With the holidays approaching fast, there’s a lot retailers need to keep in mind and be on top of in order to ensure a successful selling season.
By Kelly Lindenau
As clichéd as it might be, the holiday season truly is the most wonderful time of the year. Families and friends come together for extravagant dinners and exchange gifts, the feeling of togetherness and love is in the air, and for retailers, it’s the time to capitalize on holiday sales and rake in the profits. Shoppers have spent all year budgeting accordingly in order to take advantage of all the gift-giving opportunities these next few months will present.
“Consumers are in the mindset to spend money during this season,” says Gretchen George, president of Wilmington, Mass.-based PetRageous Designs. “Many save in other sales quarters so that they’ll have more disposable income in the holiday season, for the specific reason to spend it on retail.”
Even with this confidence-boosting information, retailers can’t just sit back and get comfortable while they wait for money to come flooding in. The reason the holiday season is so profitable is because of the “quantity of sales opportunities it presents,” explains Bill Parsons, account manager at San Francisco-based P.L.A.Y. (Pet Lifestyle and You).
To capitalize on those opportunities, retailers have to create a collection of the latest trends, find the balance between holiday-themed merchandise and practical items, and create unique in-store displays.
After all, “the holiday season can, and should, be your most profitable time of the year,” explains Laura Taylor, top dog at Woofables, The Gourmet Dog Bakery, based in Coralville, Iowa. “It won’t come around again for another year, so make it count!”
Products, Gifts & Trends
When it comes to curating the perfect assortment of holiday offerings, there’s no real guide to follow. As always, fun, functional and tasty treats and toys will be in high demand, but it’s also a time to experiment.
“Customers are more likely to purchase something outside of their regular shopping habits during these times of the year, so it’s a great way to test out new products, categories and styles to see what does best,” explains Leah Angelos, sales rep for Chino, Calif.-based ZippyPaws.
That said, retailers can’t just select random items out of a catalog or on a website and call it a day. They need to do their research and make sure they’re well-stocked with this season’s high-demand items. This year, the manufacturer consensus points to pet clothing.
“We are seeing retailers looking for more comfortable dog apparel than the fancy style outfits throughout the years,” says Amy Yu, general manager of Klippo Pet in Torrance, Calif. “This is the main reason we are adding more pajamas and loungewear with matching blankets. Consumers feel that these are more ‘practical’ for everyday lifestyle—according to the feedback from our retailers.”
This trend makes sense, considering how many people view their pets as their children. With all the holiday events coming up, pet owners want their furry friends to look the part.
“Everyone wants to have a properly turned-out pet for parties and events, so holiday specific collars and sweaters are a must,” says Donna Bodell, vice president of Providence, R.I.-based Up Country, Inc. She points to the company’s 10 designs for Christmas collars, toys and doggie doorbells as a good starting point.
If the idea of leaning heavily into apparel is a little nerve-wracking, that’s understandable. However, keep in mind that it could provide the best of both worlds.
“These holiday-themed items are in demand, but they are also impulse buys,” explains George. “Many new pet owners don’t know that they could buy an adorable holiday pajama for their new pup until they see one. Don’t be shy. Display those holiday products!”
Apparel aside, pets still have a lot of other wants and needs. The usual suspects—toys, treats and beds—are still going to be big sellers.
“Many customers are also looking for fun styles of toys and beds for use throughout the year and for gifts,” explains Parsons, citing P.L.A.Y.’s American Classic toys, Snuggle Beds, Pet Teepees and Feline Frenzy Cat Toys as viable options.
The one thing everyone shopping in pet stores has in common is their love for their pet, and pets in general. So why not give pet owners the option of treating themselves?
“It would be a lot of fun if pet owners have selections of gifts, too,” says Yu. “There will be a higher chance for the pet owners to spend more money when they see more varieties of gifts.
When stocking items such as calendars, mugs and shirts, make sure they have an element of personalization.
“Breed-specific merchandise is always a hit, as dog lovers will consistently search for new products that center around their favorite breeds! It strikes a chord in their heart and translates into sales,” says Maria Ampolo, co-owner/designer of Hearth Hounds, based in West Springfield, Mass.
If retailers don’t want to waste a lot of valuable shelving and retail space on gifts solely for pet owners, they should look into items that can be twofold.
“Gifts for pet owners can be interpreted widely, from actual gifts to products that will simply make their lives easier,” explains Angelos. “There are plenty of categories—such as car accessories—that benefit pets as well as their owners, so it would be a good idea to carry those products.”
With all of that in mind, it’s important retailers make sure their stores aren’t inundated with holiday-themed toys and treats. When it comes to the actual products themselves, less may actually be more.
“Stores should carry about 20 percent holiday-themed merchandise, but stock up on other items, as well,” advises Yu. “Not all shoppers look for holiday-themed merchandise during the holiday shopping season.”
In this case, “treats make great stocking stuffers or even tree decorations, as long as pet parents feel comfortable their pets won’t help themselves,” says Jilliann Smith, director of communications for Amarillo, Texas-based Merrick Pet Care.
As all these opportunities have shoppers shelling out money left and right, they want to feel good about what they’re spending their money on. Every year, Troy, Mich.-based Fluff & Tuff releases a limited edition Holiday Charity Toy, with 100 percent of the proceeds donated to dogs in need. This year’s toy is The Good Bone.
“Consumers want to easily give back through their purchases—especially millennials,” explains Kerry Wezner, the company’s marketing manager. “If consumers can purchase a product that has a charitable aspect to it, they are more likely to keep going back to that product because of the good they are effortlessly providing.”
Before breaking out the garland and stuffing stockings, it may be beneficial for retailers to figure exactly when they want their holiday season to start. Generally speaking, the term is used to describe the time period from Black Friday to right before the new year, which is typically when retailers start to really ramp up their holiday promotions. But it might be best to start with the spookiest holiday: Halloween.
“Halloween might be the biggest event on the pet calendar and, in many ways, is the ‘kick-off’ for the holiday season, with regard to pet spending,” says Smith.
To capitalize on this, Parsons recommends hosting a Halloween costume contest that takes place either in-store, online or both.
Halloween will come and go quickly, and Thanksgiving will be here before you know it. Along with Thanksgiving comes Black Friday, followed closely by your time to shine: Small Business Saturday.
“Small Business Saturday has been growing in popularity since its inception in 2010, a perfect fit for most pet boutiques,” says Bodell.
Retailers can encourage their customers to shop small, and take this opportunity to highlight the advantages shopping local has over purchasing from big-box chains.
As profitable as holiday sales are, the competition’s also fierce. While retailers don’t want to step on Halloween’s toes and treat it as an afterthought, “[they] should let their customers know early that they are carrying [holiday] items by making them very visible early in the season,” advises George. She notes that this is because the window for selling holiday items vs. winter apparel is small, and retailers need to capitalize on every sales opportunity they get.
Dazzle with Displays
There’s a handful of holiday staples that are inevitably going to pop up in almost every retail store, and soon enough all the tinsel, holly leaves and mistletoe will start to blend together in the eyes of tired shoppers.
The subtle power of festive endcaps and signage shouldn’t be written off, but retailers have to find a way to separate themselves from the rest of the whimsical monotony. Ampolo recommends creating hands-on displays, such as a designated toy testing area or a treat sampling bar; implementing price matching, to remain competitive with Amazon and other big-box stores; and stocking several unique items, such as Hearth Hounds holiday stockings.
“A customer is more likely to notice and be attracted to a display that is unique and one-of-a-kind,” says Wezner. “Consumers will share their experience in-store and at home if it was great.”
Of course, tread carefully when creating those displays, as they’re at risk of turning into one of the many holiday stereotypes. All customers are expecting some sort of small, faux Christmas tree or a light-up menorah, so you’ve got to think outside the box.
“Retailers can take it the next level by designing a scene or display that is unique to help draw customers in,” says Parsons. “Create your very own tiny Christmas living room set with a tree, toys and a fireplace with a few products that you sell interspersed within the scenes to encourage them to purchase for continued use and fun throughout the holiday season.”
Believe it or not, “it’s an excellent time of the year to highlight dental treats and promote holiday traditions, such as kissing under mistletoe,” explains Smith. “One idea is set up mistletoe in-store and invite pet parents to kiss their pets under it. It’s a fun reminder to keep your pup’s breath fresh and kissable,” while also using it as an opportunity to promote oral hygiene products, such as Merrick’s Fresh Kisses dental treats.
While retailers have to give themselves an edge, there’s also nothing wrong with taking a step back and resorting to the tried and true: a photo with Santa.
Although pretty much everyone loves a good picture with Kris Kringle himself, many stores traditionally hold this type of event and, chances are, consumers have a long list of places they can visit to get the Santa shot. The key to making your event more appealing than the shopping mall’s is to spice it up.
“Turn it into a contest where pet parents ‘help’ their pups write a letter to Santa,” recommends Ampolo. “Every pet parent that gives a letter to Santa on the night of the event automatically receives a 10 percent discount coupon. Set up an area for all to gather round as Santa calls up each pup by name, reads their letter out loud and sends them back with a treat and pat on the head. The writer of the best ‘Dear Santa’ letter wins a holiday treat basket!”
As creative as those photo-ops can be, retailers can’t let themselves get boxed in.
“There are many different types of events that stores can host, related but not limited to grooming, sales, adoptions and educational seminars,” says Angelos. “Getting to know your customers is the best way to truly understand what they are looking for.”
As always, the power of social media can’t be underestimated. Pet parents are always looking for an excuse to post their pets on their Instagram, Twitter or Facebook feeds, so why not give them that chance?
“If stores can create something Instagram-friendly that customers can take pictures in or around with their pets, it will provide some new business marketing for you since customers will be posting photos of your designs and storefronts,” explains Parsons. “Don’t forget to include your Instagram account handle or hashtag—if you have one—near the display so they know how to tag you.”
Make sure you don’t restrict your social media promotions to just consumer-submitted images—it’s also a good place to market merchandise, advises Yu.
“Many of our successful retailers use social media to post pictures that their customers sent them,” she says. “We can also provide professional lifestyle photos of our models that [retailers] can use as posters, banners or ads.”
Of course, these big ideas are not always feasible for all pet stores. Some companies are working with very limited space, meaning they may not be able to capitalize on these options as much as they’d like.
“As always, a great way to stand out is to build ready-to-go gift packages for your customers and place them within a high-traffic area,” explains Parson.
It’s necessary to capitalize on these marketing ideas and stock the perfect selection of items because the holidays are the one time of year where frequent shoppers will be stopping by more, well, frequently, and as for the other consumers, they’ll be taking a step away from Amazon and Chewy to embrace the full experience of holiday shopping.
“It’s truly the only time of year people leave their computer screens and enjoy the ritual of window shopping and browsing,” says Ampolo. “This brings in new customers begging to be delighted by your merchandise, with purchases easily justified because, well, it is Christmas and nothing is too good for Fido!” PB