Desirable Destination

By Mike Anderson / Contributing Editor

From one family to another, this store carries on

Nestled near the Northwest Greenway Trail on the outskirts of town, lies an eclectic experience no birder should miss. The Wild Bird Shoppe has been serving the needs of wildlife enthusiasts around the West Lafayette, Indiana area for over 20 years with their birding products and birdscaping advice.

Less than a mile from the Purdue University campus, customers arriving at The Wild Bird Shoppe instinctively know, as they enter the parking lot, that they are in for a treat. The stand-alone building resembles a quaint European cottage complete with abundant bay windows located on all sides of the store. These same spacious windows are filled with creative displays and offer shoppers natural light galore and make the store feel extra “homey.”

Looker Roots
Olin and Carolyn Looker built on to the front of an old farmhouse in 1986 and The Wild Bird Shoppe took flight. Birding Business readers may recognize the Looker name as they also owned a prominent bird feeder manufacture in nearby Milford, Illinois and wanted a place to test and showcase their products. The Lookers put the Indiana enterprise up for sale in 2002.
“I was a part-time employee at the time,” says Judy Gasvoda-Ward. “So when the Lookers decided to sell the store, I decided to become a proprietor.”

Meet the Staff
Many backyard nature stores are family-run businesses and so is The Wild Bird Shoppe.

Owner Judy graduated from Purdue with a master’s degree in education and taught there for years. When the opportunity arose to get more involved in the community through The Wild Bird Shoppe, Judy took it. She uses her teaching experience to offer informational and educational classes on many aspects of backyard birding to share her love of the outdoors with the rest of the community.

Jill Rittenhouse, Manager, has lived in Lafayette her entire life. She earned a degree in elementary education at Butler University and taught school before taking her experience and skills and applying them to work at The Wild Bird Shoppe. Now, Jill enjoys interacting with customers during the weekend and evening classes that the store offers. Jill is Judy’s daughter.

You’ll see Glenn Ward at the store in the evenings, weekends, and at some of their classes. Glenn is Judy’s husband, and is in charge of making sure that everything goes right with the bird equipment they sell. He does installation, maintenance of the many feeder stations and gardens around the store, and does seed delivery for local customers. Running the business is obviously a family affair.

First Impressions

When shoppers enter the store, they are first greeted with the tantalizing aroma of fresh-brewed coffee.

“We serve free Door County Coffee while you shop,” says Judy. “It’s certified by the National Wildlife Federation and we sell small packets of the coffee too.” Nice touch to the store ambience.
Since the store was an extension to a house at one time, customers are treated to instant intrigue as they meander between several rooms, each with a different product theme and selection. Speaking of selection, shoppers can’t help but perceive that this 3,000 sq. ft. store has it all. Subconsciously they are probably thinking if this store doesn’t have it, it doesn’t exist.

Customers continue to be impressed by the remarkable selection of backyard nature products ranging from quality functional feeders to decorative yard art, rain gauges, wind chimes, and stepping stones. There is also a children’s section filled with toys and stuffed animals where the kids can come and color while parents shop. There is even a separate well-windowed room with Fairy Gardens and other miniature garden containers and accessories.

“People drive many miles to observe our Fairy Gardens and glean ideas,” says Judy. “They always leave with something.”

Browsers Welcome
As shoppers stroll under the archway that separates category departments, they occasionally chuckle as they read the cute sayings on various hanging artwork sprinkled about. During my visit, I gave a second glance upwards to see only the lower bodies of a parade of baby ducks marching across the ceiling, but their heads are out of sight. Clever merchandising ideas abound.

Speaking of neat ideas, for the kids (and grown up kids too), there’s an electric wide-gauge train that circles the store near the top of the ceiling traveling from room to room through tunnels of walls. A toy mallard duck, Will E. Waddle, is the engineer. One would expect to find an attraction like this only in big-city toy stores, but here it is, entertaining shoppers in a wild bird store.
Expect the unexpected while browsing The Wild Bird Shoppe.

A Swinging Place
And what’s a better way to watch the birds in the Wild Bird Shoppe’s garden area than by porch swing. Only this bench-style porch swing is inside the store with customers treated to a huge picture window where birds and various feeders can be seen in action. Need a closer look? Swing users have binoculars handy for their use when trying to identify birds.

“We’re different than other wild bird stores,” says Judy. “We test products in our outdoor certified nature habitat. We examine the individual feeder’s clean-ability, durability, ease of filling, frequency of bird visits, etc.  Customers can see this through our viewing window as well. We have an indoor swing which allows customers to relax and observe the outdoor feeding area. We supply free handouts and articles for those who are seeking even more knowledge than a single visit to our store can offer.”

Many feeders are on display full-time outside complete with ample product signage to assist customers in making purchase selections based on what they have seen in action.

Seed Sells

More stores are becoming creative in the ways they sell birdseed and retain customers and the Wild Bird Shoppe is pro-active in this market.

“We have a refill container discount program which helps the customer with storage, filling/pouring, and cost,” says Judy. “We do the Wild Delight’s Buy 10 - Get One Free Program as well. We have a seed delivery and maintenance program. Customers can have their seed delivered and their feeders filled for a small fee. Installation is of new a feeder is always free.”

Profit Niches
Besides birding and backyard nature, the Wild Bird Shoppe has been successful with other niche markets.

“We successfully branched out a bit with nature related gift items,” says Judy. “We tried pet food and accessories, but we can’t compete with pet and box stores, plus there are too many SKU’s in pet.  We do carry Purdue items since the local college bookstores cater more toward students. Alumni like to frequent our store and thus love to ‘Boiler up’ with the outdoor Purdue-themed items.”

Adding an array of greeting cards has worked well for Judy and, of course, her Fairy Gardens sales.

“For four years we have been involved with Fairy Gardening,” says Judy. “Miniatures bring back the creative ‘dollhouse’ play from childhood memories. With my love for plants, we were the first to jump on board with the craze. We call it container gardening and elderly people love it. It’s a great activity to spend with grandchildren.”

Community Impact
Visitors are impressed by the majestic spiral staircase leading up to the store’s 600 sq. ft. mezzanine level where numerous classes are held and birdscaping advice given.

“I speak at nursing homes, non-profit groups, garden clubs, etc.,” says Judy. “But we have a classroom upstairs where we do free classes for preschools, scouts, garden clubs, and others. Our class topics include Hummingbirds, Bluebirds, Squirrels, Photography, and the latest …Fairy Gardening.”

Judy adds. “It’s not easy being a destination business owner. While we do emails, Facebook, website, some newspaper, TV, and flyers (distributed at home shows), getting people in the door the first time is hard. Once they enter in, and see our great selection, big viewing window, unique decorating, and experience our helpful and knowledgeable staff,  then we are confident they will return again and again.”

If you are ever in the neighborhood, just across from the Tippecanoe Cemetery (additional good bird watching), be sure to stop in, say hello to Judy, Jill, or Glenn, enjoy a complimentary a cup of shade-grown coffee as you relax on the indoor bench swing and observe the outdoor feeding stations. Then take a stroll through their garden area where you can see how products work and what type of birds they attract. Oh, and maybe buy something too. There are plenty of reasons why you’ll go wild for The Wild Bird Shoppe in West Lafayette.