When it comes to dog toy innovation, pet enthusiasts, particularly those on the manufacturing side of the business, see the possibilities as endless.
"Dog toys are evolving constantly, with pet brands always trying to find new ways and innovations to entertain a pup’s play habits," said Lisa Hisamune, director of sales at P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle and You), a San Francisco-based manufacturer of pet toys, beds and accessories. "No longer is it just a rope toy or a plush with one squeaker for a dog. Now there are stuff-less toys, water bottle toys, interactive toys, puzzle toys and even battery-operated toys, to name a few."
The variety stems from the way people see their pets, according to Hisamune.
"As pet parents look at their dog or cat as part of the family and invest more time on really understanding their individual needs, they want to find toys that suit their specific play patterns," she said.
Toys are certainly there to entertain, but companies are also creating products to help dogs, said Kathy Tsai, founder of Ontario, Calif.-based Petique, which manufactures pet toys, travel products and other pet wares.
"[There are] toys to help dogs with their activity levels, from excess energy to low energy," Tsai said.
Toys can also cater to different types of personalities, such as the treat-oriented dog or the dog that needs brain stimulation with puzzle toys, Tsai added.
A popular quest among pet owners, according to Hisamune, is "that truly indestructible dog toy for the strong chewer."
"I don’t know if there is one yet, but durability in a dog toy is always a key factor when pet parents are buying toys for their pups," she said.
USA-made toys continue to be an upward trend, according to Paula Jaffe, co-owner of Cool Dog Gear, which has locations in Pennsylvania.
"We have seen more made in the USA toys, which fall in line with consumer demand," Jaffe said.
Such products are so much in demand that The Quirky Pet in Montpelier, Vt., only sells USA-made products. The company’s website advertises this fact: "The Quirky Pet is proud to actively support over 125 small businesses across the U.S. who are quietly rebuilding an American pet supply industry that has been overwhelmed by a tsunami of low-cost imports over the last few decades."
Dogs might be the end users of toys, but companies also take into account what pet owners find attractive.
"Over the years, we can see that the ‘humanization of pets’ trend has been heavily influencing the dog toy market," said Leah Angelos, sales representative at Chino, Calif.-based ZippyPaws, a manufacturer of pet toys, travel products and more. "Consumers love to have products for pets that reflect their own personal interests so they can enjoy the things they love together."
Industry insiders report that current dog toy sales are either fairly flat or rising with enthusiasm. Long-term trends, however, point upward.
"Dog toy sales have been steadily increasing over time and show no signs of slowing down," Angelos said. "There are always fresh products available on the market that cater to different lifestyles, behaviors and play styles of our pets."
Target Your Audience
It’s important for independent retailers to have a diverse selection of products, but with so many dog toys on the market, what’s the best way to curate the ideal assortment?
"Understanding the needs of the customers and catering to them is especially important when deciding between which products to carry," said Leah Angelos, sales representative at ZippyPaws in Chino, Calif. "For example, sea-themed toys are more popular in stores located near the coast."
Retailers need to ask themselves, "Who is my shopper?" said Mary Morgan, director of marketing and communications at HuggleHounds, a division of Allure Pet Products in Denville, N.J. It’s particularly useful to zero in on the age group of the clientele, she added.
"Each one of those buyers are not necessarily created equal," Morgan said. "They may be equal in terms of spending, but what they look for in terms of toys can vary widely."
Taking note of what products move and those that sit on the store shelf is a good indicator of what to order in the next round, said Cindra Conison, owner of The Quirky Pet in Montpelier, Vt. For instance, when she first opened her store eight years ago, there was a particular product that was so popular it was hard to keep in stock. Interest in the dog toy eventually waned, so she adjusted her inventory accordingly.
Paula Jaffe, co-owner of Cool Dog Gear, which has locations in Pennsylvania, said her store primarily focuses on toys for tough chewers. Quality is also an important factor, she added.
"Customers are willing to pay a little more for good quality," Jaffe said. "We also offer a wide range of styles and sizes to accommodate all size dogs. We look for items that are not normally found in the big-box stores—customers are looking for new and different, not the same old items they can find everywhere else."
Still, retailers might want to think twice about making their assortment leaner, said Kathy Tsai, founder of Petique in Ontario, Calif.
"What if a customer goes into a store looking for something specific and the retailer happens to not carry it? What retailers can do is organize their toys by types and sizes for customers to be less confused," she said. "With a large assortment, you never know, customers may end up buying a variety to test out on their dog. Customers with puppies would also appreciate a large assortment."
Instead of cutting down on variety, Angelos said that keeping an organized and sectioned assortment can be just as effective.
"Although keeping a wide variety is favorable, it’s always important to make sure the customer can find what they are looking for easily," she said.
Specialized sections can include a puppy and soft chew section, a power chewer area, a plush toy segment, an interactive toy section and an outdoor toy section, said Lisa Hisamune, director of sales at P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle and You) in San Francisco.
"If a store creates well-curated sections for different types of toys, it will be easier for customers to find exactly what they are looking for, and they will appreciate the organization and likely purchase a product or two," Hisamune said.
Does That Inspire You?
Inspiration can come in many forms, especially when it pertains to developing a new dog toy. For instance, customer feedback, company employee recommendations and keeping an eye on trends are all great ways to spur the next "aha" idea, according to industry insiders.
"Our inspiration comes from everyone in the company," said Lisa Hisamune, director of sales at San Francisco-based P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle and You), which manufactures pet toys, beds and accessories. "We all get together and have massive brainstorm sessions where we come up with the themes for our next toy collections."
Company officials also look at trends on Instagram while taking note of what’s "hot" with their target audience, Hisamune said. Reaching out to customers and asking them what products they might be looking for or what they see as lacking has proven helpful.
"We [received] many comments that there weren’t a lot of fun and cute big dog plush toys," Hisamune said. "That inspired us to create our Safari toy collection that features a distinctly huge squeaker in the belly of the animal and hind legs that can be tugged back and forth."
ZippyPaws officials also turn to customers for inspiration.
"We love receiving feedback because it helps us understand what the customers want," said Leah Angelos, sales representative at the Chino, Calif.-based company, which manufactures pet toys, travel products and more. "When designing products, we want our pets to be just as happy as the customers that buy them."
Petique’s mission "to provide safe and high-quality products while taking action to help the animals and the planet" is a source of inspiration for the company, said Kathy Tsai, founder of the Ontario, Calif.-based company. Offering nontoxic products is of particular interest, she noted.
"We study the market and see what our customers like," Tsai said. "Hemp is an up-and-coming product, and our customers care about the safety of their pets."
Inspiration, however, doesn’t have to come just from a given product category, said Mary Morgan, director of marketing and communications at HuggleHounds, a division of Allure Pet Products in Denville, N.J.
"I think you can look at trends across the entire category of consumers, not just what’s in your segment, like dog toys," Morgan said.
HuggleHounds officials take note of consumer fashion, colors, accessories and fabrics. Then they adapt these trends in a way that makes sense for HuggleHounds, Morgan said.
Keeping It Fresh
In the dog toy category, manufacturers are routinely coming out with new products, features and designs to capture the interest of both the dog and the pet owner.
"We always try to keep our assortments fresh with every pup in mind," said Leah Angelos, sales representative at ZippyPaws, which manufactures pet toys, travel products and more.
The Chino, Calif.-based company’s most recent launches include its ZippyTuff Donutz and the Back to School line of dog toys.
Keeping it fresh is what consumers respond to, said Mary Morgan, director of marketing and communications at HuggleHounds, a division of Allure Pet Products in Denville, N.J., that manufactures pet toys.
"They love [when products] feel new, fresh and modern," Morgan said, adding that this is why HuggleHounds’ holiday collection is completely new every year. "There is nothing leftover from the [previous holiday]."
This year, the company has turned the spotlight on its Sparkle n Shine holiday collection. The fabric is embellished with sparkles from HuggleHounds’ exclusive heat-stamped glitter that is both "safe and beautiful," according to Morgan.
Petique officials have been working on eco-friendly and nontoxic hemp toys.
"Hemp is the most durable textile material on the planet," said Kathy Tsai, founder of Ontario, Calif.-based Petique, which manufactures pet toys, travel products and other pet wares.
The Fetching Flock toy collection by P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle and You) made its debut at SuperZoo in Las Vegas in August. The collection includes five different bird species, each with its own unique design and construction of squeakers, crinkly paper and crunchy water bottle, according to Lisa Hisamune, director of sales for the San Francisco-based company, which manufactures pet toys, beds and accessories.
"All the toys feature our new ChewShield Technology, an inside mesh lining for added durability," Hisamune said. "Up next for our toy lines is an American-made line of TPE [thermoplastic elastomers] toys and some mini plush toys from our most popular toy sets."