This year’s boutique products section at Global Pet Expo did for buyers what boutique stores themselves do for consumers—it offered a one-stop-shop for innovative, quality and design-conscious new products. For retailers in this segment, where trends that follow fashion and home décor are “in” one year and “out” the next, strolling the pink carpet quickly revealed the latest products perfect to pamper every pet.
“Buyers [came] to [the boutique] section to look for what’s new—to look for something that’s the next big idea,” says Bob Flynn, co-owner of Hugglehounds, which showed off a new plush toy line for aggressive chewers, as well as a new cat line at the show.
This year was the company’s third appearance at Global Pet Expo, and Flynn says they decided to expand their booth from 20 feet to 30 feet, in large part because of how many new items the company is featured this year. His new product lines, combined with recent new distribution, have led him to expect an excellent year.
Flynn’s view reflects that of many in the segment who look forward to some much-needed growth in 2012. Prior to the economic downturn, the boutique category seemed to be on a never-ending growth curve, but it was one of few within the pet industry that truly felt the impact of the great recession. “The last few years have suffered because of the overall economic condition; you have to face the reality that when people are worried about their jobs, boutique products tend to be more affected than the staple products, like pet food and treats,” says Craig O’Keefe, vice president of sales and business development at Pet Lifestyle And You (P.L.A.Y).
However, a number of new trends in the category have lead to renewed growth. In 2012, that growth is expected to remain moderate when compared to pre-recession figures, but many say that just makes it more sustainable. “It’s not growing in double digits,” says Flynn. “But it’s a healthy, solid part of the retail category that I think is here to stay.”
Trends in Design
The widely discussed pet humanization trend led to a shift in the way that pet owners shop for pet products, which seriously impacted boutique businesses. It created demand for aesthetics that meshed perfectly with home décor and individual senses of style–pet owners wanted for their pets what they’d buy for themselves.
One of the biggest changes as a result of the economy however, is a new demand for products that offer more value. Pre-recession “boutique” was often purely about aesthetic. Today, the term encompasses much higher expectations. “When the word ‘boutique’ is mentioned, people expect to pay more for higher quality, better design and more innovative products,” says O’Keefe.
That is true of everything from apparel to feeding dishes. Take P.L.A.Y. as an example. The company focuses on creating products that are highly functional—beds—and offers them in stylish designs created by artisans in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Then it tosses in additional benefits, like making its beds entirely washer-and-dryer friendly (not just the cover; even the cushion can be tossed in the wash), offering reversible covers to give pet owners multiple looks with a single purchase and doing it with sustainable materials.
There is one final characteristic that has always made a boutique product truly “boutique”—exclusivity. As style, quality and function increase, so does price, meaning these aren’t products that wind up in mass merchandisers. Instead, these items sell best in shops where the story behind the price increase can be explained, says Flynn. Boutique owners can talk to customers about the eco-friendly roots of the product or share that it’s made in the U.S.A.—both major boutique trends that experts predict will continue to grow this year.
Getting to Give
Going green is big throughout the pet industry, and the boutique category is no exception. Items throughout the category can now boast sustainable, recycled, natural or eco-friendly materials. “The pet industry has been heading in the green direction for a while and will continue to do so,” says Toni Forte, chief creative officer of Bella Bark and Meow. Forte says that when she started in the design business 20 years ago, she never could have foreseen fabric made from recycled plastic bottles.
Part of the drive for these items is a desire for safety–many pet owners see “natural” products as safer for their pets. When combined with a stylish, high-quality boutique design, these features make it easier for pet owners to justify spending a little more. The same argument can be made for items manufactured within the United States—American consumers expect goods made here to be high quality and trust U.S. brands to create safe products. But each of these trends also reflects a growing desire among pet owners to “give back.” Green products give back to the environment; products made in the U.S.A. help grow the economy. That desire to not only get something from a purchase, but to also give something, has led to the buy-local movement and an increased interest in cause marketing as well.
The buy-local movement, which largely impacts sales at the retail level, encourages consumers to purchase items from independently owned shops, making it a natural fit for boutique retailers. The idea is to keep money within a given community, in order to help build a healthy economy from the ground up.
Cause marketing, which is taking off among manufacturers, creates good will by promising customers that the company will donate to a related cause each time they purchase its products. That donation can be monetary or may mean donating company products. In the pet industry that often means giving to shelters or needy animals, but it also includes programs that have products handmade by artisans in third-world countries to help improve their quality of life.
P.L.A.Y. unrolled a new cause marketing initiative this past December, when it partnered with Petfinder.com to give a crate mat to a shelter each time someone purchases one of its beds. “It combines the best of both worlds,” explains O’Keefe. “You’re giving back to the community while at the same time you’re using that to create good will among your customers.”