Dressed to Go
More dog owners are turning to apparel, either to keep their pets protected from the elements or to outfit them in fun costumes for ever-popular holiday photos. This gives retailers ample opportunity to dress up sales.

“Every girl’s crazy ‘bout a sharp dressed man,” goes the refrain in the hit ZZ Top song. For pet specialty retailers, substitute “dog” for “man” and that pretty much sums up how dog owners—male or female—feel about canine apparel.

Consumer demand for sweaters, jackets and vests, tees and tanks, dresses, pants and shoes—not to mention holiday wear and costumes—is soaring. This is being driven by the humanization of pets, as well as an abundance of innovative products from apparel manufacturers that are attracting more folks to the category, all of which can translate into great sales activity for retailers. However, selling apparel isn’t a slam dunk; like any fashion category, there are key trends retailers must keep in mind in order to make the best use of this opportunity.

As Tamara L. Benefiel, owner of Lux Pet Products, Inc., explains, the pet apparel category can be broken down into two segments. One side is functional, designed to address a specific problem or serve a purpose, such as protecting dogs from cold or hot climates, making them more visible or controlling anxiety.

“The other side contains apparel that is strictly for fun, such as cute sundresses, sailor outfits, Halloween costumes, team jersey and so on,” says Benefiel, whose Clemmons, N.C.-based company manufactures the Reversible Lux Dog Coat. “The demand for both sides of pet apparel is really strong right now.”

Sales of functional wear are being propelled by consumers who consider themselves “pet parents,” says Spencer Williams, president of West Paw Design, a Bozeman, Mont.-based company that manufactures dog and cat apparel, toys and bedding. Pet owners who embrace this mindset are concerned about their dogs’ health and weight, he explains. As such, they’re focused on keeping their dogs active, which often necessitates some type of protective apparel.

Expanding Apparel Opportunities
Elena Koryugina, owner of ForMyDogs—a Ekaterinburg, Russia-based company that designs and manufactures dog apparel and accessories—believes that dogs often need clothes in order to keep them more comfortable and healthier, warding off problems caused by hypothermia, for example, or cystitis, kidney disease and other health issues. This is particularly true when it comes to certain breeds, such as those with delicate immune systems or that suffer from genetic diseases, says Koryugina. She also recommends clothing for older or nursing dogs.

Creating sales opportunities in retail, however, involves thinking about what your customers need before they do. Williams says customers often ask whether dogs need sweaters. Although a dog’s hair or fur serves as a “heating system,” some have more protection than others, he explains. Then there’s the situation where a dog has undergone a move from one type of climate to another—one that they may not be as genetically well-suited for, he says. Consequently, rather than waiting for customers to inquire about apparel, retailers will be better served to bring it up on their own.

Another potential area to mine is that of indoor apparel, says Amy Yu, general manager of Klippo Pet, Inc., a Torrance, Calif.-based wholesaler of fashionable apparel for small breeds.

“Retailers should be more aware of the necessity for warm pajamas during winter,” says Yu, whose company offers pajamas for all seasons. “We’ve received high demand in pajamas each year, and we’re now focused more on providing different styles of pajamas for retailers in different regions.”

Pajama sales are strongest in the fall and winter, particularly as people lower the thermostat to keep heating bills down. Even so, when the weather heats up and the air conditioner stays on all the time, lightweight pajamas see good sales activity—something for retailers to keep in mind.

Retailers should also be aware that the potential customer base for apparel is broadening, says Russ Cress, marketing and product development director for Hip Doggie, a Los Angeles-based company that makes an array of products for pets.

“Women still make the majority of apparel purchases, but the market is being infiltrated by all types of customers,” Cress explains. “And although most of our sales are in the smaller sizes, a trend we’re noticing is that bigger dogs are participating. We’re seeing owners of large-breed dogs buying more.”

And don’t forget the shoes. These aren’t just useful for dogs living in severe cold or hot climates, they can serve other purposes as well, such as protecting the grooming of dogs participating in dog shows, says Koryugina.

Rhonda S. Meloro, president of Pedigree Perfection International, Inc., agrees that shoes offer good revenue-generating potential, thanks to their versatility. The Plantation, Fla.-based company manufactures five trademarks for dogs and cats, including the Paw Tector protective boots. The boots can be beneficial for guide dogs, dogs with allergy or licking issues, and dogs that have undergone surgery and need to protect healing injuries, says Meloro. Non-skid shoes/boots can also protect dogs with hip and/or back problems, helping them gain traction on hardwood floors or other slippery surfaces. Boots and shoes keep dogs safer on boats, as well.

Finally, think photos, suggests Kayti Miller, business manager for Best Furry Friends, an apparel and accessories brand that includes Halloween and other holiday costumes.

“People like to dress their dogs for photo opportunities, even if the pet doesn’t tolerate clothing,” she says.

Dressing up Sales
Taking apparel sales higher requires that retailers enter into conversations with their customers and ask them the right questions in order to find the right solution, says Benefiel. Obviously, breed and size of dog is important, but it is also helpful to inquire if the dog is used to wearing a coat or is comfortable putting its feet through holes.

Some apparel manufacturers vary their designs for male and female dogs, so determine the sex of the pet, suggests Koryugina. Ask how much time the customer is willing to spend caring for the garment, as well, she adds.

“Also, look at your customer,” Koryugina continues. “Who is she or he? A young fashion lady? A serious middle-aged gentleman? Think of what you can offer to this specific pet owner.”

Finding the right size is still very confusing for dog owners, who often don’t understand there isn’t any standardized sizing in dog apparel, explains Cress. Consequently, this is the area where customers will likely require the most help.
“There are three key measurements dog owners should know,” Cress says. “The neck, chest, and across the back from the neck to the base of the tail.”

Experienced apparel buyers may come into the store armed with this information, but generally, most won’t know their dog’s measurements, says Miller. She suggests hanging the apparel or laying it on a table or shelf, so people can eyeball it for length and girth.

“Many consumers will make size decisions by holding the garment up and thinking, ‘yeah, my dog is about that size,’” she says.

Just like in the two-footed fashion world, newness also sells, says Cress. “The pet apparel industry has become as fast-paced as women’s fashion,” he says. “People are accessorizing through their dogs. It’s important to remember that people always want something new.”

Still, trendy pet fashion will not necessarily sell itself. Manufacturers suggest that retailers use a number of merchandising strategies to ensure that shoppers take notice of their apparel assortments. Use dog models/mannequins, says Yu. This is especially useful when it comes to drawing attention to pajamas, since many consumers have never seen these items.

Williams says a great way to merchandise sweaters is by taking a roll of paper towels, stretching a dog sweater over it, and standing it upright, but West Paw also makes “cardboard canines” available for modeling.

A live model, however, can be particularly effective. If the store has a mascot, putting him or her in a sweater is another effective way to generate interest. 

Manufacturers also provide POS materials, signage, posters, photos for in-store and/or on a website, along with sizing and product information to assist retailers in their sales efforts. But perhaps the best tool of all is customer interaction.

“Think about what you can offer them, including accessories,” says Koryugina. “Remember that not all of your customers know as much about dog clothing as you do. Share your knowledge. Listen to the people. Learn what they tell you, and you will see real demand.”