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Once upon a time, Fido’s humble tennis ball or Fluffy’s catnip mouse sufficed as amusement for the family pet. But these days, attentive pet owners are seeking more innovative and species-appropriate entertainment. While toys that stimulate the natural instincts of cats reign supreme, durability and interactivity top the list when it comes to dog toys.

“The simple toy is a thing of the past,” said Bill Parsons, account manager for P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle And You), a manufacturer in San Francisco. “Pet parents understand the need for toys that include healthy and smart enrichment features.”

Value is another consideration, said Ellen Lawson, owner and president of Fluff & Tuff, a manufacturer in Troy, Mich.

“Pet parents don’t mind spending more for a toy if they believe it is a quality product,” she said.

Adrian Archie, owner of petNmind, a pet store in Coconut Creek, Fla., agreed, noting that durability is a sought-after feature in dog toys.

“Most of our customers are willing to pay more for something that can stand up to a tough chewer,” Archie noted.

Sustainability is also important, Archie said.

“Because our concept is natural and holistic, we stock toys that fit into that category,” he said.

George, a chain of stores with multiple locations in California, offers several types of dog toys.

Included in the mix are items known for their durability, such as suede, rope, nylon-bound and Nylabone toys, said owner Bobby Wise. More functional toys, such as tossing wands, sport balls, and Kong bones and balls, are also on display.

“Folks will come in regularly to replenish favorite toys that have been lost, damaged or stolen by other pups, so it’s a very reliable category,” Wise said.

Archie noted that demand for puzzle and interactive toys has increased as a result of the pandemic.

“People needed to keep pets occupied while they worked from home,” he said.

Interactive playthings that pets love also provide joy to owners, who love to see their pets occupied in a healthy way, Parsons said.

“A great example of this is our American Classic Burger Toy,” Parsons said. “All the layers—buns, patty and veggies—are attached to each other with a Velcro element. When pulled apart by a pup, it gives them the sense of a tear and destruction without actually destroying the toys. Afterwards, it easily goes back together and is ready for another round of fun.”

Plush toys representing creatures that a dog might encounter in the backyard, such as squirrels, rabbits, raccoons or foxes, are best-sellers for Fluff & Tuff.

“We offer multiple sizes for the perfect fit and have found the extra-small and extra-large toys to be very popular,” Lawson said.

In the cat category, successful toys recognize cats’ natural behaviors. Toys mimicking the prey that a cat would stalk in the wild will satisfy instincts for hunting, chasing and catching birds, mice, lizards and other creatures, said Kate Benjamin, creator of the Hauspanther Collection by Primetime Petz, a manufacturer in Rockwall, Texas.

“Acting out these behaviors is important for maintaining a cat’s mental and physical health,” Benjamin said.

She added that electronic toys that move and flash are currently trendy, but that a cat can lose interest over time if it is unable to grab and kick its prey.

“Puzzle toys are another important category, since they can be used to feed the cat small meals, requiring them to work for the prize and giving them a sense of hunting,” Benjamin said.

At George, interactive playthings are sought-after diversions for cats, Wise noted.

“We carry three styles of wands with critters, and these wands, with replacement toys of course, are usually an easy sell to both new kitten parents and [for] those mature cats who have their hunting skills more honed,” he said. “As we all know, the simplest of kitty toys are usually the most loved—anything that flips, wobbles, flutters or flies is always a winner.”

Cat lovers are also seeking toys using natural, organic or recycled materials as they can be safer and better for the environment, Benjamin said, adding that wool felt, cardboard and cork are some examples.

Offering the Right Mix

For both dog and cat toys, it’s important that retailers offer an appropriate selection.

A truly great product mix begins with an understanding of the customer base, Parsons said.

“Are customers looking for outdoor toys because of the region they are in? Are they interested in fun, hip concepts?” he asked. “We always recommend a nice diversity of toy concepts, as well as rotation throughout the year to keep customers coming in to search [for] the latest fun design.”

Retailers can attract cat owners by providing a variety of toys that appeal to diverse play styles and hunting instincts, Benjamin said.

Offering products in attractive styles and colors can also help sales, she added.

“Yes, the miniature food, and realistic birds and mice are cute, but not every cat owner wants their house to look like a day care center,” Benjamin said.

For dogs, Lawson recommended offering toys to suit a range of play styles.

“Dogs need different types of toys for different types of play, such as toys for chew, fetch, indoor or outdoor, and our plush toys are part of that mix,” Lawson said.

New Products

Freshen Up Playtime

Manufacturers are offering a fun variety of new toys for both dogs and cats.

P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle And You) released several lines in the first half of 2021.

“We released three new plush-toy lines, including Camp Corbin, inspired by our love for a very special dog, [office dog and product tester] Corbin, as well as a love for camping and the great outdoors,” said Bill Parsons, account manager for the San Francisco-based company.

Camp Corbin features Corbin’s favorite camping essentials in toy form, including a tent with sleeping bags inside, carob s’mores, a campfire, a lantern and a kayak. 

P.L.A.Y.’s Tropical Paradise Collection will remind pet owners of warm, tropical beach days with a palm tree, canine cerveza, watermelon, pineapple and flamingo toys. The toys have features such as squeakers, a giggle stick (in the cerveza), T-shirt rope and crinkle.

P.L.A.Y.’s Hollywoof Cinema Collection is inspired by a love of film. Plush popcorn, a Hoppy Hound Brew, 3-D glasses, a movie reel and a clapperboard will keep pups entertained until the credits roll.

All three plush lines and are machine washable and dryer friendly, and contain the company’s eco-friendly PlanetFill filler, which is made from 100 percent post-consumer certified-safe recycled plastic bottles.

“We are also expanding our Scout & About line with two new NovaRope toys,” Parsons said.

The new NovaRope Ring Toy and NovaRope Twist Toy are made from braided, high-tensile-strength cotton-blend rope and intertwined with the company’s durable NovaFlex material.

Cats are not overlooked as P.L.A.Y recently introduced eight toys to the Feline Frenzy line: Kitty Kreme Donuts, Kitten Mittens, Meowy Christmas, Chirpy Birdie, Blissful Birdie, Balls of Furry, Twice as Mice and Hooti-ful Owls. The toys are pre-filled with organic catnip. The company plans to release two more fun shapes in bigger sizes at SuperZoo in Las Vegas in August.

While Fluff & Tuff normally introduces new products centered around the industry’s two major trade shows, Global Pet Expo and SuperZoo, for 2021 the company is spreading out its releases, said Ellen Lawson, owner and president of the Troy, Mich.-based company. For its spring launches, the company added three large toys and an extra-small toy to its squeaker-less line.

The new large toys include Bob the Zebra, Lexy Leopard and Reece Rabbit.

“Our Walter Wabbit is one of our most popular toys, and we wanted our retailers to have the same style in a new fabric [with Reece Rabbit], for a fresh look in their store,” said Lawson.

The new extra-small toy is Anderson the Grey Fox.

“Our extra-small toys are very popular with our retailers,” Lawson said. “Their customers love the opportunity to give their smaller dogs a toy with the same detail of our larger toys. Anderson is a great example of this.”

Merchandising

Keeping It Fresh on the Sales Floor

Innovative and creative displays are central to strong sales in the toy category, but continually updating merchandise can be a challenge, said Bobby Wise, owner of George, a chain of stores with multiple locations in California.

“Freshness can be a problem, as there [are] only so many new toys our favorite companies can come up with every year,” Wise said. “So, we rely on fresh displays and unexpected juxtapositions of toys by embracing our intuition with what our Bay Area customers will or won’t be charmed by.”

Wise added that more whimsical toys are often shown in displays centered on creativity.

“We get some weird ideas into our heads, often graphically inspired,” he said.

At petNmind, a pet store in Coconut Creek, Fla., differentiation from big-box brands and the types of toys they offer is central to the product mix, said owner Adrian Archie.

“I also like to move toy and accessory displays around the store in order to keep things fresh,” he said.

Changing things up by moving products to another location within the store can create a new look, noted Heather Blum, co-owner of Petagogy, a retailer with two locations in the Pittsburgh area.

“It’s amazing how, by simply moving items to a new place, customers will take notice,” she said. “We also try to highlight seasonal toys, for example, with Christmas or Easter displays.”

At Healthy Spot, a retailer with multiple locations in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, new toys are aligned with monthly promotional themes, such as environmentally conscientious toys during Healthy Spot’s Paws for the Planet Month or USA-made toys during the Fourth of July holiday.

“This allows us to offer the customer more than just seasonal toys based on the typical spring/summer/fall schedule,” said Dallas Dunn, merchandising manager. “It’s also wonderful to work with so many great toy brands that offer a wide selection to purchase from because they, too, are committed to keeping things fresh and engaging.”

Blum noted that with the pandemic, pet owners working from home are seeking enrichment toys that will keep pets engaged.

“So that’s been a big focus in our displays,” she said.