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merica is going to the dogs …and the cats. Increasingly, consumers are treating their pets as additional or surrogate children; many even call these family members their “fur babies.” This bodes very well for the sale of pet gifts at pet stores and boutiques, especially for Christmas and Hanukkah but also for other holidays throughout the year.
Lizzie Scherer jumped on the “fur babies” bandwagon seven years ago, when she opened her store, SPOT!, in a 900-square-foot space on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, Calif. The street ranks among the most trendy in the city, Scherer noted.
“The concept was of a higher-end boutique,” she explained. “We really didn’t have anything like it in Los Angeles at the time. A lot of people feel that their dogs are their children, and I wanted a more natural, holistic way that they could treat their dogs like they treat their kids.”
In 2009, Scherer relocated SPOT! to a 4,000-square-foot store front on the corner of Melrose Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard, in what is known as Los Angeles’ Melrose Heights district. Like SPOT! itself, the area’s restaurants, boutiques and other venues cater to an upscale clientele; nearby establishments include Elixir (teahouse), The Bodhi Tree Bookstore (metaphysical and New Age books), Plush Home (high-end home goods), The Improv (world famous comedy club) and such fashion houses as Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg. In addition to the full-line boutique, the retailer operates a dog day care center with the only indoor real-grass dog park in the area, as well as a grooming salon and a non-profit pet rescue arm. The day care, grooming salon and pet rescue components “feed” the boutique’ business, and vice versa.
Over a 48-hour period that commences on the day after Thanksgiving each year, Scherer and her staff transform SPOT! into a “Santa’s Workshop” replete with garland, lights and stockings throughout the store. Trees (artificial, so that dogs do not urinate on them) and red, white and blue (for Hanukkah) containers filled to the brim with toys complete the look.
“People love it,” Scherer said, adding that staying open late every night from December 1 until December 24 allows her to accommodate both last-minute shoppers and those who prefer to finish purchasing gifts farther in advance. Toys and decorated treats top the list of Christmas/Hanukkah best sellers. From Pink Poodle, the treats, which resemble kids’ sugar cookies, are decorated and shaped for different holidays and iced with yogurt and carob instead of the traditional sugary frosting, which is off-limits to dogs.
“The treats are a great gift for someone who has everything and is a dog fanatic,” Scherer observed. “We do gift baskets with these. We pre-pack some, but we also pack them with whatever the customer wants.”
Additionally, SPOT! features special décor and treats for Valentine’s Day and offers a small selection of Easter-specific items. “What’s really big, though, is Halloween,” Scherer said. “We sell a lot of costumes because of the West Hollywood Halloween Parade. They have a section just for dogs, and people really get into it.”
Dog toys also occupy first place on the list of Christmas pet gifts at the 2,000-square-foot, seven-year-old Red Hydrant Pet Spa and Boutique in the middle-class community of Land O’ Lakes, Fla., near Tampa-St. Petersburg. Personalized ornaments with the dog’s name on them are popular, too, for owners as well as the animals themselves.
“Every year, we sell more and expand the selection,” reported Roman Giamarese, owner.
According to cityinfo.com, the median age of Land O’Lakes residents is 40.2 years, versus 41.3 years for the state of Florida as a whole; the median household income was $66,632 in 2010, compared to $44,736 for all residents. Giamarese, who believes Red Hydrant is the only store of its kind that combines a boutique element with grooming, described his mission as striving as much as possible to offer “good quality” to these consumers “at an affordable price,” based on the realization that “if a family has just spent $100 on grooming, they’re not going to want to buy an expensive gift at the same time.” All treats sold at the shop are prepared from non-imported ingredients, and, as much as is feasible, Giamarese limits his assortment to goods that are manufactured in the United States, from domestically produced materials.
The majority of customers who purchase Red Hydrant’s pet gifts for Christmas fall into the “plan-ahead” category. To attract and accommodate them, Giamarese holds an annual “Christmas Open House” on a Sunday in October. The shop’s top 100 grooming customers are invited to come to the event; most do, and many bring friends. Attendees enjoy the opportunity to preview the store’s offerings for the upcoming season and buy their gifts at a 10 percent discount. Special orders, such as those for unusual-size dog collars, are taken at no extra charge.
Like Scherer, Giamarese decorates “every square inch” of the store for Christmas. The shop is also decked out for Easter, Halloween and, in an unusual vein, Mother’s Day; the latter calls for the promotion of gifts canines can “buy” for their human “mothers.” A coffee mug emblazoned with the words “Dog Mom” on one side and “The Best Kids Have Four Legs” on the other was the runaway best-seller for Mother’s Day 2012.
Meanwhile, in Columbia, S.C., the state capital, one of 30 communities named to Partners For Livable Communities’ “America’s Most Livable Communities” roster and in the news of late for the revitalization of its downtown area with vibrant retail and dining options, Pupcakes Pet Boutique and Bakery fares best at Christmastime with homemade treats and holiday collars, said Marie Lipton, owner. Lipton opened the 1,200-square-foot store, whose tagline is, “Everything you need, except the dog,” in June of 2007, to give consumers who dote on their dogs, among them many empty-nesters, a one-stop source for high-caliber, unique toys; trendy designer apparel; chic beds; collars, leashes; and bowls. Consumer demand for locally made treats led to the addition of the bakery three years ago, explained Lipton, noting that in addition to 1,200 square feet of retail space, Pupcakes features a 700-square-foot room for dog parties.
“We do a holiday gift box that has six holiday-themed cookies, and we sold a gazillion of them last year,” continued the retailer, who pegged the store’s sales volume at $100,000 last year. “It’s something special the dog can get for Christmas and really enjoy right then and there.”
The holiday treat assortment appeals universally to the store’s “pretty even” mix of “planners and last-minute shoppers, people who start shopping in November, and people who fly in on December 24 frantic,” Lipton said. To minimize the potential for running out of the dog cookies, she and her staff plan their baking based on the previous year’s sales figures. However, if it appears that a shortage is imminent, “we just bake like crazy.”
While Christmas is Pupcakes’ biggest holiday, Halloween, when costumes are the top seller, is not far behind and always includes a party. “Halloween is our second-biggest holiday; 45 dogs attended last year’s event,” Lipton recalled. Easter baskets containing dog toys and treats are always a hit at Easter; Easter 2012 was capped off by an Easter egg hunt in a park about three blocks away from the store, followed by an Easter parade.
Finally, there is no way that visitors to the Towne of Historic Smithville and the Village Green, a collection of more than 60 shops and restaurants housed in restored colonial buildings in Galloway Township, N.J., can miss the point that Paw Dazzle meets their Christmas pet gift needs. Owner Tina Heffentrager opened the store with her husband, George, in the summer of 2007 to cater not only to pet-indulgent locals, but to the large number of tourists who visit the Towne of Historic Smithville and the Village Green annually. Many individuals take a side-trip to the area from nearby Atlantic City, N.J.’s renowned beach and casino gaming destination.
“We decorate everything,” Heffentrager stated. “Outside I have a wooden sign that says ’Buddy says have a doggone good Christmas,’ my dog’s name is Buddy. Inside we have packages shaped like bones, we have door toppers, we have a couple of different trees we hang things on. It gets people in the mood to shop. And in early December, we have Hospitality Night, when we have wine and cheese, hot chocolate and cookies, and we’re open until 8:30 so people can start their Christmas shopping.”
For each holiday, the retailer plays up dog and cat collars decorated in the appropriate motif. Christmas is no exception, and the collars are a best-seller because they permit customers to give their animals a festive look without being “too extreme about it,” Heffentrager said. Holiday-themed bandannas, for Christmas as well as Easter, Halloween and the Fourth of July, are popular, too; these are intended to be threaded through animals’ collars as a decoration. Treats and personalized ornaments sell well at Christmas, too.
Heffentrager starts promoting Christmas gifts far ahead of the game, even though many locals complete their shopping at the last minute. In mid-May, she participates in her town’s Mayfest festival. “We always have some Christmas gifts out for that,” she concluded.