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Birding Business

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This month’s bird

The Hairy Woodpecker

The Bird House

The Bird House

You’re Gonna’ Lake This Store

Stopped at a traffic light en route to North Muskegon, Michigan, I read a bumper sticker I hadn’t seen in years: We live by the lake…drop in! I chuckled because I was heading toward a wild bird store that overlooked a lake and I had not called the owners in advance. I was going to just “drop in”.

For several years I heard raves about the Bird House. I had met the owners, Rob and Cathy Morin, at various trade shows and I was fascinated by their location -- within a suet-ball throw of Muskegon Lake. Now I was about to see for myself what the store was all about.  

From the moment one enters, a feeling of a birder’s passion permeates throughout. With the heart of a retailer, I try not to covet other peoples’ stores, but I fell short when I roamed the aisles of the Bird House and admired their displays.  From the ample parking lot to the garden area alongside the store, the Bird House projects a natural welcome to prospective customers. And did I mention the lake view? Captivating indeed.

Leap of Faith

“When the railroad cut back in 2003, Rob was furloughed,” recalls Cathy. “To keep his job, he would have to relocate to another state.  Neither of us really wanted to leave our family and friends.” 

One day, while feeding the birds in their backyard, Rob came up with a revelation. He had recently read that to be happy you should make your hobby your profession.  Both Rob and Kathy enjoyed feeding wild birds so a plan for opening a birding store was hatched.

“I was not convinced that spending our life's savings on a new business made sense with the uncertainty of Rob's employment,” says Cathy. “Quite frankly, I thought he had fallen off a train and hit his head, but I listened.”

After meeting with other store owners and writing a business plan, Rob and Cathy found an ideal location and Rob’s idea was about to take flight.

The Bird House opened in 2005.  Located in beautiful North Muskegon, this affluent community is on the shores of both Muskegon Lake and Lake Michigan. It has miles of sugar sand beaches and dunes, and a portion of a popular biking trail runs directly in front of their store. Cool!  
I caught up with Rob and Cathy and asked them about their struggles and successes.

BB: I understand that you own your store building and lot. You have a beautiful setting with easy access and room to grow. Any current expansion plans?

TBH: We looked at many locations before deciding on this building. We enjoy 2,000 sq. ft. of retail space with an additional 700 sq. ft. office / kitchen area and a stock room. This year we plan on adding to the landscaping including a fish pond, trees, shrubs, and more bird feeders.  Pots for flowers and trees are already in place on the 4,800 sq. ft. concrete pad adjacent to the store which sets the stage for a display of fountains and bird baths.  The parking lot allows ample room for group buses, delivery trucks, and off street parking.  Our five-year goals include expanding our retail store space to accommodate new lines.   

BB: Ratios of in-store product lines are constantly changing based on local market needs. What is your current mix of products?

TBH: Seed, Suet and Mealworms make up about 34% of our sales and bird feeders make up 26%. Dog and cat foods and other products are about 20%.  We have 20 different departments and we analyze how many turns we see on each.  Slower moving items like garden flags are being phased out.   The other 20% of our sales is comprised of birdbaths, fountains, statuary, pole systems, wind chimes, garden art, gazing globes, hats, books, DVD/CDs, binoculars, weather vanes, pond supplies, ornaments, and gift baskets.

Loyalty Pays Bird Bucks

BB: Everyone is looking for that edge over the competition or something unique that keeps customers coming back. Is there any marketing tool that works well for you?

TBH: Popular with customers is our loyalty program - the Bird Bucks Club. New customers simply fill out a card with their name, mailing and e-mail address.  We keep the cards on file and every time the customer shops, we add the amount purchased to the card. On the seventh visit, we add up the total amount of the previous six sales and award 10 % of that total toward their seventh purchase.

Everything, including clearance items, earns Bird Bucks.  This program rewards loyal customers and encourages them to stop and shop.  Some customers use their Bird Bucks as they are awarded and some save multiple cards for that special item that they would not normally buy.  It also gives us the customer's name, mailing and email address and permission to email them with our flyers and special events.  Another bonus is that they do not have to save their receipt if they need to exchange an item - we already have everything on file!

BB: I noticed you bag your own smaller bags of seed. Has that been profitable for you?

TBH: At first we offered straight seed types in smaller tube-type plastic bags, but then one day, Shirley Whitaker (Cathy's mom) who works here part-time, began mixing her own blend of seed for feeding her backyard birds. She kept measuring and adding until she came up with what looked to be the perfect blend.  “Shirley's Special Blend” is now one of our best selling SKU’s.  We have talked with a distributor about mixing the seed according to our recipe but we are afraid we will lose something.  After all nobody makes a meal or mixes seed like mom!

Event Marketing

BB: You place a high value on hosting events at your store. Which ones are most successful?

TBH: Each November we participate in the Northside Holiday Circle Tour.  This event is the kick off for our holiday gift season.  Presently, over a dozen local businesses open their doors, provide holiday fare and are decked out for the season.  Participants each have a flyer that is stamped at a minimum of 10 businesses.  At the end of the three-day event the flyers are collected and one lucky prize winner is drawn for each business. 

We also host on-site reps from wild bird seed companies.  Wild Delight provided bird seed and a rep to help kids make pinecone bird seed feeders. These events encourage new people to visit the store and the rest is up to us. 

Our grounds offer the perfect classroom for outdoor seminars.  You don't always have to be the speaker, but you can offer the facility and a sign-up sheet. We are always looking for one more service to make customers stop by and remember us.



BB: North Muskegon appears to be a pleasant community, but not the hub of mass shopping.

TBH: Get your name out there.  We often speak to small groups such as the Lions Club, women's groups, schools, church groups, and so on.   Bird feeders are a popular topic, especially ways to keep squirrels off.  In April, we spoke to a couple of groups about ways to attract Bluebirds, Hummingbirds and Orioles.

Our feeder exchange program has brought us new customers. With the newer easy-to-clean feeders, we have many customers who want that new feeder, but feel timid about disposing of a perfectly good feeder, thus they continue to use it.  We make it easy for them to buy the new feeder by taking in the old one.  We clean them up and repair them if needed, fill them up and then donate them to nursing homes and elementary schools.  We’re able to share with a customer that their old feeder is now being appreciated at this elementary school or that nursing home, they feel good about giving to a good cause, and they did not have to find space for the old feeder in their garage.  We also made a sale so it is a win-win situation.

We also print our own customized gift certificates.  We print on heavy stock paper and each individual card is numbered and can be customized to have messages or people’s names (to and from) printed on the inside as well as the redemption value.  The cards have our name, address and logo on the front and are then placed into a nice envelope.  Customers tell us they prefer them over the small, plastic "credit card" gift cards offered by the big box retailers.

BB: Michigan was hit extra hard by the recession, yet your store experienced double-digit sales increases the past three years. Is there anything in your purchasing or inventory management that enabled you to weather the economic storms?

TBH: We try to improve our cash flow by adhering to just-in-time deliveries.  In the early years it was harder to estimate what would sell and what wouldn’t.  Now we have a good feel for what our customers want, but should we run short, we can order most items with a few days lead time.  One distributor ships product the same day we order while other distributors’ trucks deliver here weekly. Heath Mfg. is only 16 miles from our loading dock, so we often make pickups and save the freight cost.

We look at specials and volume discounts and take advantage of the savings if the products have proven to be items that sell well in our store.  Everyone wants to stock the latest and greatest but we have always been cautious with new items.  Buy a minimal quantity because you can always reorder.

We always keep an eye on the bottom line.  While we review many of the POS reports, the one that has helped us stay on track is a simple spread sheet.  We (Cathy) set up a template and input the information so that we can track sales for every single week.  If we are in the third week of September we can look at that week's sales for each year.  We also have our projected sales and average sales for that week, and we look at the profit and loss statement to make sure expenses are in line.  This system might be kind of nerdy in a numbers sort of way, but it helps us keep track of where we stand and on top of our cash flow.  

BB: Besides your attention to merchandising, marketing, and inventory control, what are some other things you do that keep your customers coming back?

TBH: Trying to know our customers on a first name basis and greeting them when they walk in the door, helps.  A friendly, "How can I help you?" leads to more sales than "Can I help you?" 

We try to do whatever it takes to make our customers happy.  We carry seed to their vehicles and, on occasion, we make deliveries.  Our no-hassle return policy is good for any reason (and with little abuse).

The Bird House is more like a boutique shopping experience at big-box prices.  We sell with a smile when a new customer walks in and says someone at the big box store told them about us. Better yet, is when a big box store employee sends a customer our way because we have a better quality selection. The vast majority of The Bird House customers are looking for well-made products at a fair price.

After goodbye hugs and a last look at the lake, it was time to bid farewell to the Morins and staff at The Bird House. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I thought of a new bumper sticker perfect for their store: We bird by the lake…drop in.

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By Mike Anderson

Mike is a birding hobbyist and lives on an Audubon-certified sanctuary near Atlanta. He’s seen throughout the industry promoting Songbird Essentials at trade shows and seminars. You may contact Mike at:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.