Wild Birds Unlimited migrates online
This squirrel-proof bird feeder is among WBU’s exclusive products, now available online.
When Pat Perkinson started working at Wild Birds Unlimited in the mid-‘90s she wasn’t into the hobby of backyard birding, but, in the 24 years since, “I’ve become a full-blown bird nerd,” she says.
“In fact, here’s a funny story,” Perkinson continues. “I live in a condo and a few years ago some new people came into the homeowners association and they banned bird feeding.
So I brought in our chief naturalist to give a presentation and, long story short, now we can feed the birds again. They thought bird feeding would attract squirrels and other critters—they were simply misinformed.”
Embracement of the hobby itself and using the products sold at Wild Birds Unlimited’s specialty retail stores is part of what helps longtime executives such as Perkinson, who started as director of retail operations 1995 and is now chief operations officer, connected with franchisees, particularly during a time of change for the Carmel, Indiana-based brand. WBU is in the midst of rolling out a new online ordering system—a major undertaking for a brand that touts its in-store experience—with all owners participating by 2021.
Development of a new point-of-sale system is also well underway and will be standard across the franchise. These are big changes, Perkinson acknowledges, and to make them successful it’s important to be clear and transparent with franchisees about the timeline and requirements.
“Jim will always come back to what’s best for those store owners,” she says, in reference to Jim Carpenter, Wild Birds’ founder and CEO. That commitment, along with Carpenter’s establishment of a culture of authenticity, is among the reasons Perkinson says she’s stayed with the brand for more than two decades. The same goes for Paul Pickett, the first full-time hire at Wild Birds Unlimited in 1989 who’s helped it grow from a small network of bird feeding stores originally hatched in 1981 to 338 units and counting as chief development officer.
“I don’t know anybody in franchise development who stays with the same company the whole time,” says Pickett of his 30 years at WBU. A “do the right thing, always” approach is embedded in the culture, he explains. “And I just can’t imagine getting behind another brand the way I’ve gotten behind this brand.”
Pickett has a master’s degree in ornithology, the study of birds, and is an avid birder himself, noting that having a similar passion for the hobby is part of what makes a strong franchise candidate. An understanding of the increasing complexity of the retail environment is another important consideration as the brand looks to add 15 new stores every year and provide its existing franchisees new tools to grow their sales.
CEO Jim Carpenter (second from left) with execs Amy Moore, Paul Pickett and Pat Perkinson.
For the birds
Wild Birds Unlimited is in a fortunate position, says Perkinson, because it sells a line of products that “doesn’t go out of style” and franchisees are turning their bird food inventory 52 weeks a year.
“Jim is always focused on finding the best products for the birds and finding ways to sell it,” she says, the latter of which is what prompted Carpenter and the rest of the executive team to start talking with WBU’s franchise advisory council and owners across the system about launching an omnichannel initiative that connects brick and mortar stores to an online shopping experience.
They’re a year-and-a-half into the rollout, with about 120 stores online, and Carpenter says the system “duplicates the customer’s visit to your store in every way possible.”
Carpenter, who’s also still the franchise owner of the original store he opened 38 years ago in Indianapolis, says the platform was developed to allow for local pricing and delivery or pickup from each individual store. There’s no giant warehouse and everything a franchisee sells online “is as if the customer walked into their store,” he says. “We set it up almost the opposite of how every other retailer would have done it.”
But that’s what franchisees wanted, notes Director of Retail Operations Amy Moore, another long-tenured executive who’s been with Wild Birds for 25 years.
“Our owners truly develop a relationship with their customers,” she says, and while that face-to-face store interaction is valued, “we know we need to be available to them 24/7 and when it is convenient for them to shop.”
The online component is just one part of the overall customer experience, which WBU is working to enhance in order to attract and retain customer loyalty in a competitive retail environment. Its Daily Savings Club rewards customers with discounts and services, says Moore, and the brand recently unveiled its FeederScaping service.
“We offer on-site consultations to assist customers with outfitting their yards with high quality birdfeeding setups to attract birds most suited for their neighborhoods and habitats,” explains Moore of what’s also an additional revenue opportunity for franchisees.
As a 100 percent franchised system, Wild Birds Unlimited’s success is truly tied to the growth and profitability of its franchisees, notes Carpenter, and a focus on them is ingrained in every aspect of the business. Even “the bonus system around here is based not on how the franchisor does but how our franchisees do,” he says.
Those franchisees continue to sell a ton of birdseed. From 2013 to 2017 WBU grew systemwide sales 14.4 percent to $159 million, putting the brand at No. 267 on the Franchise Times Top 200+.
Carpenter, though, knows “being a retailer is just going to get more complex,” and he says one of his goals is to get every franchisee to understand “no matter how good you think it is, it’s never as good as it could be.” He views franchisees and their teams as WBU’s “unassailable competitive strength,” with the next step being to use the “power of the system to win in retail.”
Isn’t there some saying about birds of a feather growing their bottom lines together?