Pet owners are beginning to expect more from the toys they buy for their furry companions, and manufacturers are delivering. Retailers who are most successful in this category are those that give their customers unique and varied options.
Pet owners are looking for more engaging and interactive toys, said Leah Angelos, sales manager for ZippyPaws, a Chino, Calif.-based manufacturer of dog toys and accessories.
"Although dog toys are always good sellers, there is increasing interest in toys that offer stimulation through critical thinking and cater to the bond between pet and owner," Angelos said. "For example, our Zippy Burrows have been a hit because they are interactive and help create opportunities for bonding through playtime."
Adam Baker, founder and CEO of True Dogs, the Boulder, Colo.-based maker of SodaPup toys, said that for a long time there has been a "sea of sameness" when it comes to pet toys. Retail assortments often look the same each time a consumer comes into the store—and most stores carry the same brands and SKUs. But Baker said that is starting to shift.
"Against this backdrop, we’re seeing the rise of more and more subscription boxes, most of which carry two to three new toys each month," he said. "These boxes are often thematic, and the fun and quirky designs surprise and delight consumers in a way that traditional retail does not."
Baker said that subscription boxes are a legitimate threat to toy sales in brick-and-mortar stores—and that this demonstrates the importance of the independent pet supply retailer upping the ante when it comes to their toy offerings. It also shows that consumers do, in fact, have a desire for some unique options.
Aaron Lowe, marketing and brand development director for Only An Ocean/Poochie-Pets, which has U.S. headquarters in Charleston, S.C., said that high-quality, well-made toys from interesting brands need to start taking precedence in stores over poorly made, inexpensive toys.
"For instance, our newest brand partner, Beco, makes fun, cuddly toys that are also very much intended to be durable, with double stitching, double layering and more," Lowe said. "Details are, in fact, important to many pet parents. Additionally, their toys are made from eco-friendly materials, and in today’s market, having some sort of mission beyond just making toys gets noticed and is appreciated by customers, too."
Many retailers noted that in the cat toy market, not much has changed. Anything with catnip is always going to be popular with cats, said Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets, a pet store in Dallas.
Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer for Bend Pet Express, which has stores in Bend, Ore., said that toys with realistic fur are always top sellers for cat owners—something that hasn’t changed with time.
"We have a display of bulk, made in the USA cat toys that is super popular," McCohan said. "We haven’t made any changes to it because it’s stood the test of time."
Samantha Henson, clinical pet nutritionist with Next Generation Pet Wellness in Detroit, said that cats tend to have a favorite toy type and that owners rightfully do not want to deviate from that.
"Cats are picky, and their owners know that," said Henson, who owns a consulting business but has also worked in retail locations. "The one time of year when retailers might want to switch up anything with cat toy sales is during kitten season, when new kitten owners are going to be buying toys for the first time. That would be a time to do a big spotlight on choices."
April to October is usually considered kitten season, but it depends on where you live, Henson added.
Following Design Inspiration
While pet owners are certainly looking for toys their pets will enjoy playing with, retailers still need to grab their attention with engaging displays.
Mary Morgan, marketing and communication director at HuggleHounds, a division of Denville, N.J.-based Allure Pet Products, said there is no question that today’s pet owners are more in tune to style and design. The trends that the HuggleHounds team is noticing include a lot of bright colors—which is why the company recently launched the Wild Things Knotties Collection with a sloth, anteater and llama in hues such as aqua and bright pink.
Morgan said that the HuggleHounds brand is inspired by what’s trending in general—meaning not only in the pet market, but also in fashion, home goods and more. The team gets together and discusses these trends as it creates the company’s latest toy concepts.
Jen Glaser, co-founder and designer for ZippyPaws, said that her inspiration for toy designs comes from many different sources.
"Sometimes, I design a new toy based on a squeaker, and sometimes I design it based on a shape or a character," she said. "Having a wide variety of fabric samples in my office also helps me with selecting materials when I’m designing toys. For example, when I wanted to create an alcoholic drink-inspired line of dog toys, I knew that instead of making them with stuffing I wanted to use the squeaky water bottles that I feature in my Bottle Crusherz line. The new Happy Hour Crusherz line was thus born!"
Baker said his company often designs toys around themes.
"Our Industrial Dog brand is inspired by a toolbox and includes designs like gears, saw blades, pipe wrenches, shovels, wire nuts, lug nuts and compression joints, to name a few items," Baker said. "Our brand SodaPup was inspired by junk food. Our Spotnik brand is inspired by dogs in space. We also design around seasonal themes like ‘summer foods,’ Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day and more—giving retailers a chance for ‘quick strike’ opportunities."
Offer an Appropriate Mix of Playthings
Having the right assortment of toys is key to generating successful sales in this category.
Leah Angelos, sales manager for ZippyPaws, a Chino, Calif.-based manufacturer of dog toys and accessories, said that retailers should understand their consumers’ preferences and bring in products that cover a wide range of behaviors.
"There is a large variety of products available on the market, and it’s important to bring in things that will not only appeal to the customer, but benefit their furry companions as well," Angelos said.
Aaron Lowe, marketing and brand development director for Only An Ocean/Poochie-Pets, which has U.S. headquarters in Charleston, S.C., said that retailers must consider pets’ varying needs.
"Retailers need toys to throw and squeak to stimulate prey drive," he said. "Interactive toys for the dogs that only like playing with their owners—like tugs and toss toys—are also important in a store lineup. Old and very young dogs may need softer toys due to dental issues. Remember to stimulate the customer as well, with smell, color and texture."
Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer for Bend Pet Express, which has stores in Bend, Ore., said that creating breed-specific displays can be a great way to ensure that highly specific toy needs are met. For example, she said a display for German shorthaired pointers would include hunting and training toys, stuffed toys in bird designs, hunting or training whistles, medium-size chews, puzzle toys and more.
"At our store, we made a tiny-dog display for a while that had all the popular ‘small-dog items,’ and that was a hit," she said. "Small-dog owners were grateful to find some toys or chews they didn’t know about."
Recent Introductions in Play
Manufacturers know that consumers are always looking for something fresh, and they are working to meet this demand by bringing a variety of new toys to market.
Adam Baker, founder and CEO of True Dogs, the Boulder, Colo.-based maker of SodaPup toys, said that, on average, the company develops two new toys per month.
"We are working on some new Spotnik toys for March," he said, referring to the company’s space-themed collection. "We also just launched three new designs in our Industrial Dog collection."
The Cap Nut is an ultra-durable chew toy that also holds a small amount of treats inside. The Industrial Dog Bone is inspired by a compression joint, which is a plumbing product. The product is both a chew toy and a treat dispenser. The Double Trouble durable chew toy and treat dispenser is inspired by a truck suspension part, Baker said.
As of press time, Mary Morgan, marketing and communication director at HuggleHounds, a division of Denville, N.J.-based Allure Pet Products, said the brand planned to introduce a Swanky Swans line at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., in February. Attention has been paid to every design detail of the plush swans, and they feature embellishments such as gold crowns and metallic feet.