Plush Toys Get Tough

Plush dog toys may be soft, cuddly and cute, but they are all business when it comes to profitability and boosting sales.


There are plenty of reasons why dog owners visit pet specialty retailers—buying food is primary among them. But every retailer should aspire to get those customers to linger, look around and add on to their intended purchase. In this effort, pet specialty retailers have a potent weapon at their disposal—plush dog toys.

dogSoft, appealing, colorful and inventive, plush dog toys have evolved to become more durable, giving retailers the opportunity to carry a product assortment that has something for almost every kind of dog. Plush dog toys also brighten up the shelves and bins, injecting an element of fun and freshness into stores. In addition, they encourage spur-of-the moment purchases that provide a nice boost at the register.

The spontaneous nature of plush toy purchases, however, isn’t the only reason why pet specialty retailers should be excited about selling them, says Cristen Underwood, director of marketing for the Quaker Pet Group, which offers a variety of premium pet product brands.

“Not only do pet parents love their pets to play and have fun with toys, retailers love selling toys because they eventually need to be replaced,” Underwood says. “They offer a high-turn ticket item.”

Within the hierarchy of trending pet toys, plush toys are near the top, say manufacturers. “On average, 67 percent of dog toy purchases are plush, comfort toys,” says Louisa M. Marvin, marketing manager for pet product manufacturer Jolly Pets. “That makes plush toys the second most popular dog toy, next to chew toys. Plush toys have that cute factor people are drawn to.”

However, while these toys may be endearing, they serve a serious purpose. Not only do toys encourage interaction between dogs and their owners, they also help alleviate boredom and separation anxiety when they are alone, Underwood says.

Susan McCann, national marketing manager for pet product manufacturer Ethical Products, Inc., agrees. “Plush toys can be comforting and provide a peaceful companion to dogs,” she says.

Plush toys will stimulate two instincts in dogs: nurture and hunt, says Chad Lee, product manager for Petmate, which manufactures a broad spectrum of pet products. They will either carry it around like a doll or attack it as if they were killing prey. “Either way, cuddly toys with squeaks and grunts engage a dog on an innate level,” he says.  

McCann notes that plush toys have an advantage over other types of toys. “Pet parents seem to like plush because they’re non-destructive toys that can be played with in the house,” McCann says. “They won’t break valuable items like hard toys will when engaged in interactive fetch games.”

Yet despite the inherent benefits plush toys offer, manufacturers are not resting on their laurels. Instead, they are working hard to keep the category fresh and exciting for pet owners and their dogs.

First and foremost, plush toys that are whimsical, humorous or evocative are trending these days, says Leslie Yellin, executive vice president at Multipet International. “Nostalgic toys are just on fire,” she says. “We have LambChop that we make in three sizes and different colors, and people just love it.”

Toy manufacturers are also focusing on innovation and bringing new products and ideas to market.

“Creatively, we design toys that are unique in that they offer non-traditional features that aren’t found in every other plush toy, and that will still appeal to different sized dogs and the various breeds,” says McCann. “For example, dogs love sounds, so we’ve taken standard plush toys and added sound features that include rattles, growlers, crinkle paper and realistic sounds.”

The use of mixed materials is another important trend in the category these days, says Gretchen George, president of toy manufacturer PetRageous Designs, which also makes pet fashions and other supplies. Examples include “arranging rope with plush materials, using a squeaker with crinkle material or adding a tougher material to the seams,” George says.

Lee agrees that variety drives sales in the category. “Mixing materials is huge,” he says. “Anything you can do to make the toy more interesting to both the pet and pet parent. This could mean incorporating rubber, rope, different plush materials, etc. We’re also seeing a demand for lifelike styles, licensed brands, movie character and toys that make interesting sounds other than a traditional squeaker.”

Of course, when designing plush toys, manufacturers must always balance the needs of the pet with what will attract pet parents’ attention in the store. “When we design our toys, I focus on playability for the dog and attractiveness for the owner,” says Ellen Lawson, president and co-founder of Fluff & Tuff, a manufacturer of plush and ultra-plush dog toys. “What will make the toy fun for the dog—fabric, squeakers, size and mobility—and will also be attractive in design and color for the owner to feel their dog will enjoy it.”

However, the plush toy category is not all fun and games. Safety is a major concern for most pet parents. Consumers want high-quality toys that will hold up and are safe—after all, dogs will have these in their mouths, says Lawson.

“They don’t mind paying a bit more for the toy if they know it will last longer,” she says. “Consumers are also responding to toys for very large dogs, or dogs that like extra-large toys. And toys for very small dogs have also become popular; mini-sized toys are increasingly in demand. As a manufacturer and dog owner, I’m happy to find there are quite a few really good plush toy companies—large and small—making very fun, attractive, quality toys.”

Soft, Yet Durable

Manufacturers face a sometimes daunting task when devising products that must marry seemingly contrary requirements. One of the most significant challenges, Lee says, is designing plush toys that are sturdy and durable. “How to make soft materials stronger without making them harder is something manufacturers often struggle with finding a solution for,” says Lee. “Also, price can be a challenge. With more and more players in the market and many retailers going direct to overseas suppliers, it makes it difficult to be priced competitively on traditional items.”

Manufacturers must also consider the varied needs of their canine customers. Marvin says Jolly Pets tries to imagine all possible scenarios as they design their toys. Every product the company creates is sent through a focus/test group process consisting of dog owners with various sizes, breeds and energy levels of dogs. Test groups have 100 dogs ranging from five pounds up to 150.

“We tend to reach out to our social-media followers for participants,” Marvin explains. “We narrow down the thousands of submissions to 100 dogs. The chosen participants are then sent the proper size product for their dog to test for four weeks. At the end of the testing period, participants complete a review report.”

Participants are asked to share their initial thoughts when first seeing the product, if they would purchase the product, and why or why not. If necessary, the company makes adjustments to the design based on the feedback it receives.

“We’re basically looking to alleviate any problems the product might have before we move into mass production,” Marvin says. “We also use this as a way to connect with our customers and hear what they want out of a toy.”

Opinions are mixed as to whether or not plush toys are right for every dog—some manufacturers say they are, others disagree. Count Lawson among those who fall into the latter camp. “Plush toys can be made more durable with fabrics and construction techniques, but they’re still not indestructible,” she says. “Plush toys are play toys, not chew toys. There are times when a dog wants a soft toy to squeak and play with, and a plush toy is great for that. There are also times when a dog’s natural chewing instinct is better satisfied with a toy meant for that type of situation, like a Nylabone or West Paw’s rubber toys.”

McCann says that dog owners should know their pet’s temperament, activity level and instinctual behaviors before deciding on a particular toy.

“Is the dog gentle and [does it] like to carry around and cuddle toys? If so, a plush toy that the dog could baby would be ideal,” she says. “If the dog is a destructive chewer that rips through a plush toy in seconds, a more durable one would be more suitable.”

George, on the other, says the value of a plush toy is universal. “I believe plush toys are for every dog,” she says. “Given the variety of materials and features, there are so many combinations of toys to select from. For example, pet owners can purchase a stuff-less toy if their pet has a tendency to tear into its toys.

“There’s a huge selection of mixed features like crinkle, squeaks, stuffed, stuff-less and floating to choose from. Pet owners will likely find the right fit for their pet.”

Retailers should find out as much about the dog as possible before steering the owner to potential options, says Lawson. They should determine factors such as age, breed, history with toys, and chewing/playing style. Retailers should also caution pet owners to supervise their dog when giving them a new toy, in case it’s not the right fit, says Lee.

Finding the right toy is also made easier for customers with a little strategic merchandising. Some tactics include:

•  Separate unique types of plush toys, which allows customers to pick what they like based on size appearance, features and benefits, says Underwood.

•  Keep displays tidy. “Retailers can also benefit from a neat planogram that is kept up,” Underwood says. “Making sure plush toys are hanging straight on a peg or sitting in a dump bin will make a big difference.”

•  Spark impulse sales by merchandising toys on ropes, clip strips and in floor displays, says McCann, who adds that in-store TVs and videos of products in use are also very effective sales tools.

•  Set up free-standing toy bins. “These are a great way to display plush toys,” says George. “Another effective technique is merchandising endcaps by pricing and theme.”

•  Update the section twice yearly or quarterly. “Retailers need to update the section and rotate in new items,” says Yellin. “If they only reset their sections once every year or two, it gets dull very quickly.”

•  Create “entertaining vignettes” and cross-promoting plush toys in different areas throughout the store—perhaps even unexpected ones—help spread the fun around, says Lee. “Toys can be impulse purchases, so the more often a consumer comes across them, the more often they’ll purchase.”

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