Making the Holidays a Hit

To make the most of the opportunities that come with the holiday season, retailers must build the right selection of fun holiday-themed and giftable products, and have their merchandising and marketing strategies in place early.



The holiday season can be the most wonderful time of the year for retailers—assuming they are prepared to take full advantage of this lucrative sales period. The last few months of the year hold tremendous potential, but retailers must act early to ensure they have an on-trend selection of products, creative ideas for merchandising and in-store events, and well-timed marketing strategies.


Pet specialty retailers’ vendor partners can be a great resource as store owners ramp up their plans for the 2018 holiday season, offering not only predictions on best-selling products, but also advice on how to execute successful marketing and merchandising approaches they’ve observed among other retailers. Manufacturers in playful categories such as toys, costumes and accessories, in particular, can provide valuable insight on how to make the most of these fun and eye-catching products during the peak season for impulse buying and gifting.


For this year’s holiday season, the team at San Francisco-based P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle and You) recommends retailers add fun twists to a classic approach.


“When we launched our Holiday Classic Collection, we created classic holiday-themed toys such as a Gingerbread Man, Hot Chocolate, Yule Log, Candy Canes and Turkey,” says Deborah Feng, co-founder and director at P.L.A.Y., which offers a wide range of plush toys, accessories and more. “Apart from their cute exterior aesthetics and play on the traditional holiday theme, we went a step further by adding interesting whimsical features to each toy. For example, dogs stay engaged with the crinkly roll-up fabric in our Yummy Yuletide Log, along with a tube squeaker that gives off an interesting sound.”


Leslie Yellin, executive vice president of Multipet International, based in Moonachie, N.J., also sees a lot of value in the tried-and-true options during the holiday season, when classic and nostalgic products are especially held dear by some shoppers.


“We find our classic toys, especially our Lamb Chop holiday toys, continually trending up,” says Yellin. “It is so adorable to see all the social media posts after the holidays with all of the dogs and their fuzzy best friends. We also see demand by our retailers for the classic Loofa Dog to be offered in a variety of characters for the customers to collect.”


In keeping with the traditional holiday themes, Erin Breig, director of Rubie’s Pet Shop Boutique, based in Richmond Hill, N.Y., says that in pet costumes, there’s a strong trend toward “sidekicks” to popular holiday characters.


“For example, elves, reindeer, snowmen, etc.,” she says. “Anything that goes well with Santa and Mrs. Claus.”


But sticking with tradition isn’t for everyone. Many consumers are looking for a timely gift or special treat for their pets, so retailers should be on the lookout for toys that incorporate the years trending topics or popular characters.


“Mystical toys, specifically unicorns, are very popular right now,” says Courtney Lawson Rush, director of sales and marketing at Troy, Mich.-based Fluff & Tuff. “Fluff & Tuff launched Violet Unicorn this spring and she is selling tremendously well,” she explains, noting that Violet is the company’s first take on this type of whimsical character.


For toys and other fun-focused purchases, consumers want something that piques their interest, jumping off the shelf as something special to treat their pets with during the holidays. This could mean items that incorporate characters or imagery from popular culture, toys that maximize the cute factor, or products that capitalize on the ever-popular food theme.


“Primarily, people are just looking for more fun and interesting characters or icons for the holidays,” says Mark Watkins, sales manager at Zippypaws based in Chino, Calif. “We’ve added even more toys to our always popular line this year, including new types, or flavors, of our expanding Donutz line [including] peppermint and gingerbread.”


Not What, But When

In some ways, deciding on the optimal time to launch the holiday season in a pet store is as important as selecting the right items for the season’s displays. Retailers must find the right balance between putting out products so early that some shoppers may find it off-putting and waiting until later, when some people have already made the bulk of their purchases for the holidays.


“People want to be efficient with their holiday shopping, but they also don’t want retailers to rush them through the season as a whole,” Lawson Rush says. “It’s important to have them displayed in advance, but not too early where they sit around before shoppers are in the mindset.”


So, when is this just-right time? Opinions vary widely, with some traditionalists holding firm to after Thanksgiving, while others say after Halloween or even earlier. Some manufacturers, like Gretchen George, president of PetRageous Designs based in Wilmington, Mass., say that retailers should embrace holiday sales as soon as the products are available. She points out that holiday-specific items have a small selling window, so getting a head start on merchandising these products can be essential.


“Holiday-themed items are so popular, and the availability of them goes very quickly,” George says. “October would be a good time for retailers to start displaying their holiday-themed items. It seems like it gets earlier and earlier every year. That is in line with demand. Consumers want to secure the items earlier and earlier every year.”


Other manufacturers say retailers should be guided simply by when they’re ready. Holiday displays that seem haphazard or unplanned can put a damper on sales during a season when every store is looking to wow customers and earn their holiday spending.


“The right time is really when the retail operations are ready to support all of the merchandising to get the product on the floor and displayed in ways that inspire customers to shop,” Yellin says.


But as in many aspects of business, independent retailers have the advantage of being attuned to the preferences of their specific customers, rather than adhering to the timelines of large national chains.


“I believe it really depends on the retailer and their particular clientele,” Watkins says. “Most retailers really have a good feel for when their customers will be open to buying holiday toys.”


Retailers shouldn't miss the opportunity to view each season’s sales trends as useful data points to help them get to know their customers’ preferences.


“It’s a good idea for a retailer to note when they start their holiday displays and pay close attention to customer reactions and sales dollars year to year to find the sweet spot for their particular location and customer base,” Feng says.


Perfect Presentation

During a season of festive window displays and an abundance of decor, retailers have an opportunity to get creative with their merchandising. Holiday retailing is all about eye-catching assortments that draw customers in, whether they were on the hunt for a special gift or not. Manufacturers recommend taking full advantage of point-of-purchase displays, endcaps and other special season displays to capture pet owners’ attention.


“Consumers aren't usually looking for a present for their pet, but when they are reminded at the register, they are more likely to pick up a cute collar, Santa hat or holiday-themed bandana,” says Breig. “Retailers can have fun with this by dressing up mannequins. This helps tell the story and generate interest.”


The holiday season, perhaps more than any other time of year, offers a chance to surprise and delight shoppers. By putting the most fun, special items front and center, retailers can help pet owners find the perfect present to include their furry friends in holiday celebrations.


“These holiday-themed items are in demand, but they are also impulse buys,” says George. “Many new pet owners don’t know that they can buy an adorable holiday pajama for their new pup until they see one.”


Lawson Rush says Fluff & Tuff has seen great examples of creative displays, using the company’s holiday toys and other props to create cute scenes in their stores.


“With Reggie the Reindeer and two different candy cane sizes, there are lots of fun seasonal options from pulling sleighs, or creating an in-store candy cane lane to even basic stocking stuffer bins that give customers an easy item to grab near the register,” she says. “Plush toys are strong sellers for the holiday season overall, so retailers should have fun with variety, displays and some splurge-worthy options as well.”


Feng notes that P.L.A.Y. has seen many retailers use Christmas trees as a display stand in their store, decorating it with lights and fun holiday toys. This strategy has the added bonus of building a cheery holiday atmosphere in the store, besides providing an eye-catching product display. P.L.A.Y.’s Santa’s Little Squeakers holiday toy collection comes with its own pop-up tree display made from eco-friendly paper, offering a fun countertop merchandising option.


Of course, not all holiday retailing revolves around holiday-themed toys, accessories or other products. Yellin points out that retailers can incorporate classic or trendy toys into their seasonal merchandising, lessening the issue of dealing with leftover items that are tied to a specific holiday.


Outside of physical displays, hosting special events and embracing fun marketing opportunities is critical to successful holiday sales. These can both directly serve to boost sales and build connections and loyalty with customers.


“I’ve seen many [retailers] do contests like ‘Cutest Holiday Dog Pic’ and award prizes,” Watkins says. “This is a great way to really get to know customers on a more personal basis.”


Breig agrees, suggesting that retailers take full advantage of opportunities to engage their customers on social media, especially to encourage sales of fun, photogenic products like costumes and accessories.


“Create a cute and unique hashtag, and then ask your customers to share their best holiday pet photos using the hashtag,” Breig says. “Best entries win a gift certificate, coupon or free item from your store. It’s a great way to get people back in your store and to have fun with your brand using your creative hashtag.”


As in many other areas of the pet industry, the humanization of pets is shaping holiday retailing as well. With furry companions being treated more and more like children, there is abundant opportunity for retailers to adopt holiday traditions that were previously focused on human kids.


“Everyone’s favorite is a photo with Santa or one of his helpers,” says Yellin. “More and more pets are participating in the same traditions that were reserved for children. Dogs and cats are now on holiday cards, dressed in holiday apparel and have special presents for them.”


Lawson Rush notes that, especially around the holidays, a personal touch can make all the difference in attracting shoppers.


“It can be something small, like tying a bow around a toys neck, offering a free stocking-stuffer treat or having in-store events, photos with Santa or costume contests, all of which play an important role in your customers’ experience,” she says.


Finally, Feng encourages retailers to think outside the profit margin during a time of year when many are focused on what they can give to others, and are glad to see the same values in the small businesses they frequent.


“It is also a good time to give back,” Feng says. “Hosting events like adoption drives or giving back a portion of holiday proceeds to a good cause always goes a long way in generating customer loyalty.” PB


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