From Tennis Ball to Toy Box

It’s been said that a tired dog is a good dog—and fetch and tug toys play a large role in ensuring dogs are getting enough exercise.




If a tired dog is a good dog, what better way to tucker them out than with a ferocious game of tug of war or a fun-filled game of fetch?


These two games are at the core of how most people play with their pets, so it’s no surprise that the products available are vast and varied. While the basics—tennis balls and rope toys—still hold significant pull in the market, most pet owners these days have toy boxes full of goodies for playing with their canine pals.


“This is pretty traditional category, but we’re seeing changes with more creative designs and increasing durability,” says Sarah Johnson, sales coordinator at P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle and You) based in San Francisco. “In the past, rope and ball toys have been most the common; however, there are now an increasing number of new materials on the market with a focus on being non-toxic and long-lasting.”


P.L.A.Y. entered the fetch and tug toy category last year with the debut of their Scout & About Outdoor Collection. The line includes several rope toys, a looped tug and a barbell. They also offer a line of Toss & Float toys—for play in the water—and a Flying Disc, which is good for both tug and fetch.


“We’re seeing an increase in fetch and tug toys,” says Johnson. She attributes this in part to a growing interest from pet parents towards strengthening their bond with their canines—and she’s not alone.


“People are realizing that their dogs need to be active and also how much fun it can be, so they’re spending more time exercising with them in a variety of ways,” says Mark Watkins, sales manager at ZippyPaws. “This has really boosted the popularity of a wide range of toys and accessories, including fetch and tug toys.”


Based in Chino, Calif., ZippyPaws has offered pet toys and accessories since 2011, most recently adding a line of thermoplastic rubber (TPR) toys to its line. Durable, yet flexible, these products include several sizes and colors of squeaky balls and crunchy sticks.


Trending in Toys

Durability is a big deal when it comes to dog toys. No one wants a rope or frisbee to break mid-game, and active pups can often be the most destructive. Experts agree that durability and safety are the most important features shoppers look for in this category.


When shoppers think safety they tend to focus on material, but that’s not the only safety concern they should consider; size is also an important consideration, says Mark Pasco, vice president of sales at Mammoth Pet Products.


Mammoth, which is based in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., has produced tug and fetch toys since its inception 23 years ago. Its latest line of products, Flossy Chews Extra Fresh Ropy Tugs & Bones, are made with real dental floss and formulated with natural beeswax and mint tightly woven in poly-cotton fibers to help dogs maintain good dental hygiene.


“You want to recommend a toy that is larger than the dog’s mouth, and make sure you match the toy to their chewing habits,” says Pasco. Otherwise, shoppers may opt for a slightly smaller size toy than those appropriately sized for their dog—because the smaller toy is slightly cheaper. “Price does play a role when a consumer is not educated in picking the toy based on size and chew factor,” he explains.


Besides durability and safety, there seems to be only a few specific trends within fetch and tug toys. Manufacturers are creating a wide array of diverse options with a variety of features and special functions. Many new materials and new shapes are being introduced, tailored to specific play styles. In the fetch category, toys are being created to fly faster and farther or, in some cases, to actually slow down, making the toy easier to track as it flies.


Among the trends that are notable is a growing interest in water toys and an emphasis on bright colors within the fetch category. Toys that float are becoming more popular and visibility is important in case a dog forgets that the name of the game is  “fetch.”


“Fetch toys, in particular, can get lost fairly easily,” says Emily Benson, marketing director at Starmark. “[So] you probably want the price point slightly lower, just knowing it is possible the dog doesn’t always find it when you throw it for them.”


Based in Hutto, Texas, Starmark has offered pet products since 2002, but actually got its start as a training and boarding facility in the ’90s. They’re planning to launch a new toy at Global  Pet Expo called the Bend-E Branch—a solid rubber bone that’s still soft in the dog’s mouth. When bent as the dog plays with it, the branch emits a croaking sound.


Play It Like It’s Hot

Of course, fetch is a game that’s best played in warmer weather, and sales can reflect that. “In spring and summer, people are out and doing a lot more outdoor activities,” says Benson, noting that retailers should consider this when determining their merchandising strategies. “Move [these products] up to the front then, and it’s just kind of a reminder, ‘Hey, your dog enjoys playing outside too.’”


Leslie Yellin, executive vice president, Multipet International, Inc., agrees. The Moonachie, N.J.-based Multipet has been in the pet industry for more than two decades and is the creator of well-recognized toys such as the Loofa Dog, Lamb Chop, Pigglesworth, and more.


“In the spring, we recommend a floor display to call out the features and to encourage outdoor interactive play,” says Yellin. “They are also best displayed in areas that support outdoor activities, such as floating jackets, doggie backpacks and of course by the register if the store can accommodate.”


Tug toys, on the other hand, can be used equally indoors and out, so the weather, season and region have less of an impact on their sales. Instead, in this category, companies focus on products that consider the human as much as they do the dog.


“These toys are a bit different from other dog toys in that they’re very interactive, so they need to be functional for both the dog and their human playmate,” says Johnson. “So, it’s not just about having a cute toy for the dog to play with or a durable one to chew on, it’s about being comfortable for the person, as well as fun and safe for the dog.”


“Shoppers are typically looking for a toy that is going to hold up to a strong force and they can grip well and hold on to comfortably,” she says.


So, how do shops decide which products to stock?


“It’s different with every retailer,” says Ward Myers, president of Spunky Pup. It will depend, he says, on the room they have for the category, what other toys they are carrying and what their competitors choose to stock. “I think [retailers] have to know what the retailers around them are doing and make sure they’re competitive with those products they’re going to bring in.”


Based in Minnetonka, Minn., Spunky Pup was founded in 2011 and made its name in glow-in-the-dark dog toys. Myers purchased it in 2017 and is now working with the company to release a number of new products, including a new ball launcher that can shoot a tennis ball 100 ft. in the air.


Myers says that intentionally choosing products that differ from what’s available at local competitors can give retailers a bit more flexibility when it comes to pricing. The last thing retailers want, he says, is for a customer to point out that they can get the exact same product down the street for less.


Watkins agrees that the specific mix of products will vary by retailer.


“It depends to an extent on the retailer and their demographics,” he explains. That might mean small, bright, cute toys at a boutique and bigger tug toys or water toys for a store that caters to large working or hunting dogs. “In general though, retailers look for toys that combine fun and functional features with quality.”


Once the store has determined a selection, Watkins says it’s essential to try and help shoppers understand how those toys work.


“Fetch and tug toys do differ from other toys in that consumers have to be able to understand and envision how well these toys will work in action,” he says. That means merchandising them in a way that highlights the activity and gives shoppers insight into how much fun they would be.


From there, like so many categories at retail, stores should opt for a good, better, best scenario—stocking products by type and use in at least three price points to ensure they’re providing shoppers with options. If a store has more space, they might consider an even broader selection.


Questions Are Key

Once products are chosen and merchandised nicely on shelves, experts say that success or failure often comes down to the store’s staff.


“Retail staff is the key to increasing sales for all departments,” says Yellin. “Knowing the type of dog and asking questions about play preferences—tug, cuddle, fetch, chew, etc.—can help guide the purchasing decision. Knowing the living environment is also important when helping suggest the right toy. Does the pet enjoy water play? If so, then fetch toys that float are the way to go. Another factor is who will be interacting with the pet? If a young child is doing the tossing, we recommend a softer toy,” she says.


Pasco agrees. “They can possibly turn that single purchase into a multiple ticket purchase by the questions they ask. The key is to turn that customer into a satisfied customer by meeting their needs.”


And in that, shoppers aren’t so different than their dogs.  PB


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