By Sara Hodon
Pets are as much a part of the family as any human relative—just ask the self-described “crazy cat ladies” or “proud dog moms” in your life. The American Pet Products Association has estimated pet owners spend well over $60 billion on items for their four-legged friends, so it’s no surprise pet retail operations are thriving, and constantly evolving to meet the needs of their customers. From doggie washes to pet spas, luxury pet hotels to doggie day cares, pet owners will spare no expense to give their beloved Fido or Fluffy all the “creature” comforts and TLC they deserve. With such a booming industry, retailers are tasked with creating appealing shopping experiences and environments for pets as well as their humans. This means going the extra mile and responding to requests for items that help owners celebrate special occasions in their pets’ lives.
Missie Mattei, owner of Miss Doolittles Pet Spa and Boutique in Pottsville and Deer Lake, Pa., said she’s seen a huge uptick in demand for birthday-themed merchandise. “Our top sellers are our specialty bakery treats, but along with that, we have an ever-growing birthday section that’s become really popular,” she said. “When I started, it took awhile [for the birthday section] to grow—people would see something and think, ‘It’s cute,’ but it wasn’t their dog’s birthday. I see a lot of new birthday pieces from the distributors. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s really catching on. We sell tiaras, hats, bandanas, bow ties, cakes, cookies, and toys. We also sell T-shirts and collars that say: ‘Birthday Girl’ and ‘Birthday Boy.’ ”
Colleen Young, operations manager at The Fish and Bone in Portland, Maine, said their best-selling gift is a well-known symbol of Maine—lobster toys. “Some of our favorites are VIP TOYS Larry the Lobster, Fluff & Tuff Manny Lobster, Hugglehound Lobster, and for the kitties Pussums Cat Company Lobstah Nip.”
Patricia Lanz, owner of Sasha’s Canine Bakery and More in Pottsville, Pa., said all their treats sell well, “especially the peanut butter and banana, bacon, and pumpkin flavors.” For straightforward gifts, Lanz said, “Collars, leashes, and picture frames are the best-sellers. Most of the collars and leashes are hand-made, and the coats, sweaters, and bandanas are all hand-made. I do a lot of the sewing, and I have another girl from Williamstown [Pennsylvania] who does some of it. People love the handmade gifts.”
Viktoria Kamenshine, floor lead and buyer at Hip Hound in Portland, Ore., said their retail space is a one-of-a-kind pet shop. “In addition to our pet boutique, we also have the ‘Java Hound’ coffee bar as soon as you walk into the store, where humans can enjoy a latte or pastry and pups can gulp down a goat’s milk puppuccino.” She said their best-selling gifts are “Bark Bouquets, Buttheadz Bandanaz, and Rose City Pup bowties. The bark bouquets, made in-house, consist of our best-selling bulk treats wrapped in a classic bandana. We always recommend them to people looking for a unique gift that any dog is sure to love. The ‘Buttheadz Bandanaz’ are made locally and unique because they slip around a collar instead of tying around the neck. The fabrics are a nod to Portland, whether it’s the famous PDX carpet, coffee, craft beer, Blazer’s, or bicycles and are a fantastic souvenir!” she explained. “Finally, Rose City Pup bowties are a big hit!
RCP is owned by our Assistant Manager and Buyer Emily Keudell and features fabrics to match the season and upcoming holidays. She makes collars in addition to Bowties.”
Regular customers typically know the layout of their favorite go-to pet boutique and where to find the items they need. Retailers use different methods to help their brand-new inventory stand out. “One of the best ways to ensure a product will sell is to be knowledgeable about it,” Kamenshine said. “Whether it’s a new food, raincoat, treat, or toy, understanding the product and the company that makes it is so important. All of our staff make sure we’re on the same page about why a particular product was selected, what type of dog it’s geared towards, et cetera. Of course, having a catchy display where customers will notice new products is part of the equation. We’re also very active on social media and use that as a tool to communicate new specials, products, and events to our customers.” Lanz has also found social media to be helpful when marketing new items. Mattei said, “When I try something new, I start small to see if the customers have any interest. I usually want to see quality. I do have to buy things that I haven’t seen in person, and that can be hit or miss. I try to buy a small amount to see if I like it and it sells. If I like it in person as much as I did in the picture, hopefully others will, too.” Young said they rotate their inventory to keep displays fresh and engaging for customers. “Each week we change out our displays for something new. When we have new product, we try to showcase it in a way that is fun and eye-catching. The team really enjoys coming up with displays and they work together to make them come together.”
Merchandising is just as important for pet gifts as any other type of gift. “Displays are huge. How you display things has a huge impact on whether people will be drawn to look around or not,” Mattei said. And where items are placed is critical, as well. “The way items are displayed will change everything,” Mattei continued. “I used to have one long piece for displaying items in my original location. Amazingly, I took that piece out and I set up another display unit that forced people to walk around the space. That completely changed everything.”
Kamenshine said her team works hard to take their displays to the next level. “We use it [the display] as an opportunity to tell a story and help people imagine the product out in the world. Since outdoor activities are so popular in the Pacific Northwest, we incorporate rocks, branches, and other natural elements in our display to really set the scene. We change the main display inside the store every week or so to showcase products that relate to an upcoming holiday or seasonal activity. I love creating displays with lots of layers that keep the eye moving,” she said. Young added, “[Good displays] are what allow you to tell a story and introduce them to the product. If you don’t have the items out in a cohesive way, that says they’re not important.”
Although products for dogs are typically the biggest sellers at pet boutiques, some retailers said they are seeing steady sales for their gifts for cats. “We sell cat toys when someone comes in to adopt a cat,” Lanz explained. “Dog toys are the bigger seller—owners need something for their dog to do.” Kamenshine said it’s largely a dog’s world at Hip Hound. “While we do meet the occasional adventurous cat, for the most part, dogs are the ones leaving the house with their owners, so we have a lot more products geared towards dogs, especially in regards to clothing and accessories. Good luck getting a cat into onesie pajamas or boots!” Young explained, “I would say we typically sell more dog toys, but cat toys also sell really well. We’ve spent the last few years ensuring we really have a fun and dynamic kitty section.”
Pet owners are just as concerned with their four-legged friends’ health and well-being as any other member of the family. Retailers said it’s important to follow trends so they are responding to the needs of responsible pet owners and stocking products that not only make pets happy, such as cute accessories or a fun toy, but keep them healthy, too. “One big trend that comes to mind is pet accessories, which are a fun way to personalize your pet’s look. These can be hair bows, tiaras, collar bows and flowers, bow ties, shirt collars, and bandanas. On the more practical side, we have tag silencers, which are little bags that go over the ID tags so they don’t jingle—sometimes that will scare the animal.” Other trends include a growing demand for products that include cannabidioil (CBD). “We sell a large selection of CBD for pets including biscuit treats, soft chews, and tinctures. It’s used to manage stress, separation anxiety, fear aggression, and arthritis/joint pain/inflammation and we get positive feedback daily from customers,” Kamenshine said. “It’s made a big difference in the lives of our pet customers and their owners!”
Pets bring immeasurable joy to their families’ lives, and owners are always looking for ways to return some of that joy to their faithful companions. Whether it’s a simple dog-friendly cookie or a full day of pampering at a spa, pet boutique retailers are happy to help owners find ways to say “thank you” to those little souls that mean so much.