A Special Calling
Whether a retailer is a bird-only specialty store or a full-time shop with a penchant for selling feathered pets and the associated supplies, the store's success depends on its ability to offer customers some key services and products.
Though few and far between, there are a number of retailers that sell only one line of exotic pets and related products, and they generally fall into three categories including fish-, reptile- or bird-only pet stores. Meanwhile, some full-line stores may emphasize a particular department of livestock. Either way, experts agree that retailers that want to succeed at selling pet birds and the products required to keep them happy and healthy need passionate, educated employees, a quality product assortment and the desire to be an honest and informed resource for customers
“The more the store personnel are educated to the mental and physical needs of these amazing creatures, the better the well-being of the bird [will be at home],” says Mary Wyld, owner of Wyld’s Wingdom, a bird-only product distributor based in Norfolk, Va.
Jamie Whittaker, owner of ABC Birds in Humble, Texas, agrees that education is extremely important and can be accomplished by “keeping up with the latest information on birds and bird products.”
Paul Lewis, owner of Birds Unlimited in Webster, N.Y., is another retailer who embraces the importance of having informed employees. “It’s hard to beat an educated staff,” he says. “All of my staff have passed or are taking the American Federation of Aviculture’s ‘Fundamentals of Aviculture’ courses.”
Whittaker also recommends this class, noting that, “The AFA online course is self-paced and very reasonable. They even offer discounts to their members’ employees.”
Once armed with a solid education background on pet birds, employees—as well as store owners and managers—should strive to build strong relationships with the store’s customers. That relationship should be built on trust.
Whittaker believes that being forthright with the customer about a bird and its normal behaviors is extremely important. “Don’t be afraid to be honest about the birds you sell,” she says. “For example, tell a potential customer that a sun conure is very loud.” If the customer decides not to buy a particular bird because it is noisy, then there will be other customers that do not mind the noise and will buy the bird in the future.
Allen Fox, owner of Bird Supply of New Hampshire, concurs, “Be honest with your customers if you want them back,” he says.
Lewis adds, “Be honest and tell the customer everything they need to know up front. It’s easier to sell the right bird than to deal with a problem bird later on,” or an unhappy customer.
There are many species of birds, all with different characteristics and traits that can make them a great pet for one person and a nightmare for another. It is imperative that the right owner gets matched with the right bird. “Whenever someone asks about a bird, we never sell over the phone,” Fox says. “Our policy is to have the prospective pet bird owner come and meet the birds, and let the bird choose their new owner. This builds strong pet-to-owner relationships over time.”
This is also important because a happy bird customer will not only come back to the store for supplies, but will recommend keeping birds as pets to other people—therefore helping to build a loyal customer base.
These stores make birds a top priority: (Left to right) Bird Supply of New Hampshire; ABC Birds in Humble, Texas; and owner Paul Lewis and manager Megan Poppoon of Birds Unlimited, in Webster, N.Y.
Selling great bird products is another component to keeping bird owners coming back to the store over and over again. “There has never been such a great opportunity to support the bird sector,” Wyld says. “Today’s array of advanced products both in nutrition and supplies addresses many of the important needs for pet birds today. Stocking the right product categories to cover these needs is essential, whether it is a bird specialty shop or a full-line store with a bird section.”
Retailers can also sharpen their competitive edge by being distinctive. “Our goal with products is to carry what the big chains don’t,” Fox says. “We work directly with many specialized bird manufacturers, [so] we have a wide and varied selection of quality bird diets, toys and accessories that we also distribute to other stores.”
Lewis agrees that it’s important to have a comprehensive assortment of quality products, but he adds that retailers should “make sure customers know that a specialty store is not necessarily more expensive than a large chain,” and that the service will be better.
“If a customer is buying all the stuff for their new bird at our store, we’ll set up the cage by hanging the toys, placing the perches and cuttlebone, putting paper in the bottom and so on,” he adds. “All they’ll have to do is add the bird and the water when they get home.”
Incentives such as discounts on food and supplies, free wing trims and reduced boarding rates—services Whittaker offers customers who bought their pet bird at her store—can also keep customers coming back.
At Fox’s store, free wing trims are also offered, as are nail trims, for birds bought at his store for as long as they own the bird. “This is just one more reason for a return visit,” he explains.
Whether a retailer specializes in birds or is a full-line store with a bird department, two important aspects must be kept in mind to be successful. First, “maintain a dynamic assortment of birds and products that are enticing to customers,” says Wyld.
Second, “have a knowledgeable and dedicated staff that has kept pet birds at home,” adds Fox. If an employee is passionate about a certain type of pet, they will be your best salespeople because it’s easier to sell what you love.
And if you think about it, what we are “selling” is love in the form of companionship, and with all the different species of birds with all the many types of characteristics and individual personalities they can have, there is a bird out there for almost everyone.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.