— By Hayden Spiess —
Wild Birds Unlimited offers backyard bird feeding retail for an increasingly diverse customer base, with a growing flock of franchised locations.
Jim Carpenter’s aspirations were not always avian in nature. The founder and CEO of Wild Birds Unlimited originally had his sights set on medical school. However, in 1981 he pivoted, opening the first Wild Birds Unlimited store in Indianapolis, driven by a passion for nature and birding. This same passion unites Wild Bird Unlimited store owners, managers and customers across the United States and Canada, says Amy Moore, senior vice president of retail concepts and chief operating officer.
Guided by its mission of “bringing people and nature together,” Wild Birds Unlimited offers everything a customer would need to get started in backyard bird feeding, including bird food, feeders, water products such as bird baths, and other nature-related gifts. Stores also carry a number of exclusive products, some of which were designed by founder Jim Carpenter himself. These include a feeder with patented side curves that allow for easy bird viewing and cleaning. Another item unique to Wild Birds Unlimited is “Jim’s Birdacious Bark Butter®,” a spreadable suet-type bird food that can be applied directly to trees.
Averaging 1,500 square feet, stores are generally located in strip-style shopping centers, most often in suburban areas, and are designed to highlight these core products. Most locations feature a community board for sharing local nature happenings and upcoming in-store events, such as bird walks, educational presentations and visits from rehabilitation experts that work with live birds of prey. Customers are also encouraged to share photos of their backyard birds. “We want customers to have an outdoor experience when they visit,” says Moore. “They can expect to hear nature and bird sounds upon entering a store.”
Getting kids involved in the hobby early on is an important part of cultivating the company’s consumer base, according to Moore, who notes that Wild Birds Unlimited saw a demographic shift during and post-pandemic with an increasingly younger selection of consumers participating in the hobby.
Though Carpenter still owns an Indianapolis store, all other locations, of which there are more than 350, are franchised. A corporate franchise development team guides prospective owners through the prospects of opening a store, and a coaching team supports those who have already done so.
“I think our franchise store owners make WBU so special and unique,” says Moore. “They care about their customers and community.”
Tweeting — Not Just for the Birds
Public engagement is a cornerstone of the Wild Birds Unlimited strategy. In addition to maintaining corporate Twitter and Facebook accounts, Wild Birds Unlimited has an Instagram presence with more than 20,000 followers, the content of which Carpenter figures in largely. Each individual franchise store also maintains their own social media accounts.
Wild Birds Unlimited also has a podcast, Nature Centered, that delivers educational and fun content in hopes of staying connected with its customers. But the online presence for Wild Birds Unlimited is not limited to content creation and social media. As with most other retailers, the concept has embraced online retail and an omni-channel approach. Customers can order merchandise online, either for delivery or local pick up. Somewhat distinct to the Wild Birds Unlimited e-commerce approach though, is the fact that shoppers select a specific location to buy from, allowing them to create a one-on-one relationship with their local store.
Turning Headwinds into Tailwinds
Another element of Wild Birds Unlimited’s success? Those same headwinds that typically spell trouble — or at least worry — for retail can actually buoy backyard bird feeding sales. While some retailers understandably struggled during the pandemic, lockdowns and work-from-home practices made customers more interested in the outdoors and investing in their own yards and at-home entertainment (in the form of wildlife viewing), according to Moore.
She expects a similarly counterintuitive uptick in sales heading into the new year and a potentially recessionary environment. Moore says that recessions can “get people thinking differently,” forgoing larger expenses such as vacations for smaller purchases and directing their discretionary funds to new hobbies like backyard bird feeding.
The Wild Birds Unlimited team is optimistic about 2023, projecting the opening of 10 new locations all over North America. “We are confident in our brand,” Moore says, “and we continue to strategize about helping more people get connected to nature through this wonderful hobby.”
— This article originally published as the March 2023 cover story of Retail & Restaurant Facility Business magazine. Email the editor, Katie Lee, at [email protected].