The Canine Toy Box

As fun as toys may be for dogs, this product category means serious business for retailers.


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Toys make up one of the most powerful product categories for retailers. They help boost a store’s bottom line with high-margins and powerful display potential. They also help drive in repeat business (dogs destroy toys). Best of all, toys make customers smile.

Because of a toy’s unique power to turn even the crankiest old coot into a playful kid again (and I’m talking about the human customer), a store’s toy selection should be positioned prominently. Toys should be visible from outside and should fill a store’s front window with color and fun. Toys can act as magnets–display toys near the entrance and watch customers veer toward them like corks on a winding stream.

Beyond up-front positioning, consider other strategies for organizing a toy display to best address the many reasons customers shop for these items and to showcase the many functional design concepts they present.

One of the first questions I ask customers seeking toy recommendations is whether they prefer plush or plastic. Most dogs generally organize themselves into either one of those camps. As a result, my store groups the entire toy section along those lines.

The second question I ask is, “What’s the most indestructible toy you’ve purchased?” For some dogs, nothing is indestructible. However, some toys are tougher than others. Heavy fire hose materials, ballistic nylon, multi-layer design and thick seams with multiple stitching offer fairly good durability. For those dog owners who shake their heads with knowing resignation and say, “My dog would have that in pieces in 15 minutes,” consider offering a toy that is designed to challenge the dog intellectually or reward it with random treat dispensing. Toys that are designed to break apart often redirect energy that would otherwise be bent on destruction.

Plush puzzle toys challenge a dog to separate out the component parts one at a time. The dog thinks it has disemboweled the toy. We often encourage customers to hide old torn up toys in with the mix, or treats, to encourage the dog to seek out and get at the prizes inside. These toy designs consistently earn thumbs-up reviews from many industry and consumer publications.

Toys that challenge a dog’s intelligence can help with training and behavior. For example, separation anxiety in dogs that are forced to spend hours alone while their owners work often results in destructive behavior in the home. Furniture gets chewed to bits and bathroom accidents come to be acts of frustration instead of nature. Even more worrisome for dog owners is boredom and the lethargy and general lack of spirit dogs suffer from when they’re not stimulated. Toys that engage the dog’s intelligence help the animal overcome tedious hours of solitude, and can be genuinely effective at correcting bad behavior.

For outdoor play, especially during the hot season, offer water toys. These items squirt, drip, hydrate and please. Manufacturers offer a terrific variety of water toys that can be frozen or just filled with water, broth or juice. These provide storeowners with multiple selling points that engage the customer’s imagination and highlight legitimate values beyond a toy’s mere fun and cuteness.


Taking Toys Seriously
With their great emotional appeal, relatively short life span, accessible price points, high margins and powerful in-store display potential, toys contribute serious heft to a store’s bottom line. Retailers can help their businesses by taking these products seriously.

If a store has any sort of customer relation management program in place, be sure to frequently feature new toys in the selection. Communicate fresh new designs in customer email communications to re-enforce awareness and build excitement.

In the store, look for ways to incorporate collateral materials that help customers feel confident about their purchase decision. Research general features and benefits and easily print out and laminate helpful bullet points that customers can scan while holding the product.

Our store often shelves toys that have been recommended by trainers, and that helps us sell. Consider developing relationships with trainers and sponsoring events that let customers see trainers working with certain toys. Trainers might not necessarily want to suggest a specific product or brand, but many will promote a certain design.

For the retailer, the value of this kind of third-party professional endorsement lends weight and credibility rarely available to the run-of-the-mill plaything for dogs. For both storeowner and professional trainer, this sort of cooperative initiative opens all sorts of options for co-promotions across many other products and services.

In our home, in a basket in the corner of the living room, lives a collection of soft, furry, cute woodland creatures–bunnies, squirrels, little foxes, cows and pigs–some squeaky, some stuffed, but most thin and worn. Practically none have faces anymore, and even though it can sometimes look like a scene from a Hitchcock movie, that basket reminds us every day of the role dog toys play in the lives of our customers.

Our three dogs’ toy basket is full, but that doesn’t stop us from bringing new surprises home to watch them play with excitement. It is a responsibility to our customers to keep the toy selection fun, fresh and abundant. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. 


Dan Headrick is a freelance writer who, with his wife Pam Guthrie, owns Wag Pet Boutique in Raleigh, NC. The couple, former corporate burnouts who just got fed up with having to leave their dogs home alone all day, opened Wag in 2003. The store has received numerous community and industry awards.

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