It's a Snap

Yarn, scissors, vinyl: Friends kint a unique niche in the pet-apparel market.

It started with a Yorkie named Layla, who needed a sweater to keep her warm. With help from Oprah and a representative of the home shopping network (QVC), two Memphis entrepreneurs might soon be selling their snap-on ponchos and tube "fluffs" nationwide.

"I sew and knit," says Cindy Sanders, who started Puppyfluffs with longtime friend Jackie Johns about a year ago. "But when Jackie asked me to make a sweater for Layla, I told her I really didn't know how to make armholes." Then Johns suggested something easy-on and easy-off, "like a tube" — and a new idea in petwear was born.

What makes the tube sweaters — or "fluffs" — special, says Sanders, is that they're designed not only to be cute, but comfortable as well: "You slip them on over the animal's head and they're stretchy, soft, and nonbinding. Also, with traditional sweaters, dogs will resist having their arms put in armholes, and they could wind up with dislocated or broken bones. That's not likely to happen with tubes."

As simple as it sounds, apparently no other petwear company sells tube sweaters. "I searched and searched online," says Sanders, "but could not find anything like it." So when Johns was watching Oprah one afternoon and the talk-show hostess asked viewers to send product ideas to QVC, the two friends decided to do a test-run of their products — not only the "fluffs" but also the snap-on vinyl ponchos, designed and handmade by Johns, that feature rhinestones affixed with nontoxic glue.

"QVC wanted to do a show using ideas that Oprah received from viewers," explains Sanders. "The [candidates] would go to the closest city that was having a show, and the finalists would appear on Oprah." The women went to Chicago in April and presented their pet apparel to QVC reps. Although Puppyfluff didn't make the finalists, its products did catch the eye of Frank Alfieri, an executive with Zina International based in New Jersey.

"He was one of several reps that QVC had chosen to talk to visitors who submitted products," recalls Sanders. "I was watching him as we stood in line, and he would look at things people showed him and say, 'Okay, thank you.' But with ours he was like, 'Oh! This is wonderful.' He basically told us we'd managed to create a new product in an overworked market."

As a result of that encounter, Zina will be manufacturing Puppyfluff products, beginning with the snap-on ponchos. "Money has changed hands," says Sanders, "the initial sample has been produced, and they are looking for the right company to do the decoration." Zina will start with an order of 2,000 ponchos, and production should start soon. "We started with ponchos because they're easier to produce, but the fluffs will be made in the future," says Sanders, who currently knits the tubes from a blend of three yarns.

Once they receive the shipment of ponchos, the women are expecting a "major life change." Instead of working from their homes, they'll be flying across country to trade shows — including the International Pet Expo in Orlando in February — where buyers from major retailers, pet stores, groomers, and others affiliated with the pet industry will be examining their wares. "We'll be going to a lot of shows and we'll be dragging my mother with me," laughs Sanders. "Trust me, she's the saleswoman."

Puppyfluff products come in various sizes, styles, and patterns, and some glow in the dark. Prices currently range from $25 to $55, depending on the animal's size, but "retail stores could charge more or less depending on their mark-up," says Sanders. 

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