Gifts That Keep On Giving
By Ron Chepesiuk
Pet-themed giftware represents a great opportunity for retailers looking for new ways to grow their businesses.

Signature DNA Unleashed, a Kansas City, Mo.-based company that offers a range of pet DNA portraits (from table-top formats to large canvas prints), as well as rings and dog tags engraved with the DNA image, launched at the 2011 SuperZoo trade show in Las Vegas and has been in business for a little over a year. It was a tough time to start a specialty company, concedes company president Flip Short, but, “Our company has managed to carve a niche and we’re doing well.

“We offer the kinds of gifts that show how much pet parents love their animals,” Short says. “We’ve seen a lot of interest in our products because they’re so unique. We concentrate on doing a few things well.”

 Signature DNA Unleashed is finding success in a small but growing segment of the pet retail industry: giftware for pet owners. While hard data is difficult to find on this market, the available statistics show that, more than ever, pets are special to their parents, and that parents aren’t stingy when it comes to buying items that express this bond.

“The more harried, complicated and difficult our world becomes, it seems that pet parents are finding comfort and pleasure in focusing more than ever on the special relationship they have with their pets,” says Sally Brown, president of O’Fallon, Ill.-based Roll over Rover Threads Inc., which sells  apparel,  home goods and lifestyle gear for pet parents. 

Nine out of ten pet owners surveyed by the American Humane Society say they now consider their pet a member of the family, which helps explain why more than a third (37 percent) of dog parents and a similar population of cat owners have their pet’s picture primarily displayed in their house and why 14 and 10 percent respectively display them at their place of work.

This spells opportunity for pet specialty stores. “Selling gift items to pet parents is a great way for pet retailers to engage a customer’s passion for their pets and to do something to make their day,” says Myunghye Han, creative director and CEO of Paper Russells LLC, an Ogden, Utah-based manufacturer of pet-themed stationery and gifts.

And what better time to do this than the holiday season, which is just around the corner. “Including pets as part of the family during the holiday season has been a trend for the past few years,” says Tim Smith, president of Westlake, Ohio-based SJT Enterprises Inc., which manufactures a range of pet-themed magnets, stickers and other products designed for pet owners. “In fact, the holiday season is now as much about pets as it has been about children.”

Smith says his company sells “the number-one pet gift” item: wooden plaques that feature various dog breeds. “Almost every store that sells them tells us it’s their number-one selling item,” he says. “We never slow down. We’re always swamped.”

Whatever the season, a pet retailer can sell a wide variety of gift items. Paper Russells LLC sells greeting cards, box notes, framed prints and T-shirts, among other items, with car magnets selling exceptionally well. “Car magnets are consumable and relatively inexpensive,” says Han. “Consumers want to show off their love of dogs or specific breeds, and the car magnets are the perfect items to do so at a small cost.”

The pet gift market is also thriving for Roll Over Rover Threads Inc., with its best-selling items being T-shirts. “Who doesn’t love a well-made, well-designed garment-dyed T-shirt that says what we feel about our pets?” says Brown.

Those retailers that are successful in selling pet gift items say the market has its own set of challenges and considerations, and they offer practical tips on how to address them. The tips touch on product origins, the environment, employees, customer relations, marketing, inventory control and merchandising.

Origins and Environment
Several sources say that consumers today are increasingly sensitive about protecting the environment and supporting American businesses. “We notice that more and more of our customers are looking for items made in the U.S.,” says J.T. Rottman, on behalf of Paws Over Traditions in Plano, Texas.

Customer Relations
Pet lovers are not just interested in buying pet-themed gifts. “They want a compelling retail experience that makes them feel great about their purchase,” says Rottman “So having knowledgeable, engaged and enthused employees is essential.”

He adds that it doesn’t take a lot of time or money to train employees. “Employees can be knowledgeable by simply reading the package instructions and testing out the toys or items, if that’s appropriate.”

The personality of an attentive and interested employee will rub off on the customer. “Pet gifts are a niche market and they can be challenging to sell,” Rottman says. “It’s not like you’re selling dog food. But if your employees work extra hard on the floor, they can impress their customers and make them a part of your store’s unofficial marketing program.”

Some pet-themed products for people don’t just display a pet owner’s love for a particular breed, but can also display their devotion to their local pet shop—a potential boon for retailers’ marketing efforts. 

Roll Over Rover Threads Inc. offers what the company calls a “customer imprint service,” whereby they add a retailer’s logo to their garments. So, for example, when a T-shirt or sweatshirt leaves the store and is admired in the park or in the supermarket, the store name is readily seen. “We are building our brand awareness within the community,” Brown says. “We believe our success is directly tied to customer satisfaction.”

Inventory Control & Merchandising
Since gift items are specialty products, there is a danger that a pet store will bite off more than it can chew. “Keep your inventory a little lower than you would like and trust your instincts,” Brown says. “If you like a product and are satisfied with it, more than likely, your customer will too.”

Take a little time to make your gift-product section fun and visually entertaining, whenever possible. Use empty wall spaces to display visually attractive gift items. “Merchandising is even more important for gift products,” Rottman says. “It’s our experience that merchandising pet gifts in non- traditional ways enhances sales.”

If you find that difficult to do, selling pet gifts may not be a right fit for your store.

B & B Pet Shop in Mobile, Ala., has what store manager Sally Trufant describes as a big industrial looking store with linoleum tiles, older gondola style fixtures and high ceilings.

 “We just couldn’t achieve the boutique feel you need to sell pet gifts,” she says. “The merchandise looked terrible on our fixtures. We weren’t convinced that this specialty product line would pay off in the end, so we discontinued it instead.”

As the B & B store experience shows, selling pet gifts may not be right for every pet store, but you still may want to give these products a try. If you follow the experts’ tips, it may be a niche worth filling.