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Bring on the Fun

With their captivating colors and shapes, dog toys can make for easy add-on sales—if marketed properly.


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Look down the aisles of a pet store and you might see hundreds of different dog toys. It’s a big category, and retailers need to keep up with the latest advancements and trends to ensure that they maximize the sales potential of dog toys.

Mentally stimulating toys, and those that can be used to train dogs and correct behavioral problems, are some of the most important trends in the dog toy category today, according to industry observers.

“More and more people are now aware of the fact that mental stimulation of the dog is just as important as physical exercise,” said Lars Lund, sales director for Kruuse, based in Langeskov, Denmark. “In addition to being an important part of interactive play and, thereby, the bonding between dog and owner, toys are now used to solve several behavioral problems like separation anxiety, boredom, crate training, as well as digging and barking.”

Bryan Williams, general manager of Wag N’ Wash Natural Food & Bakery’s corporate stores, which are located throughout the U.S., said shoppers ask for dog toys that are durable and provide mental stimulation.

“Customers, particularly those with puppies, want something that will hold up to their dog’s physical demands as well as challenge them mentally,” he said. “For any breed of dog, puzzle toys are a great way to promote brain development in puppies, keep up mental stimulation in older dogs, regulate calorie intake when used as a feeder for overweight dogs, or help entertain a dog stuck inside on a rainy or snowy day. Our customers are also interested in locally sourced products and supporting small business.”

The quality of plush toys has increased dramatically over the past few years as a result of consumer demand for well-constructed items that are more durable, said Jennifer Cao, vice president of ZippyPaws in Chino, Calif.

“Consumers are looking for products that last as opposed to ones that are cheaply made,” Cao said. 

Mindy Montney, owner of Dog & Co. in New York, said food-shaped toys have become popular at her store.

“We are currently carrying a variety of plush, hand-knit and durable canvas toys in a variety of food shapes—and they are a huge hit,” she said. “Who doesn’t love a burger and fries, right?”

Matt Brazelton, co-owner of Four Muddy Paws, which has stores in St. Louis and Edwardsville, Ill., has seen an uptick in more-durable plush toys.

Still, he added, “We tell our customers that if you want the toy to last, don’t just throw it on the floor and leave it for the dog to totally destroy. Play with your dog and the toy. When not playing with him or her, pick it up. We also suggest rotating toys to bring in new fun for your dog.”

Eco-friendly toys are continuing to grow in popularity, as well.

“Consumers want to feel good about the purchases they are making and know that they aren’t contributing to harmful practices,” said Sarah Johnson, sales coordinator for P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle And You) in San Francisco. “Interactive toys are also very popular as people continue to focus on the significance of bonding with their dogs through activity.”

New Ways to Play

While plush remains popular, Stephanie Morsello, account manager for Fluff & Tuff in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., has seen a rising interest in toys that are silent.

“Customers want toys that are fun and made of the same high-quality construction and materials, but a quieter option,” she said.

In keeping with this trend, Fluff & Tuff launched Squeakerless toys this year, including a large Squirrel, small and medium-sized Zebra Balls, and a mini Guppy Fish.​

One of Kruuse’s most recent introductions is the mentally stimulating Buster ActivityMat, designed to allow dogs to complete varying tasks with different levels of difficulty, said Lars Lund, sales director for the Langeskov, Denmark-based company.

This year, ZippyPaws in Chino, Calif., expanded its Z-Stitch durable plush toy line with Z-Stitch Grunterz, four prehistoric characters that grunt when squeezed, said vice president Jennifer Cao.

“Consumers are also drawn to trendy toys that are great photo props for social media,” she said. “Earlier this year, we launched the NomNomz, a line of six food-inspired plush toys that people love to buy for their dogs. Just a few months, after NomNomz were launched, the NomNomz were found all over social media.”

This spring, P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle And You) debuted its Safari Toy Collection. The toys’ size and unique-sounding supersized squeakers make them perfect for bigger dogs, said Sarah Johnson, sales coordinator for the San Francisco-based company.

“And we didn’t forget the little pups,” she added. “Each Safari toy has sliding hind limbs that even the little guys can use to grab, tug or carry. And with 2 percent of proceeds going back to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, it’s a feel-good item for everyone.”

P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle And You) also added to its food-themed collection of toys.

“Our International Classic toys offer a squeaky pretzel, tug-worthy sushi, and a pull-part crinkle taco for hours of fun and great photo opportunities as pups ‘chow down’ on these tasty-looking toys,” Johnson said.

Maximizing Playtime

Lars Lund, sales director for Kruuse, based in Langeskov, Denmark, noted that instructional videos and easy-to-understand descriptions and manuals are provided both on the company’s website and as printed material that can be handed out in stores.

“Instructional videos placed in connection with the products are almost essential for dog owners to understand the use of mentally stimulating dog toys,” he said.

At New York-based Dog & Co., the most frequent question employees get about toys concerns durability. 

“We never have anyone coming in and saying that their dog never destroys a toy—but many come in asking what we stock for their doggie destroyer,” said owner Mindy Montney. “As a team, we share information on any new brands as they come in [and] information that’s important to customers, whether it’s fabrication, benefits or country of manufacture.”

At Four Muddy Paws, which has stores in St. Louis and Edwardsville, Ill., co-owner Matt Brazelton said that employees are trained to make sure customers know there is no dog toy that is indestructible but that there might be some that take longer to destroy. 

“We also educate them on how to best play with the toys,” he said. “Not every dog owner knows how to best get use out of a toy for their pet.”

Stephanie Morsello, account manager for Fluff & Tuff in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., said the company works to provide guidance on monitoring playtime so pet owners can maximize not only the life of the toys, but also the fun.​

Make Displays Stand Out

Any store can put up a wall of toys, but savvy retailers will create special displays to call attention to these products.

“Create fun, themed displays and utilize endcap space to promote new toys or bring attention back to old favorites,” said Sarah Johnson, sales coordinator for P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle And You) in San Francisco. “It’s important to make them stand out and show the product’s personality.”

Jennifer Cao, vice president of ZippyPaws in Chino, Calif., agreed, noting that retailers should look for toys that are eye-catching and colorful.

“Since most customers visit stores for necessities such as food, treats and medicine, attention-grabbing toys and accessories are perfect add-on purchases that increase each customer’s shopping cart value,” Cao said. “Look for products that customers can’t wait to share with their friends and social media following.” 

As a small, city-sized shop (just 400 square feet), Dog & Co. in New York has to be creative with merchandising and displays, said owner Mindy Montney.

“We don’t use any vendor-provided POP displays, but prefer to keep our shop looking more special and curated by using various baskets and bins,” Montney said. “We love to mix our toys in with other categories to create themed merchandising stories.”

Inside Four Muddy Paws, which has stores in St. Louis and Edwardsville, Ill., toys are displayed in bins and on slat walls, said co-owner Matt Brazelton.

Regardless of how a store displays toys, it’s important that everything isn’t just lumped together so customers can easily find the products and features they seek.

​“There are so many toys on the market, so defining your selection with branding will help reduce confusion for your shopper,” said Stephanie Morsello, account manager for Fluff & Tuff in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. “Visual aids are a huge help, and we’ve found that sharing our customers’ photos and videos has been a great way to market our products.​”

Bryan Williams, general manager of Wag N’ Wash Natural Food & Bakery’s corporate stores, which are located throughout the country, said soft plush toys are displayed together so that it’s easier for customers to find the type of toy they are looking for.

“We also display products nearby that may complement a certain toy,” he said. “Toys that are hollow get coupled with things like dog-safe peanut butter or small treats to increase the sales of both items.”

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