Step into a toddler’s room and you will likely feel as if you have entered a toy store. Toys are everywhere—and why not? Not only are they fun to play with—and fun to buy—they educate, help families bond, inspire creativity, and keep kids entertained and challenged. The same can be said for dog toys.
Considering the humanization of pets, it is not surprising that this category has resonated so strongly with dog owners, who seldom limit their pets to just one plaything. However, while toys offer all kinds of enjoyment and stimulation for dogs and their owners, they are serious business for manufacturers that are trying to stand out in an increasingly crowded arena.
“I think because the toy market is expanding so much, we face the challenges of continuing to develop and market our brand in a very competitive field and also of staying relevant,” says Ellen Lawson, owner/CEO of Fluff & Tuff Dog Toys, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based manufacturer of plush dog toys. “Many of our earliest toys continue to be some of our most popular. But we still need to continue to introduce new toys to our line for our retailers and their customers.”
Cristen Underwood, director of marketing for Denver-based pet product manufacturer Quaker Pet Group, has a similar perspective. “The dog toy category has changed, with new and innovative products coming into the market each year,” she says. “With many different types of plush available to retailers, it can be challenging to create a product that will stand out to retailers and on-shelf to consumers.”
But one person’s pressure is another person’s gain. The need to stand out has inspired manufacturers to develop bright, colorful and compelling packaging, clever displays and POS materials, and toys that practically demand that pet owners part with their money—making it easy for retailers to take advantage of the strong sales opportunities this category offers. Toys liven up the retail space, adding energy and interest to the shelves. Nevertheless, retailers need to put some thought and effort into the category.
Trends in Play
Several trends are helping to shape this category. Denny Hamill, CEO of iFetch, says the demand for interactive toys, for example, has been sparking product development.
“Generally, toys are becoming more intelligent and more interactively complex, which adds interest and fun to the interaction with the toys,” says Hamill, whose Austin-based company manufactures pet entertainment and exercise toys. “And with the concern about weight and aging, there is also a move toward providing more exercise-based toys.”
iFetch is not the only manufacturer noticing and responding to the demand for more active and engaging toys. Sarah Bell, director of marketing for Wichita, Kan.-based pet manufacturer Hyper Pet, says retailers should also be taking notice of the trends driving consumer demand.
“Families are using dog toys to stay active and bond with their dogs,” explains Bell. “Dog parks are popping up in communities everywhere to accommodate the increased activity of family and pet playtime.”
Also of interest to consumers is quality and design, says Lawson. “What I see happening now is the ever-expanding number of toy options for dog owners—from the number of different types of toys to the number of different manufacturers,” she says. “Because of this, dog owners have become savvier and more educated. The customer is looking for quality products that are unique and that they can trust to be manufactured under very high standards.”
Product durability is another consumer focus, says Underwood, adding that consumers will often pay more for a product that lasts. With this in mind, manufacturers are taking it upon themselves to subject their products to safety tests, mindful of consumer worries driven by many well-publicized mishaps. For example, SafeMade Pet Products, located in Hyde Park, N.Y., safety-tests its toys to children’s toy standards, says Sarah Quinn, director of operations for the pet toy manufacturing company.
“People feel like pets are members of their family and treat them as such. There are many regulations and safety tests required for children’s products, but none for pet products,” says Quinn, explaining that SafeMade puts its toys through these tests to give pet owners confidence in their safety.
This is one category where retailers can let their imaginations run free when it comes to merchandising. A winning strategy for retailers with enough floor space is to create a play area with toys that dogs can try out—it is fun for them and their owners, and great for encouraging sales. Hamill suggests showing videos of dogs interacting with toys, which iFetch can supply, along with training videos.
Lawson adds that its crucial to remember to freshen displays on a regular basis.
“You don’t need to change everything, or even do anything very drastic,” Lawson says. “But many pet specialty retailers have customers that come in often and see the same display. Over time, these shoppers may not notice many of the items. Even with simple change, they’ll notice the products, often think they’re new and be more apt to purchase one.”
This speaks to the need for variety and for offering a diverse and broad assortment, says Bell. “Each pet personality is different, so merchandising the category to reflect types of play—such as soft play, chew toys and interactive toys—is the most effective,” she says.
Another worthwhile tactic is offering in-aisle demonstrations that encourage customers to handle the products, adds Bell, explaining that customers often want to see how the toys work before investing money.
Retailers can also shake things up by changing out POS materials, says Lawson, adding that Fluff & Tuff offers retailers a variety of such items. She also cautions retailers to keep things tidy. “Clutter or too many products in one area makes it challenging to shop,” she says, adding that retailers that are most successful at selling the company’s toys—regardless of store size—are those that “display the toys creatively or provide enough space for them to be seen, whether displayed hanging, in a basket or on a shelf.”
Another way to move product is to get creative with incentives, says Eden Gonzalez Hass, owner of Petsport USA, Inc., a Pittsburg, Calif., manufacturer of pet toys, treats and accessories. “If we were retailers, we would offer a beginning-of-the-month special, since it is well known that this is the time when the consumer has the most disposable income available,” says Hass, adding that many consumers are still on a budget. “These specials could be coupled with some great coupon offerings, which, for example, would last for two weeks, so that same consumer would be enticed to come back before month’s end to check out the rest of the store’s offerings.”
Finding the Right Fit
Educated store employees who engage customers and ask the right questions about their pets are also key to moving toys out of the store, says Hass. She suggests that employees start with the basics, such as breed, size, age and type of chewer, in order to find the right type of toy.
Retailers should determine if the dog requires a more durable toy, or if it’s a multi-dog house, says Underwood. Some dogs may like squeaky toys, but if the dog is a strong chewer, a plush toy may not withstand the abuse, whereas toys in the “durable plush” category—which she says Quaker is “working hard to champion”—may be a good fit.
Also strive to make sure customers’ expectations are realistic, says Quinn. “People are always looking for tough dog toys, but nothing is truly indestructible, so it’s important to point that out,” she says. “We think it’s important to know or learn about a pet’s behavior when choosing products. A 90-pound Golden Retriever can be very gentle with toys, while a five-pound Chihuahua could be capable of tearing things apart.” She says this is why they identify their products by durability—for example T for tough chewers—rather than by weight, although customers still need to select an appropriate toy for their dog size-wise.
Matching the toy to the dog’s personality is also key, says Bell. “Some love to fetch, while others prefer soft play. Another consideration is if the toy will be for outdoor or indoor use. After all these questions are discussed, the retailer will be able to offer a range of products specifically tailored to meet the customer’s needs.”
getting serious about playtime
Fluff & Tuff Dog Toys (fluffandtuff.com): The company offers a line of 24 custom-designed dog toys and expects to launch another 15 in 2014. The fabric toys have an ultra-plush outer fabric with a thick mesh inner liner. Seams are double-stitched for durability. Toys are available for very small dogs up to extra-large. One of the most popular is the Georgia Gator—excellent for tug-of-war play.
Hyper Pet (hyper-pet.com): The company offers a variety of tennis ball launchers in its interactive toy line. The HYPERDOG 4-Ball & 1-Ball launchers feature collapsible construction and can launch balls over 300 ft. The newest launcher is the K-9 KANNON that offers such features like extra ball storage, hands-free pickup and launching capabilities up to 75 ft. Another one is the HYPER FLING, with a telescoping handle for easy transport. All launchers are appropriate for any-sized dog.
iFetch, LLC (goifetch.com): The iFetch Interactive Ball Launcher is small and designed for indoor use. It’s intended for small-to-medium sized dogs that love to fetch. When the dog drops the ball into the funnel, the unit turns on and quickly throws the ball for the dog to retrieve. It turns off until the dog returns the ball back into the funnel. Uses a standard 1 ½-in. ball and runs on battery or AC power.
Petsport USA, Inc. (petsport.com): The company’s new line of Tuff Squeaks plush toys are made with soft, durable corduroy fabric with reinforced stitching. The 16-in. unstuffed goose has crinkle material and a honker inside for added interest. The company also offers the tough, egg-shaped Mojo treat ball, which gives an erratic bounce to keep dogs entertained. It comes in large, medium and small, and in four colors. The central cavity can be filled with treats or peanut butter.
Planet Dog (planetdog.com): The company designs and develops durable and eco-friendly, molded chew toys, squeaky plush toys and other categories of products. Planet Dog’s interactive, treat-dispensing puzzle-like toys include the Orbee-Tuff Snoop. This is a translucent and squishy toy with a crevice that conceals treats, encouraging dogs to nudge and nibble the toy to release the treat. The Orbee-Tuff Mazee has a translucent and pliable outer shell and a hard inner maze, where the treat is placed. Dogs must maneuver the treat through the maze. The toys are intended for puzzle-play, not chewing.
Quaker Pet Group (quakerpetgroup.com): The Hear Doggy! Martians toys feature the company’s proprietary Chew Guard Technology—meaning that each toy is lined with a durable mesh and has reinforced seams. The toys come with a patented, ultrasonic squeaker tuned to a frequency dogs can hear but humans cannot, giving dogs the pleasure of a traditional squeaky toy without the irritating noise.
SafeMade Pet Products (safemadepet.com): The SafeChew Biggie Bone is the company’s toughest stuffable toy. The Biggie Bone is hollow, so it can be filled with peanut butter or cheese. It’s also safe to freeze for a cool treat, and it is oven-safe to 450 degrees, so treats can be baked right inside. Made of extra-durable food-grade silicone, it is naturally bacteria-resistant, dishwasher safe and is safety tested to children’s toy standards. It comes in large, medium and small.