More Than Skin Deep
By Melissa Breau
Published: February 22, 2013
The boutique category has come into its own as it has evolved from being entirely fashion focused to being about more than just looks.



The boutique category was born in a time of economic plenty, when many pet owners spared no expense on fashion and novelty items for their pets. The industry seized on this, breaking down barriers when it came to options for personal style.

Then the Great Recession hit, leading consumers to be more careful with their wallets. Industry experts watched as the fun-loving child launched full-speed ahead into its awkward adolescence.

The boutique category was hit hard by the recession, but it matured and evolved, and now it has begun to show signs of its true potential.


Beyond the Surface
Pet owners continue to turn to boutiques for unique, stylish and well-designed pet products, but they are no longer satisfied with products that merely look good. Instead, they are demanding style and substance. “Pet product safety and quality are increasingly important to pet owners,” says Deborah Feng, director of operations at P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle And You – booth 514).

For example, P.L.A.Y.’s popular plush toys, launched last fall, features double-layer fabrics, triple-stitch construction, eco-friendly materials and 100-percent washability—as well as the attractive and fun designs the category is known for.

Retailers who stroll the pink carpet at Global Pet Expo can expect to see manufacturers that are well aware of this trend—and they should take advantage of having these products together in one section of the show floor. “This way most of the gift, novelty and more upscale products, most of which are not found in pet box stores, are all together,” says Tim Smith, president of SJT Enterprises (booth 401), which makes gift products and will display new car magnets and plaques at the show. “This makes it easier for buyers of those products.”

Sam Hahn, managing partner at Simply Fido LLC (booth 427) agrees. “I think attendees will always find a number of new companies, often smaller companies in this category, showcasing products with great creativity and innovative designs [in the Boutique section of the show].” Simply Fido will showcase its new dog bowls, made from starch material, and its expanded toy line at Global Pet Expo this year.


Designed to Shine
Fashion-conscious pet owners today are looking for four things, says Hahn: design, price, quality and social responsibility. He says these things all have to come together for a company and its products to be successful.

Quality design has always been important to the category, yet it is tough characteristic for boutique stores to pin down.
For example, Mike Dempsey, owner of Yellow Dog Design (booth 456), says personalization is hot in the pet market right now; yet everyone has their own sense of style and stores have limited floor space, so they have to carefully pick and choose which items to stock.

That’s why Dempsey is excited about a new product his company will unveil at the show—a website that pet owners can use to create their own personalized dog collars. Customers can choose from a wide variety of designs, picking a background, font and icons, and then add their phone number and dog’s name. Because it’s web-based, retailers don’t have to stock all the various collar designs in store, freeing up floor space.

Personalization is not the only design trend retailers will see at the show this year. “Designs that align well with fashion and home décor trends, like our denim and Kalahari, have been popular and we expect those to do well again in this year,” says Feng. She says that she’s also seen specific products within P.L.A.Y.’s Artist Collection line of beds do exceptionally well, so the company plans to continue to grow that product line.

“We will continue to create new unique designs  [for the P.L.A.Y. Artist Collection] that delight consumers, because those are styles that you don’t see repeatedly at every big-box and chain store,” she adds. That’s important for independently owned boutique stores, which thrive on setting themselves apart from the competition with unique selections.


The Gift of Giving Back
Having a specific niche is the key to survival for many small stores, and the boutique category is a reflection of this. But while design is important across the board, some stores are specializing by focusing on other trends as well, including social responsibility and the “made in America” movement.

These two trends link back to the same core concept—a consumer’s desire to give back.

Socially responsible products fulfill that requirement in a variety of ways. Some companies donate a percentage of sales or products to charitable causes—often within the pet industry this means pet shelters and rescues. Others focus on doing what’s good for the Earth, by using sustainable product components, creating recyclable products or recycling used goods to create their product.

“Reclaimed, recycled and repurposed materials are growing in popularity,” says Ross Labelson, CEO of Buckle-Down (booth 527).  Buckle-Down uses reclaimed buckles and repurposed seat-belt webbing to manufacture its collars, then adds fun designs that ensure customers can feel good about their purchase and love how it looks on their dog. The company will show an expanded selection of licensed products with Batman, Superman and Looney Tunes themes.

The “Made in America” or “Made in the USA” movement is similar in that people want to know that they are giving back—this time, however, they seem themselves as a direct recipient of that giving. By buying products made in the U.S., they hope to help stimulate the economy.

There is another factor at play, however. Recent recalls have raised manufacturing concerns. Manufacturers may lament the heavy regulation they have to deal with in the U.S., which often drives up manufacturing cost, but these standards boosts consumer confidence in the safety of the products.

But the boutique category is not just about selling product, it is about offering an experience. “Besides offering high-quality products, it is equally important for boutique stores to offer consumers ‘the boutique experience,’” says Feng, “part of which encompasses having passionate, educated sales staff who firstly understand each product line’s value offering, then subsequently align consumers’ individual needs by cross-selling or upselling the right products.”

The “boutique experience,” however, can be experienced at all levels of the supply chain in this category. From manufacturer to store, the companies involved in this category tend to be small and agile—and therefore, they are highly service oriented. And The Boutique at Global Pet Expo is the perfect place for show attendees to enjoy that “boutique experience” firsthand.