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Natural Marketplace: It’s What’s Inside That Counts

Posted: Jan. 23, 2012, 2:20 p.m. EST

“Natural” is simply a broad label for a host of features that appeal to buyers of pet toys.
By Maggie M. Shein

When it comes to pet toys, industry participants reported, natural is nice, but the actual characteristics--recycled or recyclable, nontoxic or low-impact dyed, organic or sustainable--appeal to shoppers even more.

“Natural applies to whatever people want it to apply to, but the perception of natural is that it is going to be something good,” said Chip Sammons, owner of Holistic Pet Center in Clackamas, Ore. “If you look at the cheap toy market, it’s dangerous because parts of these toys can end up in the dog’s digestive system, and who’s to say what the quality of the imported latex or rubber is?”

Those in the industry agreed that safe and nontoxic are at the top of a pet owner’s wish list in this market.

“With a number of different scares such as contaminated pet foods and lead in children’s toys, consumers are looking for what they know is a safe and nontoxic product,” said Kristen Smith, brand ambassador at Planet Dog, a Portland, Maine, manufacturer.

Natural pet toys
After a pet owner is confident in a toy’s safety, buying decisions often come down to eco-friendliness, durability, interactivity and value. Photo courtesy of Zigoo Pets.

Companies such as Planet Dog, West Paw Design in Bozeman, Mont., and Zigoo Pets in West Harrison, Ind., reported that they use FDA-approved materials and compounds to help guarantee the safety of their toys.

“The safety of the material itself is often asked about,” said Kathleen Johnson, COO of West Paw Design. “The materials are FDA compliant, which means we could actually use the substances to make products that touch food.

“Our toys have no phthalates or toxic substances that could be harmful if played with,” she continued. “There have been enough scares, and people want to make sure their pet’s toys are safe like everything else.”

One of the newest toys added to the company’s Zogoflex line is the Twiz, a twistable fetch plaything with space to hide treats. It’s recyclable, nontoxic, buoyant and dishwasher safe, according to product literature.

“People are looking for nontoxic,” confirmed Kelli O’Connor, owner of All For Paws, a Portland, Ore., retailer.

O’Connor said she tries to make toy-buying decisions based on the item, the manufacturer and where the product is made.

“Local is a big thing—customers really like buying something made as close to us as possible,” she said.

All For Paws carries locally made cat and dog toys as well as toys from Cycle Dog, Dura Doggie, West Paw Design and JW Pet.
Zigoo Pets’ flagship toy, Crinkits, was released this past fall. The BPA- and phthalate-free toy is made in Maine using materials sourced in the United States. The patent-pending Crinkits houses an empty plastic water bottle, increasing its attractiveness to consumers looking for green toys.

Demystifying the Natural Toy Market
Sifting through the vast array of natural toys can be challenging for retailers looking to stock their shelves. Starting with a manufacturer’s location and reputation can make the job a little easier, industry participants noted.

“I would say the biggest thing that surprised me is how often people ask where the product is made,” said Zach Day, founder and owner of Zigoo Pets, a manufacturer in West Harrison, Ind. “What goes along with that is the assumption that it is going through more quality control [if it’s local].”

Working with a manufacturer situated nearby can help retailers learn about the company on a more intimate level and obtain the confidence needed to recommend its products.
If the company isn’t local, representatives should be readily available by phone or at trade shows. The communication can help retailers get to know a company, understand its manufacturing and business processes, and determine whether it fits with the store’s philosophy.

“It’s easy to dig in and find out what a company is about,” said Kathleen Johnson, COO of West Paw Design, a Bozeman, Mont., manufacturer. “A lot of our dealers take time to do that.”
Continuing communication is key, too, she said.

“It’s important that they know they have a partner on the other end of the phone that can answer their questions,” Johnson said. “And it helps them get details about the product, our manufacturing processes and us as a company.”

Retailers also can look for product or material certifications and sell sheets to help clarify the authenticity of an item and what makes it particularly eco-friendly or natural. --MS

“We wanted to create a toy that uses water bottles and was durable,” said Zach Day, founder and owner of Zigoo Pets. “The durability was the hardest part, because it also needs to be thin enough to still get that crunch from the water bottle.”

To ensure the safety of toys made from fabrics and ropes, many manufacturers noted that they pay special attention to the dyes used--low-impact or AZO-free is preferred--the sourcing of material, and certification from groups such as the Organic Crop Improvement Association and Oeko-Tex.

Simply Fido of New York City makes a range of pet toys using low-impact dyes, organic cotton, natural cotton canvas, bamboo fabric and cotton rope. The company has nontoxic certification for its fabrics, managing director Sam Hahn said.

Last summer the company released its Simply Fido Basics collection, which features simpler designs using cotton canvas and rope.

“Being natural is translated at the consumer level as safer, and that works with our business philosophy to sell toys that are safe and make sense in the present and future,” Hahn said.

After a pet owner is confident in a toy’s safety, decisions in the natural marketplace often come down to eco-friendliness, durability, company reputation, interactivity and value.
“Coming into our store, most people assume the toys are nontoxic, so they tend to focus on whether the product will be durable and where it is made,” said All For Paws’ O’Connor. “They don’t necessarily want the cutest toy for a few dollars that their dog will shred in a few minutes.”

Planet Dog uses nontoxic, recycled and recyclable materials for its toys. The company also works with a local manufacturer of high-end climbing rope, repurposing the off-spec rope for Planet Dog’s two-pack of RecycleBALLs, according to Smith.

One of the company’s more recent toys is the Wood Chuck, a ball tosser made from bamboo and recycled cork. The ball itself is made from materials left over on the factory floor, Smith said.

“I think the market is starting to shift back,” Smith continued. “There was a time when people were very concerned about price point and some of the higher priced toys weren’t selling as well. But quality, durability and guarantee are all really strong selling points. The consumer is becoming more aware that some cheaper toys are made with less dependable and less safe or healthy materials.”

Cycle Dog’s Portland, Ore., plant produces toys made from 100 percent post-consumer waste, said founder and president Lanette Fidrych.

“Many items in the world are recyclable--paper, for instance--but truly being green is actually recycling the material,” she said.

The company’s most popular toy, Fidrych noted, is the Flat Tire Flyer, a flexible flying disk made with post-consumer recycled rubber. Coming in 2012 is a new molded toy line, Cycle Dog Retreads.

“These toys combine natural rubber with recycled post-consumer rubber,” Fidrych added.

Stocking decent products that are made in the United States, reasonably priced and from an “amazing company” is important to Josh Allen, co-owner of Dee-O-Gee, a natural pet store in Bozeman, Mont.

“On a personal and business level, how the company runs really resonates with us,” Allen said.

Dee-O-Gee has found success with toys from West Paw Design, the company’s No. 1 supplier, Planet Dog, VIP Products and Kyjen.

Whether his customers are eco-conscious or value driven, they still want a toy that appeals both to them and their pets, Allen noted.

“Even if they are superconscious, our customers still want a bright, fun-looking, interactive toy that’s not too plain,” he said.

Other retailers recognized that consumer buying decisions sometimes come down to the playability of the toy itself.

“I carry what I do because I want enjoyable toys for pets that are going to be durable and safe,” said Sammons, of Holistic Pet Center, which carries toys from West Paw Design, Planet Dog, VIP Products and Jolly Pets.

Sammons said he continues to see manufacturers updating toys or launching toys that do a better job of meeting the needs of specialty retailers and pet owners.

“The good news is that every industry eventually evolves into what the consumers really want, and consumers in the pet field are more and more intelligent and more and more demanding,” he concluded. “I think the industry is responding.”



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