Creating Cushy Sales

Manufacturers of plush dog toys are continually coming out with innovative, appealing products, helping pet specialty retailers keep the shelves fresh and exciting.


Just as parents enjoy spoiling their children by showering them with toys, dog owners often want to pamper their pooches, making the pet toy category dynamic and profitable for pet specialty retailers. The market offers a wide range of dog toys, including interactive, pull and chew toys—and all have their place in the home.

Then, there are plush toys. Second only to chew toys in popularity, these products provide soothing comfort to the many dogs that love to carry them around, play and cuddle with them. However, plush toys are not only irresistible to dogs, they are also incredibly appealing to humans, who have a hard time passing them up in pet stores. This is no accident, of course. Manufacturers have gone out of their way to design toys with the highest possible cute factor. Often inventive, fun and amusing, plush toys also add spark to retail shelves and bins, injecting stores with energy and color, and encouraging customer engagement and spontaneous purchases.

Still, while many pet owners impulsively add toys to their cart when shopping for pet supplies, plush toys are increasingly the main draw, says Leslie Yellin, executive vice president of Multipet International, a Moonachie, N.J.-based pet toy company. “We used to say that dog toys were an impulse item, but data has proven this is a category that consumers come to shop,” says Yellin. “Last year, U.S. consumers spent over $600 million on dog toys. Almost 70 percent of dog owners buy toys, and this has been increasing annually.”

During the recession, consumers’ spending habits reflected their economic concerns, and the demand for inexpensive toys increased, says Ellen Lawson, owner and president of Fluff & Tuff, a Troy, Mich.-based designer of ultra-plush, durable dog toys. “This led to a drop in prices and quality in the plush toy category over the years,” says Lawson. “But now, consumer trends are changing. They’re tired of spending their money on products that are poorly constructed and are demanding a higher level of quality and durability. Paying top dollar for the right product isn’t out of the question for pet owners now.”

Pet owners are looking for greater durability and higher quality when it comes to plush toys, agrees Jen Cao, co-founder and vice president of ZippyPaws, a Chino, Calif.-based, manufacturer of plush dog toys and other products for dogs.

“Consumers are definitely expecting more from plush toy manufacturers,” says Cao. “Consumers are drawn to high-quality designs, so we make sure that all of our toys have distinct characters. Since we know that households that have dogs are likely to have children as well, we design toys that appeal to the whole family.”

With consumers focusing more on value and durability, the onus has been on manufacturers to construct plush toys that can better withstand tough treatment from dogs. This has led to the use of mixed materials, such as designs incorporating rope, rubber or tougher fabrics, in the hopes of creating a longer-lasting product. These strategies have also boosted the demand for toys in the “tough plush” category, says Yellin, noting that Multipet devoted an entire wall to this segment at Global Pet Expo.

“Making a tough toy isn’t the challenge; it’s making a tough toy with visual appeal that the consumer will want to select from the shelf,” she explains. “After the initial purchase, the consumer wants to make sure the dog will actually enjoy the toy, and that it will have more staying power than other, less-tough toys.”

Of course, plush toys are not indestructible. Even so, ZippyPaws tries to give its plush toys a fighting chance by double-stitching the seams and using a thick mesh liner underneath the outer fabric. Cao says the company also cross-stitches its plush toys and lines them with an extra layer of tough polyester material to make them hardier.

“This segment of the market is very hot at the moment,” Lawson says. “For us, we never try to oversell our toys’ durability. Instead, we focus on promoting the quality of our materials and manufacturing, which then leads to our toys lasting longer for dogs under normal play.”

Advantage, Yours
By giving the plush category some thought and attention, pet specialty retailers can create a huge advantage over their big-box competition. Lawson advises retailers to carry brands not found in mass stores. Since smaller retailers are unlikely to be able to compete on price, they should instead work to offer a quality selection of unique plush toys, she explains.

One way to stand out from the rest of the pack is to look for toy manufacturers that continually innovate, says Cao. “Consumers are bored with regular stuffed toys and are looking for new ways to interact with their pets,” she says.

It also helps to offer a diversified assortment consisting of different designs, textures, styles and materials, says Yellin. This will enable pet specialty retailers to meet the needs of a broader range of customers, since each dog is different in terms of behavior, size and play pattern, she adds.

There is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to plush toys, y, which is somewhat challenging for manufacturers, says Cao. “Some dogs love to disable the squeaker first, some get a kick out of pulling the stuffing, some live for tug-of-wars, and some consider toys as their babies,” she explains. “It’s our responsibility as a company to educate dog owners on the different ways dogs play and help them understand which toys are more suitable for their dogs and why.”

Consumer education is the pet specialty retailer’s task as well. Retailers need to know the products and which are designed for which type of play. Everyone on staff should be educated on product qualities and differences, as well, so they can better advise customers. Remember that plush toys may not be right for every kind of dog or every kind of activity—these toys are designed for playing and cuddling, not chewing.

Before steering a customer to a plush toy, sales staff should ask about the dog’s temperament, style of play, behavior and activity level. Retailers should also determine the owner’s expectations and requirements, as well—what are they looking for, how will the toy be used, and what are they looking to avoid?

Getting the best return on investment from this growth category also requires a bit of merchandising savvy. The most important strategy is to keep the plush toy aisles organized and uncluttered, says Cao. “A lot of customers skip over the plush toy section because all the items are jumbled and not displayed correctly,” she says. “Make sure to keep plenty of open space around each toy. It may prevent you from showcasing all of your toy selection, but it’s much easier on the eyes.”

However, many retailers have found success in having at least one bin of plush toys that customers enjoy pawing through, and this merchandising approach does add a spark of energy. Even so, care must be taken to make sure this display stays tidy and inviting.

Inspiring Sales
Refrain from mixing brands together, advises Lawson. By separating each manufacturer’s toys, retailers make it much easier for customers to know what company’s toys they’re buying, so they can go back and purchase it again if it turns out their dog loves that particular one. Using branded signage—such as logos, banners, photo boards and so on—will also help customers find the exact brand they’re looking for, she adds.

Segmenting toys by play type is another way to ease the customer’s buying process, says Yellin, adding that Multipet’s most successful stores have taken this approach. It is also helpful to know when and why consumers might purchase toys. Although holidays and other seasonal events see good sales activity, the most prevalent purchasing occasion is “no occasion,” she says.

“Over half of the purchasing decisions are going this way,” Yellin says. “I encourage endcaps and side panels with call-outs that appeal to the consumer’s emotions, with signage like ‘Bring home some love’ or ‘Something to say I love you,’ and so on. Additionally, the birthday sector is getting a lot of traction, with 25 percent of dog owners buying a toy for this occasion.”

To sum it up, when thinking about how to merchandise and retail this category, consider what might move a parent to purchase a toy for a child, because with the position that dogs currently occupy in most families, the motivation and desire to do so are pretty much the same.

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