Shop 'Til You Bark
The pet boutique segment is thriving as pet owners continue to look for high-quality products for their four-legged friends.
Forget the throwaway society. Consumers are buying higher-quality items these days, and that includes pet owners looking for everything from beds to fashions to gourmet treats. The Boutique section at Global Pet Expo highlights some of these products that feature the latest fashion trends, premium materials and a sensibility that appeals to the discerning pet owner.
“As our economy has improved in the past few years, more pet parents are interested or willing to try better products when they have the chance to learn about alternatives to mass market options,” says Will Chen, founder and owner of P.L.A.Y. Pet Lifestyle and You (booth 558), which makes high-quality pet beds, accessories and toys.
Chen explains that with beds, pet owners expect comfort and support, as well as modern design, craftsmanship and durability. “People want something that looks good in their living room or bedroom and also lasts longer than a few months,” he says. With toys, pet owners want interactive playthings, preferably ones that are eco-friendly and are made with superior materials.
It is always a challenge to educate consumers about why the beds or toys have a slightly higher price and what sets the product apart from one the shopper can buy at a big-box store. That messaging is a joint effort by manufacturers and retailers. Another challenge in bedding is that the items are bulky, and stores have limited space. To solve this issue, P.L.A.Y. offers the Dropship to Store program, which includes supporting materials such as a swatch book, laminated product showcase sheets, brochures and an eco-friendly bed display stand. That way, retailers can offer customers any of the bed designs without stocking the entire line.
P.L.A.Y. will launch a line of cat scratchers and tunnels at Global Pet Expo. “These are items that are made with such design and quality that cat parents would not be shy to leave in the living room when they have guests over,” says Chen.
Carriers are another boutique item that are becoming popular among cat owners, who, as it turns out, want to bring their cats with them when they travel, or even when they go to work. David Fine, owner of Bark n Bag (booth 404) says the company found out about the interest in cat carriers from consumers who submit a registration form online. “When we started 10 years ago, it was 99.9 percent dog owners,” says Fine. “Now, it’s about 40 percent cat owners.”
Also changing is the gender stereotype: a large percentage of cat owners buying bags are men. For them, Bark n Bag offers the Outback Messenger, made from organic denim. The company is also presenting the SkyBag Collection 10th Anniversary Limited Edition, made from recycled plastic bottles, bamboo and organic cotton.
Bark n Bag’s cat friendly carriers feature port-hole openings instead of mesh, because a frightened cat can scratch through mesh. However, the company does not refer to the carrier as a cat bag. Pet specialty retailers can position the bag as dog and cat friendly, providing more opportunity for sales.
While cat items are gaining favor in the boutique segment, clothing is still targeted mostly to dogs, as dogs are still more willing than cats to wear coats and footwear. Trends in dog fashions have shifted. “Consumers are playing a little less ‘dress up’ for fun and a lot more ‘get dressed for function,’” says Sue Kim, CEO of Hip Doggie Inc. (booth 425). “This means if the clothing has a function—it keeps their pet warm or dry or safe—then it makes sense for them.”
Kim notes that apparel sales decline in the spring and summer because the items are not as functional as winter coats. There is still a market for other items year round. Hip Doggie is introducing several products this year, such as the EZ reflective harness vest line, nylon styles of the Step-in Harness line and Snakeskin Bone Collars. There is also a fall/winter apparel line, with soft brushed-knit sweaters, Featherlite puffer vests and a new faux-leather jacket. Also new are the NFL retractable leash, NFL hoodie and NFL knit hats.
Kristy Hinze Clark, founder of Legitimutt (booth 405), agrees that summer sales are slower than sales of winter-related items, but there is still opportunity for the company’s apparel, beds and other high-end, made-in-the-USA products. Legitimutt is expanding its line of collars, leashes and harnesses. The newest trend in materials, Hinze Clark says, is neoprene. The wetsuit material is flexible, durable and washable, and it has been used in human fashions. “I saw it on the runway,” she says. “I haven’t seen anyone using it for pet products.”
Legitimutt will also introduce spring dresses, polos, hoodies and raincoats this year. There will also be a new dog carrier/tote, a soft-sided fashion statement that will be similar to a tote bag. The fashions have to serve a purpose. “What we’ve come up against is creating products that people can use on their dogs in a variety of different settings,” says Hinze Clark. “People go from the Hamptons to New York City, and they want something easy to use, easy to wash and easy to wear for the dog, that still has a fashion element.”
Dog boots are an example of items that must be more functional than fashionable. Dog owners buy protective boots not just for walking on pavement after a snowstorm. “We used to think of boots for when they get salt out,” says Michael Friedland, president of Pawz Dog Boots, LLC (booth 500). “Now we think of them for traction control, rashes, medical conditions and frostbite.”
Retailers are educating consumers about how the boots can help keep the dogs’ paws comfortable when they go hiking, swimming, or walk on a hot or cold sidewalk. People do notice when their pups suffer from discomfort in their paws. “These are all quality-of-life issues,” says Friedland. “That’s how we got started in the business, to really solve a problem, as opposed to being a me-too product.”
Pawz Dog Boots also offers other products, like the Safespot locking leash. The all-in-one collar and leash features a steel cable and a lock, so the dog walker can secure the dog to an immovable object. The lock is at the collar, which cannot be slipped over the dog’s head.
Problem solving is an important area in the boutique segment, including in training items. “Our retailers continue to ask us for innovative, quality driven solution based items,” says Cheryl Pedersen, founder of Poochie-Pets, LLC (booth 516). “Based on limited spending dollars, consumers are looking for high-quality items that can be used multiple times rather than throw away, single-use products.”
The company produces Poochie Bells, which dogs owners hang on doors and use for housetraining. Among the newest products are Extra Long PoochieBells for tiny, timid or teacup breeds, and PoochieGuard adhesive film for protecting doors and windowsills from eager paws. The company also rebranded its hand-crafted metal hooks to hang PoochieBells.
Pedersen says Poochie Pets is also seeing growth in the Pet Peeves line, which offers solutions for everyday “pet peeves.” The items include the Dry Sponge to remove fur from furniture, bone-shaped sponges for dog bowl cleanup and Clip-on Safety Lights for evening dog walks. The company will also have new products in its gift line, Live in Dog Years.
Where there are gifts, there is usually cake, even for dogs. Preppy Puppy Bakery (booth 520) produces birthday, adoption day (or “Gotcha Day”) and all-occasion cakes. The three newest cakes are Vanilla, Carrot and Peanut Butter.
These are high-quality cakes, says Amy Singelais, partner in Preppy Puppy. “Consumers are much more savvy about ingredients and about quality,” she says. “They don’t want artificial ingredients or shelf-life extenders.”
They want the cakes to be fresh, so retailers want next day delivery, and they also want the cakes to arrive undamaged, with the intricate decorating intact. Variety is important, as well, as retailers want to present several options to pet owners.
Still, Singelais says business is booming because dog owners want to buy cakes for their dogs, no matter what their budget. “Now, it’s not considered silly,” she explains. “It’s the opposite, ‘What’s wrong with you, what do you mean you are not celebrating your dog’s birthday?’”
Natural is also an important feature in the boutique segment. Angels’ Eyes (booth 526) is introducing Angels’ Eyes Plus new and improved Anti-Tear Stain Formula without antibiotics, and Angels’ Eyes Gentle Tear Stain Wipes, which help remove dried mucus secretions, discharge and tear stains. The new products are made in the USA, and they do not contain artificial food colorings, corn, wheat or soy. Both are recommended for shedding and non-shedding breeds.
“We are also currently getting ready to launch a couple more products to add to our Plus line hopefully by this summer,” says Lynda Winkowski, president. “Consumers want for their loving pets the same things they want for themselves. They are looking at more natural products, and they are aware that, being that they are natural, it takes longer to see results, but they are in it for the long run.”