Profitably Playful

Sales of interactive dog toys and puzzles are trending up, powered by the benefits to dogs and owners these products offer, but pet specialty retailers will still have to put some muscle into their merchandising.




For both people and pets, getting in regular workouts is essential to good health, both for the brain and the body. As humans more fully embrace the value of mental and physical exercise for themselves, they’re also seeing the benefits of doing the same for their furry best buds. For pet specialty retailers who invest in the interactive toys and puzzles category, this trend can translate into some pretty dynamic profits.

“Dog owners are becoming more and more informed about responsible pet parenting and treat their pets like family members,” says Jennifer Cao, vice president and designer of ZippyPaws. “I think lots of young dog owners love to pamper their dogs. As young couples in their twenties and thirties opt to adopt dogs instead of having children, they view toys as a necessity and crucial to their dog’s well-being.”

Cao, whose Chino, Calif.-based company offers a variety of products for dogs, mentions a study that recently appeared online in the
Washington Post indicating that 76 percent of Millennials are likelier to “splurge on their pets” than on themselves. 

This could be partly out of feelings of guilt, since so many pets are left alone at home while their owners work. Debbie Hamill, chief marketing officer for iFetch LLC, an Austin, Texas-based manufacturer of interactive dog toys, cites a recent American Pet Products Association study showing that 51 percent of dog owners find themselves in this position. This translates into over 27 million dogs being left to their own devices during the day, says Hamill. Not only does this put furniture at risk, it also creates a lot of stress for owners. 

There are other worries interactive toys can address, such as keeping dogs moving even when winter weather prohibits going outdoors. Tim Blurton, CEO of Hyper Pet, says this touches on an increasingly important issue for dog owners.

“One of the main concerns we hear from consumers is the need to exercise their pets—many of which are obese—in a fun and interactive way,” says Blurton. “We also hear often about the problems associated with their dog’s separation anxiety and the need for playful toys that keep pets calm and happy when the owners aren’t at home.” Located in Wichita, Kan., Hyper Pet provides an array of products for dogs.

Serious Demand
Interactive toys and puzzles come with some really compelling benefits, but among the most important are the opportunities these products offer pets and owners to bond, play and just enjoy each other’s company. Pet owners’ desire to connect with their dogs is helping drive interest in these items.

“The demand for dog toys in general, as well as for interactive and puzzle toys, is definitely on the up,” says Bill Parsons, sales manager at P.L.A.Y. Located in San Francisco, the company focuses on toys for dogs and cats, among other pet product offerings. “Dogs are very smart and learn very quickly,” Parsons continues. “Therefore, there’s a need for toys that constantly challenge them.”

There are several trends pet specialty retailers should take into account when making inventory decisions. For example, Parsons observes that as growing numbers of people are living in tinier spaces and are on the go more, there’s been an upswing in small-dog ownership, making toys geared toward small- to medium-sized dogs more popular.

“Shoppers are also looking for new features, for instance, interesting sounds and new ways for their dogs to play,” he adds. “Also, many pet parents are looking for toys that are more durable.”

Durability has become a key focus with pet owners, agrees John Harty, president of American Dog Toys, Inc. Headquartered in Minnetonka, Minn., the company offers a variety of interactive toys for dogs under the Spunky Pup brand.

“Not only are pet owners looking for an attractive, fun toy for their dog to chew on or play fetch with, they’re also demanding more durability than in the past,” he says. “And they’re always looking for something new and different for their pets. Newness is extremely important to pet owners of all breeds.”

Interactive toys and puzzles, which encourage mental and physical stimulation, is a category with legs—it’s only going to continue to exert an influence over product development. And just as in the human arena, the pet market is benefiting from technology advancements. 

“More and more tech products are being introduced every year in the pet industry,” says Hamill, noting that the interactive toy market is no exception to this trend. “There are now cameras for viewing and interacting with pets while away from home. There are automatic food dispensers and dog collars with GPS capabilities so pets are never lost.”

Puzzles and brain games also provide a feeling of achievement to both pet and owner, another attribute contributing to demand, Hamill says. “Just as parents relish watching their child learn a new skill, pet parents feel the same pride watching their dogs succeed,” she explains. “There’s a sense of accomplishment on both sides, and that only strengthens the bond between human and pet.”

Cao says gifting for pets is also contributing to increasing sales. “Dog owners love gifting puzzle toys to other dog owners, especially during the holiday season or for dogs’ birthdays,” she says. “This demand also encourages manufacturers to design and develop more creative ways for toys to challenge and engage dogs through play.”

Powering up Play
Just like any other category in the store, interactive toys and puzzles require staff to interact with customers to maximize these products’ significant sales potential. 

“Puzzle toys can be a great profit-maker because the added benefit of stimulating a dog’s cognitive functions can help [support] a larger markup on these toys,” says Cao. “And retailers can of course benefit from the increased sales of toys that offer more appeal and extra value. Consumers who want more for their dollar will see the value in these toys and want to purchase them.”

These products also pad the register ring because of their impulse-buy nature, says Harty. “Pet owners generally visit their specialty pet store to purchase food,” he explains. “If they see new, innovative products they think their pet will enjoy, they tend to make that extra purchase even though they may not have been planning to do so when they left home.”

Additionally, Hamill mentions, retailers have to sell fewer units of interactive toys than lower-cost plush or chew toys to make the equivalent amount of money. Consequently, it’s just good business sense to actively promote these products in-store. 

“The more retailers can engage directly with their customers, asking them questions about their dog, how they like to play with their dog and more, the more personalized recommendations they’ll be able to give customers,” says Blurton. And of course, a recommendation that leads to higher customer satisfaction is also one that results in repeat business and strong customer loyalty.

This can lead to some pretty enjoyable experiences for customers and retailers alike—after all, fun is what this category is about. Hamill likes it when retailers get hands-on, demonstrating their ball launchers and other toys, although the company can also provide retailers with a video display unit. He also advises retailers to ask questions about the dog’s size, age and health when selling products such as ball launchers.

A well-informed sales staff is invaluable for success in this category, says Cao. “Having a knowledgeable sales associate explaining the features and benefits of the toys to consumers can also help justify the purchase for the consumer, leading them to buy the higher-quality, more interactive products even though they may be more expensive,” she says.

Creating a “new products of the month” merchandising section can help retailers generate add-on sales by making it easy for store associates to point out new arrivals that customers might like, says Harty. He also suggests having a section dedicated to promoting certain brands or types of toys through various purchasing incentives, with the selection changing frequently.

Retailers can also use theme-focused displays to promote interactive toys and puzzles, says Parsons. “We believe shopping is a visual experience, so this is a great strategy,” he says. Some of the themes he’s seen incorporating P.L.A.Y.’s toys include “Farmers Markets” and “Under the Sea.” Holiday and seasonal themes are important to remember as well.

“With the toy market continuing to grow, we recommend that [pet specialty retailers] spend time to research the best toys for their customers,” says Parsons. “Toys are inherently fun, and many pet parents are often open to indulging their pets regularly with some new toys. Also, toys are a great way to keep customers browsing in the store and provide an opportunity to cross-sell and upsell more products, which will contribute to a retailer’s profitability as well.” 


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