A Crush on Plush
Pet owners are expecting more features and higher quality from the classically cute plush toy, so retailers must make their offering selections wisely.
The plush toy category is one unlike any other. Pet parents buy plush toys not only to provide enjoyment for their pets, but also to give a dog’s toy collection a personal touch—perhaps with a familiar character, a soft and consoling friend or just something cute to have around the house.
“Many dogs use plush toys to cuddle for comfort, which is unique to plush toys and something other toys do not provide,” says Ellen Lawson, owner of Fluff & Tuff.
A plush toy can be more than just something to gnaw on or retrieve from the backyard. It almost functions as an accessory, and retailers can use this angle to carry greater varieties of plush toys and sell more in the category.
Leslie Yellin, executive vice president at Multipet International, says plush toys have always been the “go to” category to bring comfort to pets. “With many people working and dogs having time alone at home, this is a very rewarding product as it allows dogs to cuddle and play with a soft plush toy,” she says. Multipet’s Aromadog line of toys make great cuddling companions. When squeaked, the toys release the scent of lavender, meant to help relax the dog and reduce stress levels. Aromadog toys are recommended when going on trips to the vet, traveling, during thunderstorms or for dogs that are frequently home alone.
“We are recognizing that the toys are not just something to play with, but actually have a function in the pet’s life,” Yellin says. “Toys help stimulate a dog and relieve them from boredom as well as bring great comfort.”
Plush toys offer an alternative to their rough-and-tough counterparts and have the potential to develop personal meaning and significance with a pet parent and their dog.
“Plush toys seem to be more personal to individual pets compared to other types of toys,” says Gretchen George, president of PetRageous Designs. “Plush toys are commonly used indoors and become a cuddle and light play item that pets take ownership of, compared to other toys designed to challenge pets or for more aggressive owner and pet interactive play.”
According to Lawson, the advent of plush pet toys came from people purchasing these types of toys for their children. As more and more people are choosing to adopt pets earlier and have children later, it comes as no surprise that the plush toy trend would flow naturally to the pet segment.
Because pet parents see their animals as an extension of family, they have specific wants and needs when it comes to purchasing the right plush toy. It’s not just about soft and fluffy anymore. “Initially, pet parents wanted cute, cuddly, squeaky fun for their dogs,” says Lawson. “As it’s evolved, they still want all those things, but now they want durability, different use of materials and interactive toys. But also, something that won’t break the bank.”
Lawson says a pet owner will, however, spring for a pricier item if they feel there is value in doing so. Value can mean a lot of things, and to Jennifer Cao, vice president and designer at ZippyPaws, value comes from a toy offering more during playtime.
“There is an increased demand for toys that foster emotional, social and cognitive growth,” says Cao. The company offers a Jigglerz toy that squeaks not only when pressed, but also when shaken side-to-side, making for more interactive play.
In addition to this desire for a more complex toy, Deborah Feng, cofounder and director at P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle and You), says pet parents are more drawn to toys that are guaranteed safe and well made.
“Safety is first and foremost in our minds as all of us [at P.L.A.Y.] are pet parents, too,” she says. “So from material selection, construction details like inverse and cross stitching to testing, our product development team goes through a methodical process to make sure our plush toys are absolutely safe for our furry best friends.”
P.L.A.Y.’s initial venture into the plush category—the Garden Fresh collection—has double-layered fabrics and inverse stitching with standard squeakers. As the company has grown, it has debuted newer collections like American Classic Toy Set, International Classic Toy Set and the Safari Toy Set, all with PlanetFill filling, the company’s trademarked polyfiber made of 100 percent post-consumer recycled bottles.
“More shoppers are looking out for brands that make a positive impact through their business,” Feng says. “Our core focus is on saving the environment, as well as helping animals in need.”
P.L.A.Y. also has a partnership with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, where it makes donations through its Under the Sea, Bugging Out and Safari Toy Sets.
But let’s not forget the real reason pet owners find themselves drawn to plush toys. Above everything else—they’re cute.
“We see similarities between pet parents and human parents with regard to toys,” says Gretchen George, president of PetRageous Designs. “They are looking for safe products that are functional and cute at the same time. They like the toys to have realistic features if designed in the form of a character or animal. We find that pet owners often have names for the toy so they can issue fun commands to their pet to retrieve it.”
Because of this trend, PetRageous has whimsical names for all of its plush toys, like Rebel the Raccoon, Opie the Opossum, Sadie the Skunk, Reggie the Rabbit and so forth. These toys fall under the company’s ROADRAGEOUS line—stuffing-free plush toys with squeakers inside.
Pet parents want fluffy and cute plush toys, yes, but if a toy won’t last more than 24 hours, what’s the use in the purchase? Nearly every plush toy vendor points to durability to be a non-negotiable factor in the plush toy category.
“Customers want a toy that will hold up to their dog’s play,” says Lawson. “They don’t mind paying a bit more for the toy if they know it will last longer.”
But just because a toy claims durability doesn’t mean retailers should oversell its capabilities. At the end of the day, no plush toy is too strong.
“Be realistic with customers,” says Lawson. “Nothing is indestructible, and we ask retailers and pet parents to take each individual dog’s play style into consideration to base expectations for a plush toy. Pet parents really appreciate the honesty and are much happier with their purchase in the long run.”
Additionally, it’s often not enough to merely throw a few plush toy options on the shelf and expect them to sell. Retailers must go the extra mile to display and market these toys to elicit consistent purchases.
Feng recommends that retailers assess plush toys not only based on their design and quality, but also take into consideration elements like creative and enticing merchandising displays.
“While retailers often have their own merchandising and display strategy, they can also take advantage of great point-of-purchase (POP) displays,” she says. “Some manufacturers also go the extra mile in providing education materials to help retailers understand their products and train their sales staff.”
P.L.A.Y. provides retailers with a dedicated retailer resource page, social media cross-promotion and staff workshops.
Yellin suggests that retailers utilize promotional vehicles like clip strips and floor displays, and George is in favor of endcaps in high-traffic areas.
No matter how you promote your store’s selection of plush toys, choosing from the industry’s vast offerings in the category is sure to add an extra soft, fuzzy flair to your store.