The Sharp-Dressed Dog
As dressing dogs up-either in fun costumes or functional yet fashionable clothing-gains traction, manufacturers are giving pet owners lots of stylish options and pet retailers profitable opportunities.
The humanization of pets and their growing prominence as family members in U.S. households have resulted in a sea change for the pet industry. The food and supplements categories, in particular, have benefited mightily from this trend, as consumers have sought to indulge their pets with the best the market has to offer. However, pet owners’ desire to pamper and care for their animals has resulted in a heightened demand for all manner of merchandise. Dog apparel is one such category.
Although it still provides opportunities to dress up tiny dogs in adorable outfits, the apparel category is no longer limited to frivolous and fun fashions. Functional and practical attire is an important segment of the category, these days. In addition, larger dogs are increasingly getting into the act, says Rebecca Gadd, creative director for Gold Paw Series, a Clackamas, Ore.-based company offering dog apparel and harnesses.
“In general, there’s more acceptance in the world at large for dogs in clothes,” says Gadd. “It wasn’t long ago that apparel was a small-dog-only, knit-sweater and costume thing. Outside of that, you were being silly if you dressed your dog. Today, in a lot of areas, the majority of dogs of all sizes will be in coats in inclement weather.”
Russ Cress, marketing director for Los Angeles-based manufacturer Hip Doggie, also notes that larger-sized dogs have been participating more in the apparel trend, and he says the emphasis is on functional pieces such as raincoats. “We also see apparel for small dogs becoming more functional,” he adds. “Although fun and costuming are still important, fashion-meeting-function has become more in demand.”
As with human fashion, dog fashion is seasonal, says Warren Agee, owner/designer of My Fabulous Puppy (MFP), a Troy, Mich.-based designer of upcycled luxury pet fashions. “In the summer months, pet owners are buying more lightweight fashions such as T-shirts—light-colored ones can reflect the sun’s rays to stay cooler—Hawaiian and plaid shirts,” he says. “In the colder months, many people assume dogs are able to survive with their fur. But short-haired and smaller breeds are susceptible to cold weather.”
Fortunately for dogs, pet owners have started to regard protection against the cold-weather elements as a necessity, particularly in parts of the county where the climate can become severe. In fact, Gadd says fall and winter are the company’s busiest times, although demand is starting to spill over to the milder months.
“Our whole lives [revolve around] shipping dog coats, from September until January,” she says. “It used to be that was all, but the dog-apparel industry is really becoming more like the human-fashion industry. There’s more of an expectation of spring cycles, fall cycles and so on. So although stores order the bulk of their inventory during those four months, we do a lot of special orders all spring and summer too.”
Kristy Hinze Clark, founder and creative director of Legitimut, says the company experienced a surge in demand for all coat sizes last winter. “Maybe the weather patterns have something to do with it, or maybe people are just more sensitive to their dog’s comfort,” says Hinze Clark, whose bed and dog-apparel company is located in Pompano Beach, Fla. “We dress all sizes of dogs, and it’s important to keep them all warm and fashionable.”
Although winter is the manufacturer’s strongest season, Hinze Clark says she is seeing good activity during spring and summer, with apparel designed for these months—such as raincoats and lightweight items—moving at a nice pace.
This nearly year-round demand is aided by the fact that the pet market has gone global. “When it’s summer here, it’s winter in Australia,” she adds.
Of course, Halloween is typically a popular time for dog apparel, as are the other holidays, says Kayti Miller, business manager for Hong Kong City Toys, a Hong Kong-based manufacturer of pet accessories and apparel. The company designs and produces fall and spring outerwear, as well as, Halloween and holiday apparel, along with toys, beds and bowls.
“It’s all about dressing your dog and sharing how adorable they look on social media,” she says. “Apparel can often be an impulse purchase based on an event like Halloween, or just because it’s too cute to pass up. Pet parents love to pamper their dogs, so anything the owner gravitates to, they must have.”
As with all segments of the category, the fun is not restricted to lap dogs. When it comes to costuming, larger dogs are increasingly joining the fun, says Erin Breig, sales and product development for Richmond Hill, N.Y.-based Rubie’s Costume Company, Inc. “It used to be a market controlled by small and medium dogs, but the big dogs want to dress up and be fashionable too,” says Breig. In response, the company, which designs, manufactures and distributes Halloween costumes and accessories, has added XXXL sizes to their line.
Out the Door
Apparel can spell good profits for stores, says Miller, explaining that these items often carry better margins than other merchandise like beds or toys. But even so, retailers may sometimes find it challenging to effectively merchandise apparel, thus undermining the category’s sales-generating potential. It’s not something retailers can dip into half-heartedly.
“Stores are either committed to carrying dog apparel or not committed at all,” says Gretchen George, president of PetRageous Designs LTD. Headquartered in Burlington, Mass., the company designs products for dogs and cats, including pet apparel. “If they are committed, they’ll dedicate the space and educate staff on how to fit pet clothing to their consumers’ pets.”
Gadd agrees that commitment can be an issue for retailers. “They will bring in a smattering of different styles and a couple of sizes, and then hang them up and call it a day,” she says. “I think apparel departments require a bit more effort than toys—but not as much as food. [There’s] also such a vast selection available that it’s harder for retailers to research and decide what to go for.”
Another impediment is getting the fit right, something Gadd describes as the hardest part of dog apparel. Adding to the challenge is the fact that dogs’ sizes can vary widely. “It’s all about fitting the largest number of dogs with the fewest sizes,” she says. “The more sizes that are available, the greater the burden is on the retailer.”
Fortunately, styles in the category do not cycle in and out at too dizzying of a pace. Although pet-apparel manufacturers do keep an eye on the human runway, the dog apparel category is not as beholden to fads and whimsy. “I think the trend in pet fashions is more traditional,” says Cress. “The apparel changes, but there’s not quite the variety you find in human fashions—although pet owners still like to see newness and variety.”
The relatively slower pace of dog apparel trends can make it easier for retailers to manage, since it’s unlikely they’ll get stuck with styles that have suddenly become passé. Still, many retailers are loath to order well in advance, says Cress, and their hesitancy makes it difficult for manufacturers to know what to expect.
It could also spell missed opportunity for stores, says George. “We would advise retailers to take advantage of impulse buying by bringing the product in early and merchandising it at the immediate front-end of the buying season,” she says. “Most of these items are seasonal, so bringing it in early and making it prominent lets the consumer know you have it.”
George recommends placing the product front and center so consumers can easily see it. Other merchandising and inventory strategies to consider include:
• Keep the product at eye-level, near the front doors or in an easily navigated, designated and high-traffic area of the store, says Agee.
• Commit to a few styles, having enough colors and sizes for impact, says Gadd. “I personally think it’s also smart to offer a couple of price points for each [item], such as a better and a budget rain jacket, a better and a budget insulated coat, and so on,” she explains.
• Stock accessories, says Breig. “We’ve noticed a mix and match trend,” she explains. “Owners are buying accessories like hats, tutus and wings, so they can create their own custom look.”
• Educate employees on the particular qualities and benefits of the line that may appeal to certain types of customers, such as those who are eco-focused. For example, Hong Kong City Toys offers the Citipets Green line, which uses sustainable manufacturing processes. Also, MFP describes its apparel as eco-conscious.
• Use fixtures that allow consumers to see the entire piece, says George. And don’t forget the shop dog, reminds Cress. “When the shop dog is wearing something, I guarantee you will sell several of those.”
• Display photos of dogs wearing apparel. Most manufacturers can provide these, and photos are a great way to add fun to the walls and display stand, and to add rings at the register.
• Use sizing charts and diagrams. Again, many manufacturers provide these.
Dog apparel offers pet specialty retailers a nice opportunity to jazz up their stores and whip up excitement, Cress says. “Dog apparel is fresh and fun and is everything that most other pet products aren’t,” he explains. “It’s a good draw and does keep customers coming back. One of our retailers found that when she was unpacking a box of apparel, customers were right there, rifling through it before she could put it out—they were that eager to get new product.
“We’re also finding that pet apparel is one of the major categories that can really separate retailers from the competition,” Cress continues. “It can make a big impact in the store and in the display windows and really transmit what the store is about.”