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Natural Marketplace: Nature at Play

Posted: August 5, 2013, 10:30 a.m. EDT

The move toward natural products is growing increasingly evident in the toy category.

By Lori Luechtefeld

When retailers think of natural pet products, treats and food are usually the first categories that spring to mind. But as owners are becoming more conscientious regarding all products that go into their pets’ mouths, the natural toy category is seeing an influx of new products and features.

That said, when retailers, manufacturers and pet owners talk about "natural” toys, the term often is applied more broadly than it is in the food and treats category. Insiders reported that eco-friendly toys and those produced according to more rigid safety standards are likely to be discussed right alongside those products made with natural fibers and other materials.

Stephanie Leggett, assistant buyer at Moochie & Co., based in Worthington, Ohio, said that a growing number of customers request natural toys. As such, Moochie offers multiple lines of natural rubber toys, including Petmate’s JW Pet Tough by Nature ISqueak ball, which is made of 100 percent natural rubber and uses a vegetable-based paint, and Bionic Pet Products’ rubber toys, which are BPA free and nontoxic, Leggett said. She added that her stores also are seeing more cat customers who love the Yeowww! Catnip organic catnip toys by DuckyWorld.

Trends in natural toys have taken a variety of shapes in recent years, said Jean Chae, director of sales and new business at SimplyFido Inc. in New York. These include the promotion of toys as having smaller carbon footprints and being made in the USA. She also noted that products made with recycled materials and nonplastic waste products are in demand.

Dog ToyCourtesy of Earthdog.

Customer interest in natural toys often is tied to safety concerns, Leggett said. Spencer Williams, president of West Paw Design in Bozeman, Mont., agreed, adding that safe toys isn’t exactly a trend—it’s more non-negotiable for pet owners.

"Toys that are sustainably produced and made with natural fabrics and fill tend to be safer,” Williams said.

Lately, Williams has noticed that customers especially are drawn to its line of Zogoflex dog toys because they are nontoxic and free of BPA and phthalate. The company’s products use recycled, recyclable, sustainable and organic materials, he added.

Consumers are becoming more aware of potential harmful elements within pet products and pet toys, said Jason Vap, president and CEO of Petprojekt in Cincinnati.

"If something is known to be potentially toxic or harmful to humans, why would you give that to your furry family member?” he said.

All of Petprojekt’s toys are designed to meet the same safety requirements of children and baby products, Vap noted. That means the toys are made from natural rubber and are free of phthalates, cadmium, lead, DEHP, heavy metals and BPA.

Kristen Smith, brand ambassador at Planet Dog in Westbrook, Maine, said the latest trends in natural toys include items made from renewable and natural materials, such as hemp, bamboo and recycled and recyclable plastics.

"These products include both molded and plush toys, and interactive and entertaining dog toys,” she said, adding that people increasingly are looking for products that are made in the USA.

Along these lines, Planet Dog’s Wood Chuck ball tosser is made from bamboo and recycled cork. Meanwhile, its Recycle line is made with the company’s manufacturing waste, as well as toys returned by consumers who no longer have dogs. In addition, the company’s Orbee-Tuff toys are made with nontoxic, recyclable materials, she said.

A Closer Look
Dave Colella, owner of Earthdog in Brentwood, Tenn., said that the materials used in the composition of pet toys are under increasing scrutiny by pet owners.

"The discovery of lead toxins in dog toys that came to light a few years ago from toys made in China immediately caused a lot of retailers and pet owners to reconsider the country of origin of their suppliers,” he said.

Earthdog manufactures hemp dog toys in which the fibers used to produce the rope are grown without the use of herbicides and pesticides, he said. In addition, there are no plastic squeakers in the company’s stuffed toys.

Pam Wheelock, head honcho at Purrfectplay in Chesterton, Ind., said there is a big push in the pet toy market to brand recycled plastic and synthetic fibers as natural and "green.” Wheelock said this type of "green washing” is an incorrect way of thinking.

"If Mother Nature doesn’t make it, we don’t believe it belongs in the pet’s mouth,” said Wheelock, who is a proponent of natural fibers such as hemp, cotton and wool.

Natural Promotions

Special displays are an excellent way to call attention to up-and-coming categories such as natural toys. Sandie Wheeler, co-owner of Pets Gone Healthy in Marlborough, Mass., said her store offers a wide range of toys for dogs and cats that are made with organic, natural fibers, including hemp, cotton and wool. These include plush toys; hemp toys and ropes; nontoxic, BPA-free toys; and organic catnip toys.

Wheeler displays her store’s natural toys together so that customers can see the variety of what is offered in the marketplace.

"Many times, we’ve featured these toys and other products in the same category on a feature table when you enter the store, or we do a product feature in our newsletter,” she said.

Dave Colella, owner of Earthdog in Brentwood, Tenn., said natural toy displays should match the spirit of the products.

"Greens and browns for color schemes, and the use of recycled or reclaimed woods and metals, make great choices,” he said. "Plastics and slick, modern-looking displays should be avoided.”

Kristen Smith, brand ambassador at Planet Dog in Westbrook, Maine, recommended incorporating wooden stands, farm baskets and bamboo baskets and bins into natural toy displays. Staff training also is essential, she added.

Stephanie Leggett, assistant buyer at Moochie & Co., based in Worthington, Ohio, agreed. Moochie employees are trained about the materials that go into toys and where they are made, she said, which boosts sales in the natural toy category. Likewise, because of the popularity of those toys, Moochie stores merchandise them at eye level so customers can find them easily.

Pet stores need to "walk the talk” when it comes to promoting natural toys, said Pam Wheelock, head honcho at Purrfectplay, a manufacturer in Chesterton, Ind.

"Your customers will know you are not sincere if you display natural products but don’t recycle or support green business practices, and your staff has no idea what natural means,” she added.—LL

Wheelock also noted that small niche companies are becoming more popular in the toy space.

"Etsy has many pet toy manufacturers,” she said. "Direct sales to the consumer by small manufacturers is a growing trend and is creating a more diversified field of products.”

Durability Wins
Despite the increased attention being paid to the safety of pet toy materials, durability still tops the list of demands among pet owners, said Jon Michelson, co-owner of Lofty Dog stores in Austin and Lockhart, Texas. He said there’s a lot of demand in his stores for natural foods and treats, but not so much for natural toys.

"As long as a toy is durable, they don’t care so much what material it’s made from,” Michelson said. "We have products that are made from recycled materials, and people aren’t asking for that, but when they see it, it’s an added bonus.”

Moochie & Co.’s Leggett said that because durability is of the utmost concern, natural rubber chew toys have done quite well in her company’s stores.

Planet Dog and West Paw Design toy lines sell well at Lofty Dog, Michelson said, adding that when people see planet and American flag logos on products, it makes people feel good about buying them. But it’s not what sells them, so his stores don’t dedicate a specific section to them, he added.

Patti Storms, former owner of Well Bred in Chester, N.J., also questioned the value of a dedicated natural toys section.

"I tried it at one point,” she said. "The organic stuffed toys ended up being too expensive as most folks figure on their dog ripping the toy to shreds in minutes.

"I do have some success with the West Paw natural rubber toys,” Storms said. "Folks like the fact that they are USA made and use recycled product. We display them in our heavy-duty chew toy section.”

Marykate Wihnyk, an associate at Natural Paws in Reno, Nev., also said durability is what people request when looking for toys.

"When you mention that a toy is organic or eco-friendly, that makes them lean more toward those toys,” she said, adding that the Aussie Naturals line of toys sells well in her store, as does the SimplyFido collection of organic cotton toys.

Indeed, SimplyFido has addressed the durability demand by updating its toys with stronger fabrics that use the same organic cotton as before, said Chae. Its toys also use nontoxic, low eco-impact dyes that are safe for children and pets.

"All-natural toys are out there,” Wihnyk said. "They’re not requested that much yet, but I think that will change. People didn’t used to request natural foods, either.” <HOME>


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