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Customized Pet Gift Entrepreneur

There's a reason many pet owners call their pets their "kids." Four-legged companions such as dogs and cats are like members of the family to many North Americans.

And to keep those beloved family members stylish and happy, many pet owners are shelling out cash for customized pet gifts. Pets -- along with savvy entrepreneurs -- are reaping the rewards of all this affection.

Americans are spending big bucks on those pets. The American Pet Products Manufacturing Association (APPMA) tracks the industry.

The APPMA reports that, on average, pet-owning households spend about $500 per year on their pets.

Products for pets range from the practical to the downright eccentric.

You can buy practical items for your dog like raincoats and sweaters for those cool, wet days. Or how about a cashmere sweater? Or some fluffy pyjamas?

You can get personalized collars made from leather or alligator skin. Beds and bowls with your pet's name on them. Pet carriers with fur lining. The list is endless. sells a wide range of items, including clothing, dishes, collars, beds and toys.

Erica Cerny is the co-owner of Waggytails. The company only sells online, and it got started about two years ago. Cerny got the idea to start the business when she was volunteering at an animal shelter.

"It was very difficult to get some of the dogs adopted, and I really cared about them," Cerny says. "I tried to do things that would get them in the limelight."

People were afraid of some of the dogs, especially the large black ones. So Cerny decided to soften their image and draw attention to them. She searched for scarves. The bandanas she found weren't interesting, so she bought brightly colored women's scarves.

"It would draw attention to the dogs and people would actually go for that," Cerny says. "It was like, 'Oh, isn't that dog cute?' And then they would play with the dog, they'd love the dog, they'd adopt the dog.

"It made me feel good that they looked special, and it made the people feel good that their dog looked special," Cerny adds. "I made a shelter dog that no one wants or cares about look like a princess."

Because she couldn't find a lot of nice scarves in stores, Cerny started her own online store. Today, that store is a part-time business for her and her co-owner. Cerny guesses that most online sellers of customized pet gifts are doing it as a part-time business.

Another part-timer is Debbie Moore, owner of Arf Scarfs. She has sold pet bandanas online for the past two years from her home. Her bandanas come in 60 different designs and are secured with Velcro rather than tied.

"Our next door neighbor had a puppy choke to death -- not with a bandana -- but she had him tied out in the yard and he got [the rope] caught," Moore says. "That's where I got the idea. I thought bandanas, with the traditional way they get tied on, pose a bit of a choking hazard."

Most of Moore's sales are to the U.S. She also has customers in England and as far away as Singapore. In addition to retail sales, she sells wholesale to some pet stores and groomers.

Moore says it isn't easy making a living selling pet products. One key factor is keeping your overhead costs down.

If you're reselling products from wholesalers, you might have to order a minimum amount of product. If you can't design your own website, you might have to pay several thousand dollars to have one built. Other than that, by working from home you can keep expenses low.

Another challenge is the amount of competition. You need to have a unique product, or customers won't find you.

"It's a market that very quickly is becoming saturated," Moore says. "There's a lot of people that are interested in buying things for their pets, but it seems like everybody and their dog has jumped on the pet product bandwagon."

Moore says she gets about 10 or 15 orders a week. She knows some other online sellers who have similar demand.

"I'm sure with enough effort you could turn it into a full-time business," Moore says.

"But you definitely have to have a product that you know there's a market for. Check to make sure there's not 15 million people also trying to do it, because the more people there are trying to do it, the harder it is to get that consumer dollar."

"It's a difficult way to make a living," agrees Cerny. "I would love to do this full time. I just can't see giving up my full-time salary right now for what we bring in.

Andy Silberberg has been earning a full-time salary from his pet product business for nearly four years. He and his wife, Gail, are co-owners of Animal Wrappers. The Florida-based company employs seven people.

"This is definitely full time," Andy says. "We make a living doing this."

Animal Wrappers makes hats, coats, T-shirts and carriers for dogs. They sell their products online, but mostly they sell wholesale to groomers, independent pet stores and department stores.

Gail started the business five years ago. She had worked as a buyer in the fashion industry for 20 years. She came up with the idea after she couldn't find coats to fit their dogs properly.

Today, Animal Wrappers offer 25 styles of coats. An extremely popular one is a neoprene and fleece coat that comes in a variety of colors.

As far as how hard it is to make a living, Andy says, "I don't know about other people. Let's just say we have a nice business.

"A lot of baby boomers whose kids are off to pets." He says their typical customer is female and anywhere between 30 and 60 years old.

There's a growing demand for customized pet products, Andy says. "It's one of the growing industries right now, for sure."

Selling customized pet products is a fun type of business to run, he says. And if you can find your niche and serve it well, the rewards are more than financial.

"It's a wonderful industry," Andy says. "People are almost always in a wonderful mood because they're around pets."


Arf Scarfs
Colorful pet bandanas to keep your pets in style

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