It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Well, perhaps not quite yet. But that doesn’t mean the holiday season isn’t already on the minds of retailers nationwide. After all, approximately 40 percent of shoppers start shopping for the holidays before Halloween, though most consumers do their shopping in November, according to the 2015 National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Holiday Survival Kit.
According to the same NRF report, consumer holiday spending has been on the increase since a relatively drastic dip in spending over 2008 and 2009. And while many retailers have navigated several holiday seasons in the tenure of their businesses, that doesn’t necessarily mean last year’s playbook has all the answers, though some things remain constant.
“There is no past, as far as I’m concerned, at this stage; it’s a new ball game,” said Andy Black of Market Strategies Associates. “Unfortunately, time marches on, and the market place—especially in the pet industry—is changing, so what was done last year or the year before that, may not work this year… The trick, I think, is the retailer has to really understand their customer base, and hopefully they do.”
Of course, knowing your customer is a cardinal rule of retail. Knowing what makes customers tick is important for many reasons—and that goes for the entire calendar year. For one, if retailers can understand consumer behavior, they can more effectively cater to it. Especially during the holidays, emotionality is a big part of consumer behavior.
“Finding unique, themed holiday merchandise that can only be found at your store creates an opportunity for you to have an exclusive relationship with that customer,” said Lynn Switanowski, president of Creative Business Consulting Group. “It’s especially important during the holidays, as people feel more emotional when making purchases if it’s the right item as a gift for someone—making something special during holidays is emotional for many consumers!”
Switanowski specifically presents the idea of personalized merchandise, which can be framed as holiday gifts. Ultimately, products that play to pet owners’ emotional connection to their furry family members is what will sell during the holidays as well as yearround.
“The emotional connection with consumers today is a critically important piece of successful retail,” she continued. “Using this emotion— when you are choosing products for your pet business, merchandising your store shelves or marketing your pet business—will create a chance for you to connect with consumers.”
All Things Holiday
Building upon that understanding of consumer behavior, there are several strategies retailers have employed to maximize sales during the holiday season. Some successful strategies named by retailers in the 2016 NRF Retailer Holiday Planning Playbook include improved merchandising (11 percent), additional marketing (10 percent) and additional advertising (7 percent). A quarter of retailers said improved discounts and promotions also helped to drive sales during the holidays of 2015.
Acknowledging the fact that retailers are already planning their special holiday stock, Natura Petz Organics President Heidi Nevala explained two primary components to selling her products, specifically the speciallydesigned holiday items: packaging and education. Every Natura Petz Organics product is linked to an in-depth video explaining its ingredients and how best to use the item. The company can also conduct in-store training sessions.
The company’s Holiday Sprinkles is just one holiday-themed product on its roster. Holiday Sprinkles is a meal topper that can be added to any diet and contains organic super foods to increase nutrition while “gently reducing holiday anxiety and digestive upset,” according to the Natura Petz website.
According to Nevala, successful packaging gives consumers confidence in the quality of the product as well as the commitment of the manufacturer and brand to creating a positive experience for pet owners. And that effort will pay off for not only vendors, but also for retailers, in the form of future purchases. Holiday Sprinkles, formulated with classic holiday scents, come in a festive tin with a white and red label.
“That’s the front-facing introduction to a consumer, so it has to be engaging,” Nevala explained, noting the long and at times contradictory list of things that successful packaging must accomplish.
“It has to quickly tell [consumers] how to use [the product], what to expect and what it is… All of our products are food grade, so it has to denote that, but it has to be clean and at the same time in pet, fun and engaging… Without shelf presence, there’s so much competition in the market [that] people will grab what looks better.”
Packaging, display and placement become especially important in the case of pet products, which John Gibbons, president of A GPS for Pet Businesses, says pet owners like to compare in-store. And therein lies an advantage for brick-and-mortar retailers.
“Our pets are very personal, and consumers treat pet products differently from most other categories when comparing products and pricing; their first choice is to compare in the retail store [as opposed to online],” Gibbons said. “So consumers are going to be in your store you need to maximize their purchases on the visit. This is called transaction building.”
Erin Breig, director at Rubie’s Pet Shop Boutique, also emphasizes the importance of display and placement in selling the company’s holiday items.
“It is so important for retailers to put holiday-themed merchandise in hightraffic areas, especially when it comes to novelty items—your customers don’t even know they want them until they see them!” Breig said. “[And] in order to become a destination for fun holiday products, retailers must have something for every season… if [a customer] purchased an item for St. Patrick’s Day, you can be sure they will be back in a few months when the summer patriotic holidays start to arrive, and of course later on for Halloween and Christmas!”
Going even beyond Halloween and Christmas, Rubie’s makes apparel for special times throughout the year, meaning celebrations—and the sales that come with them—never have to end. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras, patriotic holidays, weddings, graduations, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and New Year’s Eve are a few more of the occasions commemorated by outfits from Rubie’s.
“Birthdays, or what we call ‘Barkdays,’ are more popular than ever,” Breig said. “I highly recommend that all pet retailers get into this holiday first—there is no expiration date because birthdays come throughout the year!”
Additionally, the support of vendors is often important to retailers’ ability to make sales. Luckily, there are companies like Tall Tails, which is not only releasing its first holiday-themed collection this year, but also has several resources available to retailers who are looking to integrate these products into their stores.
“When the holidays roll around, we want to find wonderful, quality goods to delight our loved ones,” said Joel Kaplan, president of Tall Tails. “The Tall Tails Holiday collection was developed to provide our specialty retailers with a unique collection of comfort, utility and whimsy to address those customers looking to make a special purchase.”
Tall Tails’ holiday-themed products are useful for everyday pet care needs and are designed for the fall and winter season, rather than a particular holiday. Kaplan suggests creating special presentations for these coordinated pieces, and Tall Tails is there to help.
“We approach our collections with merchandising in mind,” Kaplan said. “We hand-pick items that will inspire gift giving and freshening up the home with seasonal fashions. For the retailers, we create attractive promotional end caps and gift center presentations to showcase this merchandise. If retailers require help envisioning our products in their stores, we provide visuals and suggestions to help ease this effort.”
A Touch of Tech
Of course, pet retailers can get in on the holiday gift market not only for pets, but also for their human counterparts. After all, what better gift is there for a doting pet owner than a device that allows them to spend more or better quality time with their furry loved ones? That’s where the exciting and burgeoning category of pet tech comes in.
“With the Helmet, it’s not only a gift for the pet—it’s [also] a gift for the whole family,” said Cathy Vu, a member of the marketing team at iFamCare. “The Helmet has a laser toy, a motion and sound detector, air quality sensor [and] two-way audio… [Pets] love the laser toy and when pet parents are away, they can talk to the pets no matter what because our monitors use Wi-Fi technology so [the Helmet] connects to the smart phone.”
The Helmet is also available in several colors, giving it mass appeal for consumers as well as retailers who would rather not disrupt their spaces’ aesthetic when setting up a display. “We have multiple colors for the holidays; we have silver, black and white Helmets, so it fits into any
decor,” Vu said. “If retailers are looking for a way to display [the Helmet]… a good way to display it is having a demo for people to use, or having the camera move around—demonstrate that the camera can move 360 degrees, or [that] the laser toy has a programmed pattern.”
Sylvan Chang, director of sales and marketing for iPatrol, agrees.
“Seeing is believing, therefore, we believe it’s best and most effective to have a demo unit in each store to attract and educate end users,” Chang said.
iPatrol, which originally manufactured a robotic home monitor named “Riley,” has made its foray into the pet industry with the Pet Feeder Pro and the Pet-tertainer. The Pet Feeder Pro allows for automatic and remote feeding, two-way communication and recording, to name just a few functions. The Pet-tertainer is a treat dispenser with laser teaser, camera that is recording-enabled, two-way audio and sharing capabilities.
“Being part of the family, our pets deserve a more engaging relationship with us and a safer environment to live in,” Chang said. “It is natural that we bring the pet, as a family member, into the picture [of Wi-Fi enabled electronics]. Our product is not just a gadget—we wanted to provide connection and protection to [pets].”
For years, aquariums have been popular holiday gifts, and the aquatics category has not been left out of the tech trend. Aqueon’s Jukebox Aquarium has LED-equipped, freestanding speakers, allowing aquarists to play their own music through a smartphone or MP3 player. The speakers light up, and water pulses to the beat of the music. The aquarium is available in a kit for optimal gift giving.
Pamela Morisse, digital and media marketing manager at Aqueon, says it’s best to merchandize live aquariums fully set up with fish and decor to inspire customers.
“On the aquatics side, what we do is we encourage aquatics stores to come out with displays and kits,” he said. “The new trend in aquatics is the little cube aquariums for people’s desks and that kind of thing at work and even at home. We recommend that you set up like 10 or 12 of them in a row and you pile them up and you put fish in them and you make them really look gorgeous.
“Even if you do it all year long, like this cubed tank concept, you may sell… five or 10 a month in August, but come December, you could triple or quadruple that because people are looking for things to give as gifts,” he said. “So, yes, it doesn’t matter what category you specialize in—you should be thinking about what people in your category might give as a gift.”
Janet Marlow, founder and CEO of Pet Acoustics, also recommends having one product out of the package for demonstrative purposes, though she goes one step further in her tip for selling pet tech this holiday.
“Mostly when the manager or the pet retailer who owns the business, if they have one sample playing on the counter and the customer picks it up, the best sell is when the retailer says,
‘It works for my pet,’” Marlow said. “[People] have a high trust value in their pet retailer, so whatever they say is usually a buy for that product.”
Pet Tunes, made by Pet Acoustics, is a Bluetooth speaker pre-loaded with frequency-modified music clinically proven to reduce stress and calm behavior in a range of animals (there are versions available for dogs, cats, horses and birds).
“During the holidays, pet anxiety is increased because we’re having so many new people at our homes and we’re going places and traveling… So Pet Tunes [are] designed for calming [pets’] behaviors,” Marlow said. “It’s great for travel; you can take it into a hotel, you can put it into a car and it’s a two-inch cube preloaded with calming music… It’s just a great gift item, easy to gift wrap and it’s not only great for the pet but it’s also Bluetooth speakers so a pet parent can use it for listening to their own music.”
The versatility of pet tech items for gifting doesn’t only apply to high tech toys. Even products that allow pet owners to care for their pets more easily and effectively are great gifts and will likely be appreciated by owners and animals alike. SureFlap offers a range of intelligent pet care products—and playthings, too.
“I think pet tech is a massively growing area,” said Charlotte Ashton, retailer marketing manager at SureFlap. “Our SureFlap vision is that pet technology is going to allow people to have a better connection with their pet and also care for their pet in a better way… Our idea is this proactive or intelligent pet care situation where you have products that collect data and information about your pet that help you care for your pet better because you know more about them.”
The company’s newest product is the Microchip Pet Door, which allows only certain animals to enter the home and can be set with a curfew mode, which will lock and unlock the door at certain times. It even comes with one RFID collar tag for pets that are not microchipped.
“I would say… get to know the customer, get to know their pets and try and identify great pet tech products that meet a need that that customer or that pet has,” Ashton explained.
She also cited examples of retailers’ creativity, including making posters with witty sayings or their own promotional campaigns and framing of the products to go along with their display of SureFlap’s brightly colored products. And during the holidays, a few bows and decorations go a long way to get the idea of pet tech as gifts into shoppers’ minds.
Time to Make a Deal
Shoppers aren’t the only ones who should be on the alert for holiday deals. Many companies offer retailers special discounts or promotions in the months before or during the holiday season. One such company is Tucker’s Raw Frozen and Treats. According to Jeff Kalish, founder and CEO, the company’s special on freezers and Tucker’s products was launched in order to give retailers the chance to plan for the holiday season and the high traffic that comes along with it.
“We’ve seen a lot of increases in the pricing in glass front freezers. We also recognize that retailers are held captive by what they can put in these glass front freezers because they lean a ton on manufacturer contributions, and distributer contribution,” Kalish said.
“Generally speaking, when the rest of the channel turns right, we like to turn left. And what we did was, we found a cutting edge solid door freezer that’s Wi-Fi enabled that notifies retailers on the network if the door’s been open too long, or if the freezer falls below a certain temperature.”
The deal offered by Tucker’s includes more than $700 worth of product with the purchase of a Tucker’s freezer, all for $1,199.99. And the company allows retailers the flexibility of storing back stock product (even from other brands) along with Tucker’s Raw Frozen and Treats, saying that doing so “moves the category forward.”
“We think about customers, we think about our products, we think about retailers, because they’re precious partners to have and so we really wanted to create a freezer program that allows them to run their business effectively,” Kalish explained.
“We choose brick and mortar all the way. So any way we can support these brick-and-mortar sales, we do, and we feel that this offering is helpful for them.”
Each freezer comes with retailers’ choice of a full-size magnet for its front display. It’s dry-erase safe and gives retailers the chance to style the freezer to best fi t their stores. According to Kalish, his company takes pride in each magnet’s graphics, which are thoughtfully designed with “gentle reminders of Tucker’s.”
When Decorations Come Down
Just as it is important to plan holiday stock, display and promotion in advance, retailers must also know how to gracefully transition post-holiday, maximizing every last sale and learning for the future. After all, “two-thirds of respondents said they planned to shop after-Christmas sales [and] 47.2 percent expected to do [so] in-store,” according to the NRF in 2016.
“Businesses must be somewhat promotional during the holiday time in order to drive sales,” Switanowski said. “This does not mean that your pet store needs to be on sale all the time with all your products, but to play into the consumer mindset, it is important that you choose to run some promotional activity during this important time of year—things like coupon events, small buy-one-get one events or a percentage off for key times (a weekend or two day or three
day sale, etc.) are great ways for your store to be promotional but not look like everything is on sale.
“Also keep in mind that taking timely markdowns on seasonal product is critical to your success during this time period,” she continued. “Do not store old holiday merchandise in a box and hope to sell it next year. Take the cash out of it now and make adjustments to the quantities you purchase next order to solve your overstock problem for next year.”
Black urges retailers to put the effort into diversifying their off erings, keeping in touch with what’s new and taking note of what piqued their customers’ interest.
“If you have Christmas items or you have clientele that have done something in prior years, you need to get those items in stock right away,” Black said. “You could tell when you walk in… if [the retailer is] buying from multiple vendors, and if they’re up to date and they’re carrying the trendy stuff. Frankly, the pet industry thrives on new products.”
Gibbons suggests that retailers bundle purchases, promote across categories and create impactful merchandising, well-placed displays and are careful of timing.
“The timing can be early in the season, with perhaps a diff erent promotion added late,” Gibbons said. “One thing is certain, you should be strongly promoting during the last month prime buying season.
“Most stores have POS data available,” he continued. “You need to review those records. Last year, what worked? What didn’t work? Why? In your current year’s plan, what are the latest trends in sales? What new items are appealing? To maximize your seasonal sales, effi ciency and ROI, you need to develop a plan based on good information.”