Ready to Play
Dog toys enhance pets’ quality of life, offering opportunities to play and bond with their owners, while making retailers a destination point and keeping store sales strong.

They may be designed for play, but dog toys serve a serious purpose—contributing to dogs’ overall health by keeping them active and stimulated, reducing stress and giving them something to do other than dig holes in the yard or chew on shoes. Toys also provide an opportunity for human/dog interaction and bonding. It’s little wonder then, that dog toy manufacturers expend enormous energy and no small amount of resources on product development.

This has been a boon for retailers, allowing them to inject ongoing newness into their inventory that keep customers returning and their profits growing. In fact, says David Nisson, president/owner of Tuff Enuff Pet Products in Buffalo Grove, Ill., although toys can be an impulse-buy item, people often stop by a store expressly to purchase a toy to keep their dogs interested. Savvy retailers will strive to make their toy section a destination point, says Nisson, whose company has about 75 different toy products.

Not surprisingly, Mark Pasco, vice president of sales for Mammoth Pet Products, agrees. The company, headquartered in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., produces rope toys and tugs, rubber toys and much more for all sizes and shapes of dogs.

“The key to effective toy retailing is to get the consumer to come into the store to shop the toy section,” says Pasco. “You tend to get additional impulse purchase sales that way as well. They not only buy what they need, but they also tend to purchase additional items they want.”

But not just any old toy will do. Consumers are becoming more discerning—some might say picky—when it comes to what they buy, says Christine Watts, president of Charming Pet Products in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Above all else, they’re extremely value-focused.

“If a toy is cheap, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it represents value,” says Watts, whose company manufactures an array of dog toys. “We see a definite trend towards value in the context of durability, safe materials and function. [These] factors are just as important as whether or not the customer believes their pet will enjoy playing with the toy.”

In this economy, the trend is towards durability, agrees Jeff Bankert, eastern regional sales manager for KollerCraft. Folks are looking for toys that hold up, particularly to tough chewers, he says. Based in Fenton, Mo., KollerCraft provides a variety of products for the dog, cat, small animal, reptile and aquatic categories.

Consumers are also gravitating to:

• Unusual fabrics or fabric combinations and stuff-less toys, says Gretchen George, president of PetRageous Designs. Located in Burlington, Mass., PetRageous offers a variety of fun, fashionable and functional pet products. Stuff-less plush toys hold up well and keep mess to a minimum, she says.

• Made in the USA. According to Jerry Moffett, national sales manager for Ruff Dawg, in Worcester, Mass., people increasingly prefer U.S.-made products, particularly when the item goes in their pets’ mouths. Moffet, whose company produces rubber retrieving toys, explains products manufactured domestically are perceived as safer and of higher quality.

• Interactive and treat dispensing toys.

• Rope toys. Pasco says that Mammoth is continuing to grow its selection in the rope category. “Consumers seem to be buying larger sizes as well,” he adds. “It seems like the more large items we come out with, the more they buy.”

• Toys with squeakers, especially those containing multiple squeakers.

Right Retailing
There’s more to selling toys than you might think at first blush. Some toys are deceptive; they look sturdy, as if they’re going to perform as claimed and that dogs will find them hard to resist, but this isn’t always the case—one reason why dog toy manufacturers advise retailers to try out unfamiliar toys on their own pets first before putting them on the shelves.

Many manufacturers are actively engaged in helping retailers sell their products—assistance that can go far in moving inventory out the door. Inquiring about what kind of support is provided, such as regular promotions, free products, and advertising and marketing support, can perhaps be a first step in deciding what brands of toys to carry. 

Many pet product manufacturers actively partner with retailers to ensure success in the toy category. For example, when KollerCraft launches new toys, they provide them at no cost to their key dealers, allowing them to try out the new designs before promoting them. PetRageous provides dump display boxes for some of their toys, as well as sturdy hanging tags for individual display. Six times a year, Tuff Enuff runs specials to retailers allowing them to pass along the savings to their customers. And Mammoth is focusing on creating “more buzz” through social media like Facebook.

Retailers should get to know their customers and the types of dogs they own, building their toy section based on this information, says Pasco. They must offer an array of sizes, being sure to incorporate some very small and very large sizes. Offering a variety of types—rope, rubber, plush, nylon, and so on—is also important.

Ask questions, says Nisson, who suggests that retailers inquire about the age, breed and size of customers’ dogs. Size can be particularly important, according to Pasco, who says one of the most common mistakes customers make is purchasing a toy too small for the breed.

Also ask if there are teeth and/or gum issues. If so, Nisson advises steering them away from hard plastic toys towards those that would give under pressure. It’s critical to ask what kind of chewer the dog is. If extremely aggressive, most fabric toys wouldn’t be the best choice.

To display toys effectively, George suggests using hang tags with strong holders, telling the toy’s story on pegs. Dump displays are good for retailers wanting to mass the toys out, she says. “Each category should be by price point to make it easier for the stores,” George says.

When it comes to large rope items, hanging them from the ceiling creates “an impact on sight,” says Pasco. Be sure to time the display of seasonal/holiday toys appropriately, such as floating toys in the summer, says George.

Also, tell customers to take time to observe their dogs when playing. “We try to promote supervised play time,” says Nisson. “When a dog starts chewing rather than playing, it’s time to take the toy away. Plus, supervised play encourages interaction between the pet and the owner.”