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Dog Marketplace: Pampering Puppies

Posted: August 9, 2013, 10:30 a.m. EDT

With puppy products following baby marketplace trends, retailers can offer customers a comprehensive selection of indulgent items for their new pets.

By Nikki Moustaki

In the race for dollars in the pet marketplace, the Holy Grail wobbles down the track on four feet, has puppy breath and stops to gnaw on shoelaces. New puppy owners, like their new pets, are blank slates, and it’s up to their local pet store retailer to guide them to product selections.
"Puppy products are a significant segment of the overall pet product market,” said Bob Nicastro, sales manager at Earthbath in San Francisco. "It’s the opportunity to introduce products or services to a new pet owner.”

Puppy products were initially developed to satisfy short-term needs, said Doug Pendley, president of MilkOpet in Coral Springs, Fla.

"Toys needed to be softer, crates and cages needed to be friendlier, and collars and leads needed to reflect the size and age of the puppy,” said Pendley. "Nutrition in the early stages of development needed to address issues associated with puppies growing too fast or not eating at all. This prompted breeders to recommend specific products, and manufacturers developed new products to fill that need.”

There’s no firm agreement about exactly when the "puppy product” tides turned and the pink and blue teethers washed ashore, but it surely happened in the past 10 years.

Puppy Products
Puppy items that reflect styles in the baby market are a fast-growing trend. Courtesy of Snuggle Pet Products/Alaina Markel

"On a social level, our view on dogs changed dramatically,” said Bob Thorne, owner of Snuggle Pet Products in Belleville, Mich. "Our puppies are no longer dogs; they are our babies. I attribute most of that change of view to the animal activism starting in the late ’90s. We started bringing dogs inside our homes and, in the last decade, traveling with them at an unprecedented pace. We started caring more about our pets’ comfort, and we started humanizing them. That led to plush toys and plush beds, and lots of comfort marketing terms, like ‘soothing’ and ‘soft.’”

The pet industry is in its second decade of significant market growth, Thorne said, and attendant with that growth came fractures in the marketplace, creating a niche for puppy products, which created even more growth.

"The Kong Co. serves as an industry example in many ways,” said Thorne. "In the puppy segment, we saw them introduce a puppy Kong in the early part of the aughts. Not only was it softer, but it was available in pink and blue. It became clear to the most casual observer that a puppy market segment was prime for development, and we all jumped on board. We now offer nine different SnugglePuppies in response to new puppy owners demanding a greater selection, including a pink and a blue.”

The company’s SnugglePuppies, plush animals that contain heat packs and have a simulated heartbeat, are meant to soothe pets and help them sleep. This year, the manufacturer added the SnugglePuppie Blanket and Momma SnugglePuppie Warmer Bed to its lineup.

Nancy McDonald, creative director at Teensy Toons in Kissimmee, Fla., said that she saw the differentiation between puppy products and dog products start to emerge in the marketplace about 10 years ago.

"With the advent of products such as piddle pads, pet insurance and teething toys, it was apparent that the public was interested in helpful products for the early stages in their dog’s life,” said McDonald.

"When we first developed our Notes for the Puppy Sitter card, we thought it might just appeal to the über-owner. Little did we know it would be the hit product at the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters convention and continue to be one of our best-selling products both retail and wholesale.”

Teensy Toons also offers Bottle Your Own Puppy’s Breath, decorative pink and blue jars that pet owners can use to capture their new pets’ breath.

Contrary to what some might believe, manufacturers pointed out, puppy products are typically not just dog products in a different package.

The Company of Animals last month launched a puppy-sized version of its Green Feeder, which is designed to provide mental stimulation during feeding as well as prolong eating time to reduce the risk of vomiting, gagging, gas and bloat, according to the manufacturer.

"Our [puppy] Green Feeder is smaller—hence designed for puppies to start training with,” said Jeanette Holliday, marketing executive for the Bridgeport, Conn., company.

"Many grooming products that are formulated for adult dogs have harsh chemicals that could irritate the eyes and skin,” said Earthbath’s Nicastro. "Manufacturers use a variety of formulation methods to reduce the irritating chemicals to produce a formula for puppies. Our puppy grooming products contain ultra-mild coconut-based cleansers and are pH balanced neutral, so they won’t cause irritation of sensitive skin.”

Organic Oscar also has developed extra-mild grooming products for the puppy marketplace.
"People want to give their dogs the same treatment that they would give any other family member,” said Marie Svet, co-owner of the San Diego-based company. "Puppies have different needs than an adult dog, and pet parents want products that are tailored specifically to them. Like babies, puppies have delicate skin.”

The Puppy Consumer

Selling puppy products is about knowing how the puppy consumer behaves. Much of the time, the puppy owner comes in fresh from the breeder or shelter, a puppy in their arms, and nothing else.
"Most people who have a puppy are more willing to try something different and new, and are usually an easier sell,” said Howard Binder, co-owner of Doggie-Do & Playtime Too! in New York.
Doug Pendley, President of MilkOpet in Coral Springs, Fla., said that so much data has been published about what to feed a puppy, new puppy owners respond to what they read and look for those ways to ensure the health and welfare of their new pet.
"Pet parents are willing to open up their wallets as many times as necessary to ensure that they are doing all they can to help with this transition,” Pendley said.
Nancy McDonald, creative director at Teensy Toons in Kissimmee, Fla., sends out marketing scouts each month to local pet expos and festivals to analyze trends.
"What our team recently came away with was that dog owners have more photos on their phone of their dog than of their children,” said McDonald. "And no matter how old the dog is now, owners still have one to five photos on their phones of their dog as a puppy. This clearly shows that the puppy stage is significant for owners and they cherish it.”—NM

Here Comes Puppy
"The most popular puppy products are chew toys and consumables, such as bully sticks, pressed rawhide, Nylabones and antlers,” said Zack Grey, owner of The Urban Pet, which has three stores in the Los Angeles area. "We refer to these items as ‘occupational therapy.’ A puppy’s teething stage is quite long, and these are very profitable products. Puppy shampoo, cleaners and pee pads would be second in line.”

Puppy toys resembling baby toys, such as pacifiers or stuffed animals, are always hot, said Diane Thomas, marketing manager at Coastal Pet Products in Alliance, Ohio.

"In collars and leashes, smaller widths and sizes with lighter-weight hardware are needed,” said Thomas.

"Pinks and blues for puppies trend high. Coastal’s Sunburst collars are great for puppies, too. They’re completely adjustable and have no preset holes, so the collar fits while the puppy grows.”

One glance at any puppy line divulges that the market mimics the baby marketplace in color and style.

"For a successful run of a puppy product, it should directly correlate with the colors, patterns and expectations you find in a baby product,” said Carlos A. Zamora, marketing coordinator for SynergyLabs in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Something interesting I’ve seen lately is the licensing of baby cartoons for use in the puppy category, such as Hello Kitty, Winnie the Pooh characters and so on.”

Keeping with this theme, Jodi Liddle, manager of merchandising and purchasing at Drs. Foster and Smith Inc. in Rhinelander, Wis., said that she sees a lot of pet-specific strollers, play pens, toys, gates and car seats.

"Pet strollers resemble the baby marketplace based on colors, shapes and sizes,” said Liddle. "The basic trend is about treating a puppy like a newborn child. There are diapers for puppies, puppy sitters, puppy walkers and puppy daycare. I have received ‘new arrival’ announcements.”

Catering to Puppy Owners
"Merchandising is key, putting packages together and putting products together,” said Howard Binder, co-owner of Doggie-Do & Playtime Too! in New York. "However, when you have everything together in one place, it almost looks too contrived. When you take the customer personally to various parts of the store, pulling things off the shelf, the customer sees that you’re really working for her. You can’t do this in a big box chain, but we’re a specialty store.”

Thorne said that he has seen several stores, including the big boxes, set up exclusive "puppy product” sections, only to disassemble them for lack of sales.

"The consumer wants and needs an education on puppy products,” said Thorne. "However, if you don’t train your staff, you won’t get the sales and retain the customers. The independent stores that develop a puppy department and train their staff members are successful in the long view. Teach your customer something interesting and useful, and they will tell many others and remain loyal to your store.”

Grey’s experience as a retailer has been similar, and he noted that first-time puppy owners are often overwhelmed.

"It’s important that you have a staff fluent in topics such as housebreaking and chew toys,” Grey said.

"We have offered ‘puppy packages’ that include a crate, proper chew toys, cleaners, leashes, harnesses and foods, but we discovered that a hands-on shopping experience and explaining the products proved to be the most effective.”

Beyond proper staff training and appropriate merchandising, getting puppy customers through the door is important.

"Call your local animal shelter and ask for puppies that need to be adopted,” said Zamora. "Host an adoption event at the store, and conveniently promote your puppy products. You’ll do some good and reap the benefits.”

The bottom line in improving the cash register’s bottom line with puppy gear is education, merchandising and, above all, realizing that the little wriggle of fur in the customer’s arms isn’t just a dog—it’s a bundle of joy. <HOME>


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