The dog toy category is performing well at retail, pet specialty industry insiders report, driven by both a boom in pet ownership as well as a steady flow of fun and inventive product launches.
“Dog toy sales are up for sure,” said Taylor Foster, store manager of Bon Pet Supply in Colorado Springs, Colo. “A lot of people adopted dogs in 2020 since most were spending lots of extra time at home during the pandemic, and toys are one of the best ways to keep a dog occupied.”
One result of the explosion of dog adoptions is that owners are seeking fun toys to celebrate adoption days and settling into life together.
Products that promise to keep dogs engaged while also appealing to owners’ sense of whimsy are trending. Leah Angelos, sales manager for ZippyPaws, a manufacturer in Chino, Calif., reported that the company’s Donutz, Burrows and NomNomz product lines—which feature fun, colorful and familiar forms like the NomNomz Taco and the squeaky Donutz chocolate doughnut—are top performers.
Robin Kershner, founder of Huxley & Kent, a manufacturer in Washington, D.C., said parody toys are especially popular right now because they create a special connection between pets and their owners.
“It might be a special drink, food or candy parody plush toy that ties them together and creates great posts for social media outlets,” she said. “Birthday/adoption-themed toys are also trending as consumers come out of the pandemic and start to socialize again and celebrate their furry friend that got them through ‘ruff’ times.”
Foster reported that toys in the shape of farm animal, such as llamas and alpacas, are trending picks at her store.
“Most of them are brightly colored, if not rainbow colored; and [manufacturers] will put a unicorn horn on any shape that has four legs and a head right now,” she said.
Color and shape are important, said Jerry Moffett, vice president of sales and marketing for Ruff Dawg, a manufacturer in Worcester, Mass.
“People will always respond to bright colors, fun shapes and a sense of humor,” he said. “They’re toys, after all.”
In addition to uniqueness, trending dog toys are designed to provide mental stimulation, insiders said.
“We are hearing more requests for puzzle toys that make the dog think and keep them occupied for an extended period of time,” said Austin Fowler, store manager of We Lov Pets in Mount Vernon, Ohio.
Natural materials are another trend reported by insiders. Specifically, Foster has noticed more brands using components such as jute, hemp and wood.
“These alternative materials are safer since most of them are minimally processed and occur naturally,” she said.
New dog toys have been rolling out this year, and manufacturers have several launches in the works.
Ruff Dawg started the new year with the debut of two retrieving toys that are 100 percent made in the USA, said Jerry Moffett, vice president of sales and marketing for the Worcester, Mass.-based company.
From the company’s Indestructible Guaranteed line came Dawg-Cube, a heavy-duty, solid cube of rubber in two sizes: regular and XL. Sporting high-visibility neon colors, the cube is designed to float and crazy-bounce for retrieving, and it includes an easy Lifetime Replacement Guarantee directly from Ruff Dawg, Moffett said.
The company also introduced the Crinkit, a new type of noise-making toy made with a replaceable empty water bottle encased in a durable solid rubber shell, Moffett said. Also made in high-visibility neon colors and available in regular and XL sizes, Crinkit floats for retrieving in the water.
“Dogs love crunching on and carrying water bottles,” Moffett said. “Now they can retrieve and crunch away safely.”
For summer, Washington, D.C.-based Huxley & Kent launched its Summer of Love toy collection. The themed Lulubelles plush toys include Pawtriot Bone Dog Toy and Star Pop Dog Toy to celebrate Independence Day, Pride Donut and Pride Heart for Pride celebrations, and candy- and snack-themed toys, such as Sour Scratch Pups, Unicorn Farts and Skinny Pup Pupcorn.
ZippyPaws plans to unveil several new toys in its 2021 Fall/Winter Catalog. One of the launches is the company’s Latex Happy Hour Crusherz line, a collection of toys designed to look like bottles of popular happy hour beverages such as merlot and whiskey.
“Since our original plush versions of the Crusherz have been met with such enthusiasm, we’ve decided to create latex versions as well,” said Leah Angelos, sales manager for the Chino, Calif.-based company.
Stocking with Clientele in Mind
The most important factor for independent retailers that are choosing which dog toys to carry is to know their customers, industry insiders reported.
“Understanding the demand of your consumers is a great first step towards curating the perfect assortment,” said Leah Angelos, sales manager for ZippyPaws, a manufacturer in Chino, Calif.
The best way to understand customer preferences is to have a conversation, said Jerry Moffett, vice president of sales and marketing for Ruff Dawg, a manufacturer in Worcester, Mass.
“There is a reason they entered your store, as opposed to buying online or from a mass retailer,” Moffett said. “Find out what that reason is—ask—and then respond by offering products that suit their needs and interests.”
That is precisely how Taylor Foster, store manager of Bon Pet Supply in Colorado Springs, Colo., said she stocks her dog toy section.
“I normally ask for feedback from the many different types of customers/dogs we have, and I use this feedback to plan the mixture of toys I keep on hand,” she said. “If I notice a certain style or brand of toy is trending, I try to replace slower-moving toys with toys similar to the popular ones, and I rotate them out quite a bit.”
Once retailers know their customer preferences, Angelos recommended offering an organized, curated selection of toys for dog owners to choose from.
“It’s important for retailers to merchandise pet products in a way that will give their shoppers a way to shop a wide variety of options based on preferences, while not being messy or overwhelming,” she said.
To accomplish this, Robin Kershner, founder of Huxley & Kent, a manufacturer in Washington, D.C., recommended tiered options with a good, better, best selection.
“The ‘good’ option is a basic plush toy that is inexpensive and fun, but it might lack durability. It appeals to price-sensitive customers and makes the product more accessible,” she said. “The ‘better” option is a mid-ranged-price toy that is more durable, and the ‘best’ tier will be the toys that price higher, have a proven track record or are designed for durability.”
Austin Fowler, store manager of We Lov Pets in Mount Vernon, Ohio, said he uses a tiered selection with multiple brands.
“The brands we carry do a good job at providing different tiers of quality,” he said. “We try to accommodate all customers’ wants and needs while making sure our selection isn’t too much to handle. If we receive multiple requests for a certain type of toy, we will make an effort to bring on new toys to fill that void.”
Ultimately, independent stores should listen to what their customers ask about and be prepared to make recommendations for dog owners’ most common scenarios, Moffett said.
“Your toy assortment will represent your store, so make sure it offers unique, high-quality products to keep customers coming back,” he said.
Merchandising Magic in 6 Steps
Strategic displays make a big difference in moving products in-store. Industry insiders offered six ways to best highlight dog toys to spark customer interest and boost sales.
1. Make it fun
Toys inherently are fun, so retailers should show that in the displays, insiders said.
Austin Fowler, store manager of We Lov Pets in Mount Vernon, Ohio, recommended including pictures of dogs using the toys.
Robin Kershner, founder of Huxley & Kent, a manufacturer in Washington, D.C., agreed.
“To make the wall interesting, and if there is enough space, lifestyle photos are great,” she said. “People love to look at pictures of dogs having fun and the toys in action.”
Videos are another way to get customers’ attention and show the fun factor of toys.
“Videos sell toys,” Kershner said. “If you can have a video of dogs actively playing with a toy, that toy will sell well. At Huxley & Kent, we have a YouTube channel where we provide retailers access to our toy videos.”
2. Use color
Utilizing eye-catching colors is another strategy Fowler said he employs in his store.
Taylor Foster, store manager of Bon Pet Supply in Colorado Springs, Colo., said that some kind of color scheme or pattern not only catches the eye, but also assists with organization.
3. Group toys together
There are several ways to group dog toys to make them inviting and easy for customers to navigate.
Kershner suggested merchandising by toy types or price.
Jerry Moffett, vice president of sales and marketing for Ruff Dawg, a manufacturer in Worcester, Mass., suggested seasonal groupings and changing them up to keep them interesting.
“Group products seasonally, [such as] ‘Floating Toys for Summer,’ or by dog size, like ‘Tough Toys for Big Dogs’ or ‘Tugging Toys for Puppies,’” Moffett said. “You could group by most-requested features like ‘Noisy Toys.’”
4. Strategize signage
Customers especially like seeing new products, so Foster highlights fresh offerings with fun signs.
“In my experience, new toys will sell quickly if people know they are new to the store, and even more so if the toy is new to the manufacturer,” Foster said. “I always recommend signage that states the product is new with arrows and colorful lettering.”
This especially helps with repeat customers, Kershner said.
“They want to see what’s new, so a ‘new’ sign where a retailer quickly points out the newest items is helpful,” she said.
In the toy section, signage also helps consumers navigate what type of toy is best for their pup, Kershner said.
“Making helpful signage to point out levels of durability and safety helps,” she said, adding that “lighting is key as well. Retailers want to make it easy for consumers to see the tag information explaining toy features.”
5. Keep quality in mind
The appearance and condition of displays greatly affect how customers will respond to the products merchandised there, Fowler said.
“Oftentimes, when we receive low-quality, cardboard displays, they get damaged easily, and this makes them less appealing to the customer,” he said.
6. Make it interactive
Providing customers with a hands-on experience draws them to the display and increases the chances of them purchasing something from there, retailers said. Foster suggested having an opened pack or sample out for people to look at and touch.