The first twenty years of my career in the pet industry were focused on the pet bird segment.  When I opened my pet store in Dallas in 1987, the bird craze was in its infancy.  Many of the birds I sold in my store were wild caught.  Thankfully, the Wild Bird Conservation Act passed in 1992, outlawing the sale of wild-caught birds and opening the flood-gates for the multitudes of hand fed baby parrots that were being bred throughout the United States.  The bird segment soared throughout the 90’s and has been in a steady decline ever since.  According to the APPA Pet Owner’s Survey, there has been an almost 30% drop in pet bird ownership from 2002 to 2012.

In 2010, I wrote a 3-part story for Pet Product News on the state of the pet bird segment.  I interviewed several bird industry experts, and unfortunately all of them reported that sales were down, the requests to give up birds for adoption were up, and they didn’t see a lot of hope for the future.

I decided it was time for an update, in hopes that the pet bird segment had begun to turnaround.  I’m happy to report that the same people I interviewed three years ago sound much more positive about the state of the pet bird segment than they did three years ago.  According to the latest APPA Pet Owner’s Survey, the % of households that have a pet bird remained unchanged between 2010 and 2012 (approximately 5%).

I interviewed four professionals who make their living in the pet bird segment:  Dr. Greg Burkett, Certified Avian Vet and owner of Diamond Avian; Mary Wyld, CEO of Wyld’s Wingdom, one of the largest distributors of bird products in the world; Mark Hagen, Vice President of Nutrition and Manufacturing for Hagen Corporation and Hagen Avicultural Research Institute (HARI); and Melanie Allen, Avian product specialist at Hagen. 

 How does your business compare to 3 years ago?  What is the reason for the change?

 Dr. Greg Burkett:My sales are up slightly, but only in the last couple of months. The year prior to that I was having some of the worst months since opening in 1972. My business model changed a few years ago when I stopped selling birds and my gross sales dropped precipitously. Over time, as birds were being re-homed, I lost the repeat customers that keep my retail business going. As sales continued to drop I changed my business model again slightly. I went from a retail bird supplies store to a veterinary practice with retail products. This was an economical decision because the store was not able to continue to sustain itself alone; so I combined the two locations into one and reduced my expenses for both businesses. The next economically driven decision, although not totally, was to provide some baby budgies for sale. I enjoyed hand feeding babies again. We have found them terrific homes and hopefully they will return for care and supplies.

 Ironically, Diamond Avian, our wholesale side, has been doing well and is continuing to grow. We see at Diamond that brick and mortar stores are buying less from us and many have closed, while we see an increase in the amount of e-commerce. There are still stores that are doing well even buying more, but many have dropped and even gone out of business. The retail web site has increased, most likely from a change in our promotional schedule, increasing the frequency of contacts with our customers. I feel like internet sales are contributing to the growth as are those few stores that are doing well.”

 Mary Wyld:We have definitely seen an upturn in interest from independent stores in tuning up their bird departments to be on par with other sections of their store. I believe that the stores have seen that without proper selection and stocking of their bird department, customers ignore the opportunity to purchase altogether and seek supplies for their pet birds elsewhere.”

 Mark Hagen:According to the latest American Veterinarian Association sponsored survey, birds as pets are slowly coming back with a small percent uptick in households that have them. Our Vision cages, developed for smaller species of companion birds, are slowly picking up in sales over the past two years. These cages combine benefits for the birds as they are designed with the birds’ well being as well as the pet owners need to have an easy to clean environment. Exhaustive cage cleaning duties can be one of the reasons people do not have a companion bird. People also now realize that the Budgerigars and Cockatiels are NOT going to give them Avian Flu which actually comes from ducks and back yard poultry in China. Parrot Food Sales, for us at Hagen at least, have also increased a few percent each year over the past several years. There are still many happy companion Parrots in homes looking for a healthy diet despite all the negative energy around a few given up to shelters. “

 Where do the growth opportunities lie in the bird segment?  What would you recommend a retailer do to grow their bird business?

 Melanie Allen: “This past spring, especially, many of our retailers are looking for a new breeder or supplier for young baby parrots. Some of the older and larger wholesale aviaries that at one time were able to fulfill the retailers’ needs are downsizing as a result of age (of human caretakers) and possibly from the previous poor economic challenges for the aviary as well as retailers holding back on the expensive livestock.

 We have been working more extensively with our retailers that specialize in birds. Often it means extending a support system of product knowledge, but also species knowledge, that serves not just their staff with companion bird knowledge but also employs strategies to keep their avian market as customers. The stores that have supported the 1-2 hour Saturday educational seminars have seen a positive impact on their sales of not just birds, but also with confident staff in making product recommendations for their customers that benefit the birds. This is especially notable for full line retailers that might have a weak bird department as they are more confident in carrying higher quality food and products for companion bird owners.”

Dr. Burkett: “In my opinion we are lacking in new foraging products such as feeders, toys, and puzzles, both destructible and durable models. This would be an opportunity for a manufacturer to design a line of foraging products. The focus needs to be on small birds such as budgies, lovebirds, cockatiels, lineolated parakeets, parrotlets, and similar sized birds. There is so very little available and so many birds in need of foraging opportunities.

Broadly, stores should spend the time to educate customers thoroughly and completely about buying and living with a bird. It starts with choosing a bird that is truly right for the customer. Then require that the bird goes home weaned, and that it goes home in a large cage, with proper perches, a water bottle, foraging supplies, and all of the other items considered to be minimum basic essentials of a happy, healthy bird. Happy customers who feel knowledgeable about their birds are more likely to purchase better and more products more frequently, and a healthy bird is going to live longer necessitating more food purchases over time.

 More specifically and short term, sell birds that people are going to commit to, for example, smaller birds, maybe up to an African grey (Timneh or Congo), and don’t sell the larger macaws, cockatoos, and others that are more often re-homed.

 Stores need to have a large selection of toys and need to be sure to provide for all sizes of birds. They should provide fresh foods and treats and quality products that customers cannot find in large, chain stores and super markets such as Wal-Mart or Target. Offer unique products that cannot be price shopped, but are good quality and are healthy and safe for birds. Build a reputation for having the newest products when they come out. Set the example of bird care for the birds that are in the store. Use the products that you sell and talk about them with customers. Discuss their birds with them; owners love to talk about their birds and their stories are funny, uplifting and inspiring. Ask them about their birds; discuss what other birds of that species like in your experience and recommend those products. Walk them around the store and talk about the store birds, showing what is in their cages or play areas. Take the product from the shelf and put it in their hand as you talk about it”.

 Mary Wyld: “Well, first and foremost, they need to KNOW THEIR CUSTOMERS AND THEIR PETS.  They seem to know which ones have dogs but have not queried information on other pets in the household.  Also, it is a definite give away that if food for birds is selling, then the opportunity for other supplies is right in front of their noses — they just need good information to relate to the needs of birds and the supplies to back that information up.  Properly informed sales staff, etc…

  And DON’T FORGET THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA! Maintain a good emailing list specific to bird owners, keep Facebook fresh, Twitter when new things arrive and their purpose to the bird, and have special bird events with speakers or workshops. Become the go-to store in their geographic area. Remember, most of us have hearts and we want to support local businesses. As Bird Department Specialists, Wyld’s Wingdom posts relative comments to Facebook, twitter, blogs and white papers. Stores are welcome to link to these resources as they communicate with their own customers to build a store that actively centers on the needs of birds. If this emphasis is not there, then WHY even have a bird department – time and resources pay off when stores are well-tuned and stocked.”

What are the biggest challenges facing the pet bird segment?

 Dr. Burkett: “If you are speaking specifically of the supplies industry and their sales, then I would have to say the scarcity of new products and the lingering of old products and ideas in the market. There is little innovation. It is hard to hold a customer’s interest without offering new products. The lack of new products from the customer’s perspective is disappointing.

 If you are speaking in general about pet bird ownership, then I feel like we, as an industry, (including all retailers, manufacturers, distributors, breeders, veterinarians, and others) are not providing a consistent education to birds owners and potential owners. Heck, some of those professionals themselves are not giving good information in some cases. There are no standards of care established to require an absolute minimum of things a bird must have to be happy and healthy.”

 Mary Wyld:  “Proper information on the needs of birds and help in meeting those needs remains the biggest challenge. Pet bird owners are as loyal to their pets as the dog owner.”

 Mark Hagen:  “Stores that have staff reading up on Behavior and Care information and now attend seminars are going to be ahead in their Market area as Bird Hobbyists themselves are now more educated than ever. Having Staff that know about night cages, foraging for food kibbles, hormonal overdrive from too much stimulation from light and touching and over feeding, will impress the next generation of buyers of bird foods and treats and help up sell to healthier diets.”

 Just like my 2010 article, the number one takeaway from these interviews is the importance of educating the consumer on how to take care of their new feathered charge.  At the end of the day, it really all does come down to EDUCATION, EDUCATION, AND MORE EDUCATION.   This subject is very near and dear to my heart.  I have been involved in the bird world for 29 years, and am the proud owner of a 19 year old Eclectus, Murphy Green, and a four year old Timneh African Grey, Lola.  While I absolutely LOVE being a birdie mom, I would give it all up if I knew there were no more abused, neglected, or unwanted birds.  Yes,  I know this is a lofty goal, we have to start somewhere.  Retail stores that sell birds owe it to these amazing creatures to educate potential owners and not to sell the birds unless they know FOR SURE the bird is going to an educated, loving, devoted family.  That will keep their business thriving and the sanctuaries from filling up.  It’s a true win-win.

 

Carol Frank of Boulder, CO, is the founder of four companies in the pet industry. As a Managing Director at SDR Ventures Investment Bank, she is a registered Investment Banker and leads the team in executing pet industry transactions including M&A, capital formation and strategic advisory services.  She is also the owner of BirdsEye Consulting, the consummate source for pet sector consulting expertise in licensing, executive recruiting, market research,  and sales channel strategy. She can be reached atbirdseye@carolfrank.com.