Plush Gets Tough
Pet owners may have once hesitated to purchase plush toys for their dogs, but today there is no reason to hold back, as manufacturers of these toys have focused on adding strength to the fun.
Photo courtesy of Jolly Pets
As cute and colorful as they often are, plush dog toys suffered from an image problem for years. Regarded by pet owners as being easily and quickly destroyed, plush toys had trouble competing with what seemed like more durable playtime options on the market, making some pet specialty retailers hesitant about devoting much space to these items.
But that was yesterday’s plush toys; today’s offerings are a decidedly tougher, more rugged breed. Manufacturers are using materials like canvas, ballistic nylon, rope, leather, mesh, strong polyesters and tear-resistant fabrics. They are also utilizing strengthening strategies such as reinforced stitching and seam bindings, and doubling the outer fabrics and linings, while still managing to retain all the qualities that make plush toys so inviting. The result is durable products that bear little resemblance to their weaker predecessors, giving pet specialty retailers confidence that these products will be well regarded by their customers.
Still, bad reputations tend to linger. Mark Pasco, vice president of sales and marketing for Mammoth Pet Products, a Mammoth Lakes, Calif.-based manufacturer, says the main misconception is about quality.
“Most consumers are leery when it comes to buying plush toys because they remember the plush toys of the past,” Pasco says. “Many of those toys were of low quality because price was the main issue and shortcuts were taken to keep costs down.”
Consequently, if this category is going to perform well in a store, engaging the customers is vital, says Mustafa Koliva, owner and CEO of OoMaLoo LLC, an Upland, Calif.-based manufacturer of handmade dog and cat toys and other items.
“We knew before we started manufacturing plush toys that people would perceive them as weaker,” he says. “We’ve had to rely on word of mouth and the first-hand experience of shop owners, so they can attest to the strength of plush toys.
“It comes back to the relationship between the retail customers, the pet shop owners and the wholesaler or manufacturer. Communication, feedback and knowledge of a product are what make sales of plush toys work.”
The Price is Right
According to Jennifer Cao, vice president of ZippyPaws, a Chino, Calif.-based manufacturer of high-quality pet products for dogs, today’s customers seem to be more willing to splurge on these products, with value rather than price carrying more weight in shoppers’ purchasing decisions.
“We’ve noticed a shift to higher-quality interactive toys being purchased,” she says. “Some of our most popular toys are those that owners can join in on the fun with. Retailers should be looking to capitalize on that by freshening up their plush toy lines and bringing in newer and more exciting toy lines to keep the consumers coming in.”
Pasco says that pet owners are open to spending more on quality plush toys. “The plush of the past didn’t make it to the end of the day with some dogs, which frustrated consumers,” he explains. “Because they want their dog to be able to enjoy playing with the toy longer than one day, they’re more concerned with quality than price when it comes to plush toys.”
Ellen, founder and president of Fluff & Tuff, a Troy, Mich.-based company specializing in creating high-quality plush durable dog toys, concurs that owners will spend more on toys that last, especially if they perceive additional value and benefits that go along with that toy—for example, a toy that is particularly comforting to a dog.
Admittedly, some shoppers remain more discerning about how much they are willing to spend in the category. Bob Thorne, president of Novi, Mich.-based SmartPetLove, says he senses that people are still a little price-focused when it comes to plush toys because they have had to replace them so frequently in the past.
“But once consumers understand that plush toys have this new level of durability, the price consciousness should decrease a bit,” he predicts. “In order to capitalize on this behavior, retailers should be talking with consumers to better understand what kind of plush toy their dog needs.”
According to Thorne, demand for plush toys is strong, primarily because dogs go crazy over them. They love to carry them around and cuddle with them. Interactive options can offer hours of fun for the dog, with or without human involvement. For pet specialty retailers, plush dog toys brighten up the shelves and bins, injecting an element of fun, amusement and freshness, and encouraging customer interaction. Plush toys also give retailers the opportunity to offer their customers more choices, says Susan McCann, national marketing manager for Ethical Products, Inc., in Bloomfield, N.J.
“There is always a demand for more durable toys,” McCann says. “And now, that demand doesn’t have to be met with only vinyl and rubber-type toys.”
Another upside is that, like all toys, they are high-margin items, says Pasco. “If retailers have a large selection for the consumer to pick from, it will create more want-based purchases rather than purchasing strictly on needs, creating higher ticket sales and thus creating better overall margins,” he adds.
Making the Sale
Thorne seconds the need for pet specialty retailers to offer a wide array of plush toys, since this enables them to meet most consumer needs. “The variety of plush toys available ensures that customers never feel the frustration of having a product that doesn’t work for them or their dog,” he explains. “Anytime a store can offer a solution, they can win loyalty, and loyalty is the key growth driver for any business.”
Still, pet specialty retailers must be mindful to find the most appropriate toy for each dog, not only to avoid disappointing customers, but also to circumvent the tendency to purchase on price. To this end, Pasco suggests grouping plush toys by chew-type rather than by price.
It is also a smart idea to have a variety of sizes available, since many owners of larger dogs will avoid smaller toys over concerns about the pet swallowing it, says Cao. Retailers should also consider:
• Merchandising the toys by type and brand, rather than mixing the brands/toys together, says Lawson, explaining that separating by type and brand looks more appealing and makes the toys stand out more. It also makes it easier for customers to find the brand and type of toy their dog likes.
• Deploying inline information cards that can hang next to the product in an aisle or be placed next to a product on the shelf, showcasing the features and benefits, says Thorne. “These can be very powerful tools in helping educate customers about the differences among plush toys. We also recommend that retailers not simply crowd all the plush toys together, and assume that customers can tell the difference between them on their own.”
• Utilizing clip strips, ropes, floor displays and videos of products in use to draw attention and spark impulse purchasing, says McCann.
• Planning ahead for the holidays, when sales happen in record numbers. “We’ve found that retailers aren’t pre-booking for the holidays as they should,” says Cao. “We’ve sold out of many of the most popular items long before the holidays, like Easter, Halloween and Christmas, despite producing as much as in previous years. Consequently, we encourage our customers to plan ahead.”
When it comes to helping customers choose an appropriate toy, knowing the pet’s personality is a key first step. “Some dogs prefer certain types of squeakers,” Cao says. “Also, some toys come with or without stuffing, and certain dogs will rip any toy apart to get to the stuffing.”
Retailers should inquire about the dog’s size, chewing habits, activity level and temperament, suggests McCann. “Plush toys are not right for every dog, so discussing these qualities before making a purchase is helpful.” Questions to ask include:
• Is the dog gentle, preferring to cuddle with the toy? If so, direct the customer to a toy the dog can “baby,” says McCann. If the dog is a destructive chewer, a more durable toy is the better choice.
• How does the dog like to play? Does the dog like to fetch and retrieve, or does the dog just like to lie on top of the toy?
• What’s the dog’s history with plush toys? “Also, ask what the customer’s expectations are for the toy, and if he or she leaves the dog unsupervised with the toy—which we strongly recommend against,” says Lawson.
Lawson adds that it’s important to keep customer expectations about plush toys realistic. “We never want to oversell our toys, as they are not indestructible and no plush toy is,” she adds. “Some dogs just don’t do well with plush toys—under very watchful supervision, possibly—but if they want a chew toy, there are so many great options for them that would be safer and more appropriate.”
Koliva agrees: “Some salespeople say our toys are indestructible; this isn’t a true statement because no toys are indestructible. We stress that pet owners must know their dogs. No matter how cute a customer thinks a toy is, store employees should always work to find toys that are appropriate for each specific animal.”