Something to bark about

By Sara Karnish

These stores give pet lovers many ways to pamper their pets and express their fondness for furry friends.

Ask most pet owners what makes their furry friends so special, and the responses are likely to be unanimous: pets are more than four-legged companions — they are family. More pet retailers are honoring this special relationship between animals and their humans by carrying a selection of merchandise that appeals to both species.

“People have such a passion for their pets — especially dogs,” says Karen Komisar, owner of Sea Dog Pet Boutique in Annapolis, Maryland. “We’re in a touristy area, so we get a lot of people visiting with their pets. Owners want to take something home that reminds them of their pet, or as a gift for their pet.”

As an example, shelf blocks with various sayings and images are a big seller at Sea Dog. One features a design of a sailboat with either a black or yellow Labrador retriever on board — an appropriate waterfront city souvenir for a Lab owner or lover.

“Because we carry more unique items you can’t find in a big box store, our customers like to find things that maybe they’ve seen online but haven’t had a chance to order,” Konstar explains.

Unique treats and chews, toys and accessories are the overall bestsellers in the pet category, with emphasis on “unique.”

Tail-wagging ideas

Lynn Small, owner of Faux Paws Dog Shop teases customers, “We don’t have anything your dog needs — just things he wants.”

The store has four locations: the flagship store in Saint Augustine, Florida, Tampa, and North Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina. Top sellers vary by store location.

Sea Dog Pet Boutique gives beachgoers ways to pamper their pups.

“In Tampa, our licensed sports jerseys outsell everything else in the store since Tampa has popular teams in football, baseball and hockey. In our other stores it varies between tropical-themed leashes, collars, bandanas with fun sayings, and basically any item with the customers’ dogs’ name on it.”

Barb Emmett, owner of Godfrey’s Welcome to Dogdom in Mohnton, Pennsylvania, carries a broad selection of one-of-a-kind items and works with local artisans and vendors whenever she can to make her items even more custom.

Godfrey’s is located in a restored barn, and relevant merchandise is displayed in every room.

“Our concept was, ‘pets live in our home,’ so we wanted to show how products can be used or displayed in each room of a home. Each room in our store is really a room in the home.”

As for top sellers, Emmett says, “Our biggest seller is jewelry for people who love dogs. We also have dog-themed pottery pieces made by a local artist, and we make customized dog beds. We want to do custom as much as possible — the customers can pick the fabric.”

The store only carries select apparel because Emmett says there is so much available online. “But we have some denim with a dog scene on the back that is very popular.”

Godfrey’s memorial section also does well. “We have beautiful boxes and teardrop jewelry available. Anytime you can find someone locally who loves dogs and can do custom items makes it wonderfully special,” she says.
Sea Dog carries an assortment of enrichment toys and various treats for dogs, and products like lick mats and scratching toys for cats.

Faux Paws Dog Shop features a large variety of plush and rubber dog toys. The store has four pooch-loving locations in Florida and South Carolina.

“All of our products are made in the United States, and I try to do small batch and work with women-owned businesses whenever I can,” Komisar says. Popular gifts for pet owners include mugs, T-shirts with various graphics and sayings, talking sticks and greeting cards.

“The cards are from another woman-owned business called Wagging Tail, and we sell mugs and coffee by Grounds & Hounds, a coffee company who donates 20% of its profits to various rescue initiatives,” she explains.

These retailers say they are always looking for new and unique merchandise. Customer requests and suggestions, attending gift and pet shows, and vendor recommendations are just a few ways these retailers keep their inventory current and on trend.

“Owners want to take something home that reminds them of their pet, or as a gift for their pet.” — Karen Komisar, Sea Dog Pet Boutique

“Something that’s picked up and become even more important are natural pet supplements and products to ratchet up how we can help our pets with things for the body,” Emmett explains. “Things for handicapped pets — lifts, for instance. It never ceases to amaze me what comes out.”

Emmett says, “We try to stay current but not follow every single trend. My passion is really nutrition and integrative health. We offer nutritional counseling to improve a pet’s diet. Our focus is on supplementation and health. We are always educating pet owners.”

Doggone displays

Retailers use various methods for merchandising and creating eye-catching displays. “I like to set up my store by type of product,” Konstar explains. “For instance, I have all the enrichment toys together, all the collars together, all the leashes together. I don’t like things that are crowded. I like to have space between the displays. Many people come in with their dogs, and I get a lot of compliments on how the store is laid out.”

Baskets overflow with pet toys at Godfrey’s.

Small incorporates interesting display pieces into the flow of her store, preferring to use pieces that tie back to a theme when she can.

“Tropical-themed toys is another one of our big sellers,” she says. “So, we found a boat maker on Etsy and had him make us a rowboat that we laid across two standing shelves.”

All the toys are in the boat, and fish nets hung next to it display the smaller toys. “It makes for a great centerpiece in our Tampa store and is really eye-catching from the sidewalk,” she adds.

A personal connection

Gifts for dogs, and dog-themed gifts, tend to be bigger sellers than cat items. “We do carry a lot of cat stuff, but the items are smaller, so it might look like there’s less than there actually is,” Konstar says. “Some customers say our cat section is not big enough, but the dog items definitely sell better.”

Dogs items and dog-themed gifts are all Small sells. “When we first opened our store in Saint Augustine, a woman down the street had a store strictly for cats. We decided to make our store dogs-only and send her the cat business to be a good neighbor. She has since retired and closed her store, yet we never changed. Dogs have been very good to us!”

Many retailers develop a personal connection with their regular customers. Being in a tourist area, Konstar has a lot of visitors and one-time customers who come into her store. She strives to give them the same experience as her regulars.

“In Tampa, our licensed sports jerseys outsell everything else in the store since Tampa has popular teams in football, baseball and hockey.” — Lynn Small, Faux Paws Dog Shop

“I just try to find out more about what they’re looking for — a plush toy, treat, chew? What type of dog? How active is the dog? What are their favorite toys? Also, what kind of price point? I’ll let them know what I’ve used for my dogs. Same thing if it’s a gift for a human—do they want something breed-specific?”

As always, making that personal connection means recognizing customers’ pets as their family. “Treat the pets as you would a human,” Emmett says. “We have gift bags and will wrap gifts for the dogs. We keep items about dogs and their owners in our database so we can make suggestions when they come in. Customers want to find unique items and items that are good for their dog.”

Small says, “My top tip is to make the owner feel like theirs is the first dog you’ve seen. In our stores, our customers are on vacation, and they miss their little buddy or buddies. We make sure to ask to see pictures and find out their pets’ names.”

Of course, most pet owners already think of their animals as family, but as Emmett points out, it is truly thoughtful when other relatives also take the same view.

“I think it’s so delightful how, in today’s world, to be buying for and recognizing the importance of pets in our lives and our friends’ lives,” she says. “Dogs are seriously like family, and when you love your dog like family, there is nothing like having that relationship recognized by family members.”