Building a passion for birds online, in store

by Sharon Stiteler | photos by Nicole Rossi

To your average teenager, Lois Geshiwlm and Nancy Castillo may not look like Internet-savvy businesswomen. But in the world of wild bird retail, they are pioneers.

More recently she started interacting with other birders on Twitter.

The Internet is uncertain territory for some store owners, but the ladies who run this store see it as an opportunity and see value in staying abreast in social media.

bird feeders

Beginnings

Geshiwlm and Castillo met in Illinois and relocated to New York. Geshiwlm had a background in forest management while Castillo worked for State Farm Insurance.

They eventually looked into franchise opportunities in wild bird retail. They liked the look and the financial statement of Wild Birds Unlimited.

“When we visited them in Carmel, Ind., we’d had a bad flight and they just put us at ease. We just felt comfortable with them,” Castillo said.

After making the decision to become a Wild Birds Unlimited franchise, the women opened a store in Saratoga Springs, about 40 miles north of Albany and about a three-hour drive from the Adirondacks.

Best Customers

Their location is based in a strip mall with anchor stores such as Pier 1 and TJ Maxx. Most of the store’s traffic comes from the local resident community, with a small percentage coming from tourism and an area race track.\

Though Geshiwlm and Castillo have experimented with attracting tourists in town from the track, that group is not as interested in the bird feeding hobby and makes few purchases.

But the strong retail location and regular traffic has worked well with the women’s customer philosophy.

Castillo says, “What we’ve done for the last six years is build a passion for birds. We talk to customers as friends and we strive to help them be successful attracting birds to their backyard.”

Some of their best advertising has been word of mouth. Geshiwlm notes that one of their most popular products is the Wild Birds Unlimited Ultimate Pole System.

“We’ll get a customer who has never shopped here, but they’ve heard of that pole and come in just for that.”Geshiwlm notes that their average best customer is between 50 and 55 years old.

“They have the personality trait that enjoys the hobby and they enjoy new things,” she said. “Our best customer has a comfortable income and is interested in what’s the newest and latest product for their birds.

“They have graduated from black-oil and Nyjer and they are excited to try something new.”

Blog and Twitter

As the pair worked with their local customers, Castillo got the idea to start a blog. In April 2007 she began writing The Zen Birdfeeder to communicate with existing customers and perhaps generate interest from new customers.

She approached Wild Birds Unlimited first about the blog and though it is separate from the store, she made it clear that its content would always promote the business in a positive light. She got the green light and it has now become a handy marketing tool.

Like any good blog, it has morphed since she started it. One important function it serves is to demonstrate actual product use to customers. When visiting Zen Birdfeeder’s homepage, customers will see updated blog entries on news or current bird sightings from their yard but it also has a Flickr photo stream and a few old photo albums where the possibilities to demonstrate product in action are endless.

The reader can view photos of the pole system with various feeders loaded with colorful birds. Captions will also have notes such as, “Image taken with a WingScapes BirdCam” or a note that the bird is eating Jim’s Birdacious Bark Butter. Both the camera and the butter can be found on the shelves of Castillo and Geshiwlm’s store.

For a customer living in Saratoga Springs, this shows practical use of their product and gives the customer the realization that they can get these great birds in their yards too. The blog is handy in the store. If a customer comes in and asks, “I saw a gray bird in my yard today. Any idea what it might be?” then employees can go to the computer and bring up a Gray Catbird photo on the blog.

Since the blog is based on observations in the same town in which the store is located, a post put up that week can answer most of the customer questions. The blog also has a search function, so customers can go right to the blog page and do a search for a particular subject right from their homes.

Experimenting Online

The company has noticed Castillo’s work. In 2008 they won Best Internet Site at the annual Wild Birds Unlimited meeting.Recently, she started to experiment with Twitter. Always striving to be on the front edge, Castillo noticed that Twitter had been mentioned heavily in the news media, from celebrities and news organizations having their own Twitter feed to political movements like the Iran election protest that happened in June of 2009.

Castillo finds that it’s a balance between company and her own personality. With the store profile, she strives to offer at least three things daily: a bird photo, a bird feeder tip and a green tip.

“We always want to be on the front edge,” said Castillo.

“But Twitter is a tough nut to crack. We thought that this would be a chance to interact with customers, but most of our customers do not use Twitter. We have found it useful to see what the competition is doing, keep an eye on vendors and cooperating organizations.”

She also notes that many in the wild bird retail industry can be found on Twitter including Duncraft and Zulu Glass. It can be a good networking tool, but she’s cautious.

““It’s getting good coverage on the news, but we’ll see how long it lasts.”

Subscribe to Birding Business for the complete story.