put, if a customer is not satisfied with a West Paw product, we stand behind what we offer and will give them a refund or a replacement product.”
Retailers should also strive to stay on top of trends, both in terms of product choice and promotions. Displays, for instance, should be continuously updated based on the season or what’s happening in pop culture.
“It is always important that store owners keep on the pulse of trends for their customers by observing those cultural trends, staying ahead of seasonal trends, visiting trade shows to see the newest products, and following online and print articles discussing industry changes, product development and new technologies, as well,” says Parsons.
Most importantly, though, this phenomenon of the impact of owner preferences shows how crucial it is to know your customers. Train your staff to speak directly with customers about their home décor or personal styles, and take into account what makes your shoppers unique when selecting products.
“If retailers understand what products bring pets and their owners together, then it can be quite easy to capitalize on this trend,” advises Angelos. “Retailers can take into account their location, and surrounding area to figure out what are their customers’ tastes.” PB