Form Meets Function
The dog apparel category has become ever more focused on offering functional, yet high-style and fashionable, garments that serve a purpose.
Dog apparel has traditionally been associated with amusing or adorable costumes for small dogs—which, thankfully, is still a trend—but a serious, more practical side to this category has emerged recently, and pet owners are fully on board.
It should come as little surprise that today’s pet parents are looking for more from dog apparel than cutesy designs, and this demand has unleashed the imaginations of dog apparel manufacturers, many of which have come out with coats, jackets, sweaters, T-shirts and pajamas that mirror the quality and design of human wear and are worn for the same purposes.
The fact is that while frivolity and whimsy are definite sales drivers in the category, functional apparel is garnering equal attention and has helped broaden the customer base. Properly acknowledging and capitalizing on this interest will enable retailers to better serve their customers and grow profits at the same time.
“We’re seeing a trend towards more functionality in clothing,” says Marisa Schmidt, divisional manager of Fashion Pet, part of Ethical Products Inc.—a Bloomfield, N.J.-based company that designs, manufactures and markets an array of pet products. “More pet owners are dressing their pets in stylish clothing that keeps them warm and/or dry; not just to look good. It isn’t just about little dogs in bows and ruffles; it’s about all sizes of dogs that need functional clothing that looks good and fits well. [Consequently] retailers need to look for classic styling that actually does what a coat or sweater is meant to do.”
Sue Kim, CEO and designer for Hip Doggie Inc., a Los Angeles-based company that designs high-end pet apparel and accessories, is seeing similar activity. She notes, for example, that more pet owners are purchasing cold-weather wear for their dogs.
“The last time I was in New York, literally every dog I saw had a coat on,” Kim recalls. “Dogs with sweaters and coats are no longer an anomaly, they’re the norm.”
Kim says that small dogs generally account for the majority of the apparel business since they often require more protection from the elements compared to larger breeds. “And they’re the best sports in playing dress-up,” she adds.
A Growth Category
However, big dogs comprise a growing part of the business, aided by manufacturers that are offering additional sizes to accommodate this customer base. For example, Gold Paw Series, a Clackamas, Ore.-based company that focuses on apparel and harnesses, recently launched a T-shirt available in 15 sizes. Manufacturers—Hip Doggie among them—are also designing easily adjustable garments intended to meet a broader range of sizing needs.
In fact, for numerous reasons, owners of large dogs are becoming “more passionate about apparel,” particularly in cold climates, says Julie Jurrjens, design manager for Best Furry Friends, a Minneapolis-based pet product manufacturer and wholesaler. This has helped attract new customers to the category. But at the same time, consumers have become more demanding about what they want from apparel.
“Pet consumers are more practical than they were 10 years ago,” says Jurrjens. “When Paris Hilton besieged the earth, there was a lot of interest in pure luxury apparel, with a high level of exclusivity, and there was less price sensitivity. Now, consumers want fashion, functionality and sustainability at an appropriate price.”
When it comes to prices and what they’re willing to pony up, pet owners are all over the map, making it important that retailers offer a range of price points—if doing so fits with their brand. “In fashion, you have consumers who will spend huge amounts of money on designer purses or shoes, just because they’re designer,” says Schmidt. “And you have the consumer who’s frugal and wants the most bang for the buck. The same goes in pet apparel.”
Still, she notes that more dog owners seem to be selecting higher-priced apparel, but they are looking for durable products that do what they are designed to do. “Also, once dogs are approximately a year old, they’re the size they’ll always be, so spending a bit more on a coat that will last two or three seasons is increasingly becoming the trend,” Schmidt adds.
Gretchen George, president of PetRageous Designs LTD—a Burlington, Mass. manufacturer of an extensive array of pet products—points out that although there are pet owners who want something inexpensive for a “fun photo,” many customers today understand that dogs can get cold and are willing to invest in a quality coat that can withstand wear and washing. “Sweaters are the same story,” she adds. “There are cheaper sweaters for the great photo-op. Then there are the more functional sweaters that use heavier yarns, or turtlenecks for extra warmth.”
Also fueling the category is the fact that it is common for dog owners to take their pets with them pretty much wherever they go. This is especially the case when it comes to outdoor activities, increasing the need for apparel that provides benefits like UV protection, climate control and built-in reflectivity for better visibility at night, says Rebecca Gadd, owner of Gold Paw Series.
Another trend that is gaining traction is apparel that serves a medical purpose—for example, a garment that covers irritated, delicate or healing skin, which can be used in lieu of a collar to keep dogs from chewing at the area.
“I see a rise in sales in functional pet products as consumers become increasingly aware of what is out there,” says Gadd. “And I would also say it’s become a lot less price-sensitive over the years.”
At the same time, pet owners still want their dogs to look “snazzy and all jazzed up,” says George. “[Apparel] is an extension of the owner and how they look,” she says. “From collars, linings and trim, we look at everything going on in the human world and do our best to make it work for dogs too.”
Dog apparel manufacturers are indeed keeping a close watch on what’s trending in the two-footed fashion world for ideas on what will appeal to pet parents. “We always have changes in human fashion top-of-mind when designing our apparel, but feel dog fashion changes at a slower pace,” Kim says. “We respond to human fashion when a functional solution presents itself that is also needed in the pet arena.”
Schmidt says pet fashion seems to trail behind human fashion by about a year. “So what’s hot for us now will be hot for pets next year,” she explains. “We need to stay on top of that as we plan over a year out.”
Best Foot Forward
Pet specialty retailers can set themselves apart through the apparel lines they stock. “This category gives [retailers] some identity and that differentiation edge they’re looking for,” Kim explains. “The store owners and managers tend to express themselves stylistically by the apparel they choose and how they display it. It’s the same as with their other categories, this is just more fashion oriented.”
Making the effort to merchandise an eye-catching dog apparel section is worthwhile, because the category provides an excellent vehicle for building business. “It’s a great way to attract engaged pet parents to the store and show them you understand the trends,” says Jurrjens. “Dog food and cat litter can’t always communicate that. Apparel is also a great ‘wow’ item for your digital store presence—it’s a fun feature to draw consumers in and build their purchase beyond the basics.”
She suggests choosing a merchandising style appropriate for the store’s design, adding that, space permitting, mannequins in lifestyle groupings with other products and accessories can be very effective.
Other strategies include:
• Putting apparel front and center, not hidden down an aisle. “Apparel can be an impulse purchase,” says Schmidt. “If you get apparel out there and noticed, you’ll get the consumer who browses a spinner rack while in line or on their way to the food aisle.”
• Creating dedicated apparel sections. Fixtures should be attractive and placement deliberate. Avoid laying apparel down on tables. Have good apparel forms or dog mannequins, along with signs and photos of dog models to help the customer visualize how it will look. Go live when possible. “The number of customers who purchase what the shop dog is wearing is unbelievable,” says Kim.
• Highlighting the fun side of apparel. There’s still a huge demand for Halloween and other holiday apparel, since families want to include their pets as part of the celebration, says Jurrjens. Also stock with photo-ops in mind.
• Stocking apparel year-round. It’s not just about keeping dogs warm in the winter. Apparel can be an appropriate, and even necessary, choice no matter what the season.
• Keeping the garments clean and unwrinkled. Dirty, creased apparel is a big “no no,” says Jurrjens.
Retailers should be sure to educate employees about the qualities and features of the lines so they can talk knowledgeably with customers, some of whom may have specific concerns or needs. And think ahead, suggests George. “Take advantage of impulse buying by bringing the product in early and merchandising it at the immediate front end of the buying season,” she says. “Most of these items are seasonal, so bringing them in early and displaying them prominently lets customers know you have it.”