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Dog Marketplace: New Tricks for Dog Toys

Posted: November 25, 2013, 11:45 a.m. EDT


By Patricia Morris Buckley

Will Bowen’s Norwegian ridgeback had so much energy, he feared she’d never get enough of a workout. One day, after noticing how she bolted after squirrels, the idea for a radio-controlled dog toy came to him.

"I knew there had to be a way to bring that [kind of play] into the backyard,” said Bowen, CEO of Go-Go Dog Pals in San Diego.

Today, he’s sold 500 units of his Go-Go Dog Pals at $229 a pop. These animal-shaped RC cars allow dogs that love to chase and owners who might not have the ability to throw countless balls the chance to interact and play together.

Bowen is one of few to develop a new dog toy. According to manufacturers and retailers, basic dog toys haven’t changed radically over the years, so most newer SKUs are variations of the same toys.

"Most of us are just looking for a new twist,” said Jerry Moffett, national sales manager for Ruff Dawg in Worcester, Mass.

Retailers are aware of this trend, said Dana Brinkley, general manager of Dogologie, a store in Fredericksburg, Texas.

"Most manufacturers change up their toys,” she said, "but mostly they change the colors or make them bigger or smaller.”

Dog Toys
Staff can promote fetch toys as a great way to enhance the dog-owner bond.; Sherri L. Collins/i-5 publishing at Kriser’s

Dog toy sales are on the rise. The American Pet Products Association (APPA) 2013-2014 National Pet Owners Survey reported that 67 percent of dog owners have purchased some type of toy for their pet in the past 12 months, the highest reported level of toy purchases in two decades.

Dog owners want to spoil their "kids,” said Beverly Lefevre, store manager of Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium in Richland, Wash.

"It’s like buying a kid a coloring book,” she said. "It’s absolutely good business for us.”
On the manufacturing side, Louisa Marvin, marketing manager for Jolly Pets in Streetsboro, Ohio, reported the same.

"People treat their dogs like children today,” she said. "Toys are given as gifts, stocking stuffers and for birthdays. It’s a never-dying market that’s definitely increasing.”

In the Toy Aisle
Puzzle toys have become especially popular in recent years.

"I first saw them at a conference five or six years ago,” Moffett said.

These treat-based toys have only grown in complexity since then with tougher puzzles, he added.
 
"Puzzle toys are the new big thing,” said Kristen Smith, brand ambassador for Planet Dog in Westbrook, Maine. "Research shows that owners like how these toys tire their dogs out and keep them entertained. They can be simple or complex. You can even stick another toy in there for an extra challenge.”
 
One of the company’s most recent offerings is Orbee-Tuff Snoop, a treat-hiding toy.

Toys made for chewing now include gel products as well as rubber, nylon and plush, said Moffett. Ruff Dawg’s flyers line, which includes the Gladiator fling toy and the Cat-a-Pult, a fling toy with a vanilla scent, is made of a tough gel, he added.

Even the squeak in this category has undergone a twist.

Retailers are aware of this trend, said Dana Brinkley, general manager of Dogologie, a store in Fredericksburg, Texas.

"Most manufacturers change up their toys,” she said, "but mostly they change the colors or make them bigger or smaller.”

Dog toy sales are on the rise. The American Pet Products Association (APPA) 2013-2014 National Pet Owners Survey reported that 67 percent of dog owners have purchased some type of toy for their pet in the past 12 months, the highest reported level of toy purchases in two decades.

Dog owners want to spoil their "kids,” said Beverly Lefevre, store manager of Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium based in Richland, Wash.

"It’s like buying a kid a coloring book,” she said. "It’s absolutely good business for us.”

On the manufacturing side, Louisa Marvin, marketing manager for Jolly Pets in Streetsboro, Ohio, reported the same.

"People treat their dogs like children today,” she said. "Toys are given as gifts, stocking stuffers and for birthdays. It’s a never-dying market that’s definitely increasing.”

In the Toy Aisle
Puzzle toys have become especially popular in recent years.

"I first saw them at a conference five or six years ago,” Moffett said.

These treat-based toys have only grown in complexity since then with tougher puzzles, Moffett added.
 
"Puzzle toys are the new big thing,” said Kristen Smith, brand ambassador for Planet Dog in Westbrook, Maine. "Research shows that owners like how these toys tire their dogs out and keep them entertained. They can be simple or complex. You can even stick another toy in there for an extra challenge.”

One of the company’s most recent offerings is Orbee-Tuff Snoop, a treat-hiding toy.

Toys made for chewing now include gel products as well as rubber, nylon and plush, said Moffett. Ruff Dawg’s flyers line, which includes the Gladiator fling toy and the Cat-a-Pult, a fling toy with a vanilla scent, is made of a tough gel, he added.

Even the squeak in this category has undergone a twist.

Being Label Conscious
Many dog owners have had the experience of purchasing a toy for their pet only to wake up the next morning to discover that either the dog has chewed through a rubber toy or taken all the stuffing out of a plush toy.
"One of the most common problems when choosing a toy for your dog is buying the correct size,” said Louisa Marvin, marketing manager for Jolly Pets in Streetsboro, Ohio.
Some manufacturers are combating the issue by creating labeling on the packaging that customers can use to select the correct toy. For instance, Planet Dog has a rating system: "Tuff, Tuffer, Tuffest,” said Kristen Smith, brand ambassador for the Westbrook, Maine, company.
Others will indicate if they are suitable for aggressive chewers, said Dana Brinkley, general manager of Dogologie in Fredericksburg, Texas.
"Several of the vendors have these labels, often telling the customer what kind of chewer they are best for,” she said. "Half of customers will read them or ask us about it. Those consumers that read labels love them.”
Jolly Pets uses a system that involves size rather than durability.
"We go by dog size because a toy can be considered to be the ‘toughest’ but may not be suitable for every dog size,” Marvin said.
P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle And You) doesn’t use a rating system.
"We put testimonials on our products,” said Lauren Colman, marketing and public relations manager for the San Francisco-based company. "People are more likely to look at those.”
Beverly Lefevre, store manager for Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium in Richland, Wash., sees customers dismissing what the labels say.
"Most customers don’t take them into consideration or they don’t believe them anymore,” she said. "Often, customers go by what we recommend. They do like that some manufacturers offer a guarantee, but only a few do.”
Perhaps the issue is that, because not every manufacturer offers a rating system, customers aren’t looking for them, said Bill Jacobson, owner of Puppies Plus in Melbourne, Fla.
"There’s just not enough of it,” he said. "But without the labels, people don’t have a clue, especially if we’re not around to help them.”—PMB

Some toys now have sounds that only dogs can hear, said Bill Jacobson, owner of Puppies Plus in Melbourne, Fla. "They squeak on a frequency we can’t hear.”

Quaker Pet Group’s Hear Doggy! toys have squeakers that are tuned to an ultrasonic frequency out of the human hearing range, according to the New York-based company.

Interactive toys including launchers, balls, chase toys and tug-of-war toys also are popular right now.
 
"It all comes back to interaction and different ways to play,” said Moffett. "As we’re developing toys, we’re looking for ways to make this interaction different and easier.”

Turning Down the Aisle
Whether it’s a standard toy or something with an innovative twist, what makes dog owners choose one toy over another? Something new certainly plays a part, said Lefevre.

"It’s all about novelty,” she added. "But the No. 1 thing we’re asked for is durability. We have a lot of larger breeds in this area—tons of pit bulls and Labs—and they want something that will last.”

Of course, Smith pointed out, "Certainly some dogs can get through anything. No product is indestructible.”

A creative look to a product display can grab the customer’s eye quickly, said Lauren Colman, marketing and public relations manager for San Francisco-based P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle And You). The company has created various POP displays for its new plush toy lines. Its Garden Fresh products—toys in the shape of fruits and veggies—are displayed in bight, colorful bins like you’d see at a farmer’s market. P.L.A.Y. has similar POPs for its Under the Sea plush toys and new Wobble Ball enrichment toys.

"The advantage of these displays is that they will attract and educate casual shoppers more easily and also give consumers a stronger brand impression,” said Colman.

Some retailers have come up with their own creative ways to display toys. George, a chain of four pet stores in San Francisco, Berkeley, Marin and Montecito, Calif., looks like a cross between a boutique and an old-fashioned toy store.

"We remove all the packaging to make everything look great and so it has a cohesive appearance,” said Bobby Wise, owner. "We do it to enhance the shopping experience. Then we find containers that are simple so the product can shine. That allows customers to see the products in a new way.”

In addition to display, price point can be important. Smith estimated that $8 to $15 is the sweet spot that customers will pay for a quality dog toy. Value can also be an issue when it comes to customer spending.

"They like toys that have multiple uses,” said Jolly Pets’ Marvin. "Perhaps a toy that can be used for tug, fetch and floating.”

For instance, the body of the company’s new Jolly Tug Insects squeaks, while the wings make a crinkle sound. The Jolly Jumper is a fling toy that dispenses treats and has an erratic bounce.

Consumers are attracted to manufacturers that promote values, such as products made in the USA, Moffett said.

"We told customers that our dog toys were made in the USA and sales doubled in the last two years,” he said.

The food scare from China certainly feeds this trend, Moffett added.

Planet Dog and P.L.A.Y. have programs to support animal-related charities.

Toys that are made from eco-friendly materials are also popular, said Brinkley.
 
Bozeman, Mont.-based West Paw Design, which focuses on creating eco-friendly products, in September introduced Eco Hemp Dog Toys. They come in three shapes—a dinosaur, a Scottie dog and an elephant—and are made from 55 percent organic hemp fibers and 45 percent recycled polyester, the company reported.

Sweeping the Aisle
The best advice that Lefevre can offer other retailers on how to sell dog toys is to keep the toy aisle clean and tidy.

"This isn’t something customers think about,” she noted. "But if the toys are all lined up, it’s easier on the eye.”

Some dog toys sell better when seen in action. Planet Dog offers free videos of a dog interacting with its products that retailers can show customers. Jolly Pets includes a QR code on the packaging so that customers can use it to see video of its product in use. Several retailers stated that they had loose toys available for visiting dogs to try out.

P.L.A.Y.’s Colman recommends that retailers have a clear strategy on how to group and display toys to achieve a greater visual impact. They can organize toys by brands, color themes, functions or special features, such as eco-friendliness, then add POP displays, she said.

"Effective POP displays can help tell the story of a product by highlighting key features or setting it apart from the competition,” she added.

Planet Dog provides merchandising support with POP displays, such as its Table-Top Display developed to highlight the company’s variety of Orbee-Tuff products, said Smith, adding that the display won the Best in Show POP Display at the 2011 Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla.

"We offer free point-of-purchase signage that highlights the features and benefits of our products,” she said. "We work with our own team of sales representatives that only sell Planet Dog products, allowing them to offer their accounts personalized and specialized service, product training and in-store clinics, and superior expertise.”

Jolly Pets goes a step further by offering retailers a planogram to map out layouts of its products.

Company representatives will even digitally insert a Jolly Pets display into a photo of the store’s shelves so retailers can visualize the end result.

"For us, it’s become very important because our products are larger than most, and most retailers will look at them and think, ‘How am I supposed to display that?’” Marvin said.

Ultimately, it’s about making sure the customers are informed so they can make a good match between toy and dog.

"If we see someone in the toy aisle, we step up and offer our help,” said Puppies Plus’ Jacobson. "If they don’t want help, we step back. But most people don’t have a clue.”

Making that match makes the customer and the dog happy.

"People want something new, something that captivates their dog and something durable,” said Go-Go Dog Pals’ Bowen. "They’re always looking for that magical combination.”

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