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Design Minded

High-end products in the pet category today often cross the line, designed every bit as much for pet owners as for the pets themselves.



The line between human and pet, once clearly defined, has continued to blur—particularly in people’s homes. As pets have become a more integral part of the family, pet owners’ homes have evolved to better suit their animals’ needs. From catios—screened in porches specifically designed for cats—to end tables that double as beautiful dog crates, home décor is increasingly designed to accommodate pets, and more importantly, pet products are complementing trends in home décor. 

What that means for independent pet retailers—especially boutiques—is that in many parts of the country, higher-end pet beds, crates, litter boxes, cat scratchers, bowls and other necessities crafted to complement today’s interior design are increasingly in demand. 

“When we entered the market with our first product, the Modkat Litter Box, everyone told us we were nuts—cat people don’t spend money,” says Brett Teper, co-founder of ModKo, which debuted the Modkat Litter Box in 2009 and now offers a number of modern pet products, for both dogs and cats. “We showed these naysayers that there was a segment of the market that was desperate for high-design products.” 

These days, experts agree that this segment is likely to continue growing. “We believe that there is an upward trend for high-design, better-quality pet products in the marketplace, and in general, sales on those items are increasing for retailers who carry those [products],” says Bill Parsons, sales manager of P.L.A.Y. Pet Lifestyle And You. 

Most companies that design and manufacture high-end pet products, as well as retailers, are finding customers in this market fall largely into one of two groups: baby boomers and young professionals. Baby boomers are both willing and able to splurge on their fur kids, since their human children have left the nest. Meanwhile, young professionals are holding off on marriage and children, opting to become pet parents instead. “It’s not hard to explain why high-design pet products will continue to have further room to grow moving forward,” says Parsons. 
 

Put in Practice 
Gabriel Mejias is well aware of just how strong the market for high-quality products are these days. Mejias has been general manager of Old Towne School for Dogs since 2007. Prior to that, he worked part time at the business, which his parents started in 1975. 

Located in the heart of the historic district in Alexandria, Va., in an otherwise residential area, Old Towne has sat in the same location since first opening its doors almost 40 years ago, although it has grown quite a bit since then. Initially the pet business was limited to 300 square feet, which was dedicated primarily to dog training, with only small spaces for grooming and retail. It has since taken over the 7,000 square-foot building it calls home on Oronoco St., with roughly 3,000 square feet of that space dedicated to retail. There, it serves both the local community and the nearby Washington, D.C. metropolitan area—including, if the Washington Post is to be believed, first-dog Bo Obama. 

The store would not have survived as long as it has without an enduring dedication to keeping up with pet industry trends, and its product mix today reflects that, with a focus on artisan pet foods and tasteful home goods for both dogs and cats. Mejias says the store does not focus much on fashion, instead choosing to stock functional products that have a modern look. “It’s really important, [as a buyer], to be able to discern what is a real quality, high-end product and not just a high-end concept,” he explains. 

“We’ve been doing it so long that we can really recognize a product that stands apart from the rest, that’s worth the high-end price tag,” Mejias adds. The store’s assortment appeals to its mix of long-time loyal customers, including some who have been shopping there for more than 20 years, as well as active, young pet owners. 
 

Accounting For Style & Taste
Of course, that is not all there is to it. Product selection is often a big challenge. “Carry too little stock, and a retailer risks not getting attention from their customers; carry too much stock, and the risk and cash flow stress can be significant,” says Parsons. While he is specifically referring to pet beds, the same holds true for most high-end, and therefore, higher price-point goods.

Once Mejias has found a product he thinks will sell well, he starts with a small initial order. He then monitors sales carefully to see how the product performs. It also helps that his customers are not shy about sharing their feedback. “They’re not afraid to tell me when they don’t like something we carry,” he says—and he likes it that way. 

Because of the open dialogue he has with his customers, they come in and recommend products they have found elsewhere or request items they have seen in a magazine. All of that helps him predict which products will be strong sellers within the store and which will not.

Understanding shoppers’ personal tastes is vital, says Trevor Crotts, executive director at BuddyRest Pet Products, one of the brands of beds that Old Towne carries. “It’s very important to match the customers’ personal taste with the products,” says Crotts. “We work really hard to develop the most durable, comfortable and supportive beds out there, and it is very important for us to balance a blend of style with our science.” 

The company’s commitment to appealing to consumers’ tastes is why many of BuddyRest’s products are neutral earth tones—they can accent a room without looking out of place.

Teper agrees that stocking products in designs that pair well with a variety of home décors is key. “We have found that people think they love color, but ultimately, they buy white or black,” he explains. “So, it’s good to display as many colors as possible to draw people in, but stock the staple colors in greater numbers.” 

“If you do not know your customer, all of your marketing efforts are wasted,” Crotts says. However, what customers want can vary depending on where a store is located. “A lot of trends do not affect the country overnight, but rather are more regional,” he explains. 

D.J. Allen, spokesperson for Stadium Cribs Pet Beds, certainly agrees that some items are more likely to have regional strongholds. Stadium Cribs currently has over 100 NCAA licenses, as well as licenses for a variety of other sports, and creates products that appeal to pet owners’ pride for their favorite teams. “Most of our customers love to display items supporting their favorite sports teams in their homes, thus this is the perfect tie-in,” says Allen. 

“There is so much power in selling to fans,” he says. “Usually, they just need to see the product because they are already invested in it.” 

That statement holds just as true for every type of high-end pet product—when a store finds the right item to complement the style or look that pet owners have already invested in for their homes, the retailer is no longer competing with more basic designs and styles available in other outlets. As long as the product does not compromise on function, décor-conscious shoppers will gravitate toward it, even if it costs a bit more, because it provides for the pets’ needs while matching the style the owners want for themselves.  

After all, the best pet products are designed every bit as much for the pet owner as they are for the pet.

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