Rich niche: New bird franchise makes two

On the surface, it may sound a little crazy to open a store that sells products geared only toward feeding the birds.

Who knew that bird feeding is one of the top eight hobbies in Virginia? According to Judith Lane, who just opened Wild Birds Unlimited, the pastime ranks second only to gardening.

And Lane's store isn't even the first. Charlottesville already has the ornitho-oriented Wild Bird Crossing.

"I'm kind of surprised to hear there's a new one because there's one at Rio Hill Shopping Center," says local wildlife lover/nature writer Marlene Condon.

Can Charlottesville support two stores in the same niche market?

Lane, a former marketer for Nortel, puts it in telecom terms: "At Nortel, we weren't worried about Lucent. Look at the stats."

She says the market potential is huge: $3 million. "Heck, if I got 10 percent of that, I'd be giddy," says Lane.

The former marketer did her research and is convinced of the potential in the backyard bird-feeding crowd. And she got her retail experience last year working at the Cat House, another animal-specific shop.

The only ones who really thought she was crazy were bankers, but she didn't let them stop her, finally using her retirement funds to get the store open.

As much as Virginians apparently love their birds, feeding them is not without controversy.

One worry is that diseases could be spread at the feeder. Condon scoffs. "I've fed birds all my life– I see one sick bird a year. As long as you keep the feeders clean and don't let them fill with wet seed, it shouldn't be a problem."

Wild Birds Unlimited carries just the tools for that long brushes to scrub out those nasty perches.

Pennsylvania outlaws bird feeding in the summer because of a bear problem, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries discourages bird feeding because it attracts raccoons, says Condon. "If you do it right, you're not going to attract mammals," she says.

To that end, Wild Birds Unlimited offers options to daunt determined squirrels and raccoons. But even with her squirrel-proof feeders, "You're always going to get that one renegade," acknowledges Lane, who offers a guarantee to replace the feeder if an unstoppable squirrel gets in.

Condon is probably just the type of customer Wild Birds Unlimited and Wild Bird Crossing would like. She spends hundreds of dollars a year feeding the birds. "Maybe even a thousand," she says.

Lane sees her major competitors as grocery and big box stores. But one drawback of those places, she says, is "There's no one there to address questions to, to ask, 'Is this good for finches?'"

While Lane acknowledges that many shoppers are price sensitive, she says low-cost grocery store seed may not be such a good deal. "It has fillers," she says– milo for one– and "birds around here don't eat milo– they'll knock it out." Lane says, "You can spend $8 on feed the birds only eat a quarter of."

Over at Wild Bird Crossing, which opened in 1995, owner Mary Hall is hesitant to answer the burning question: Can Charlottesville support two bird-product stores? "Obviously, they think it will," she says.

Hall says that while her business continues to grow, her only concern is that Wild Birds Unlimited is located almost around the corner in Shoppers World near Starbucks. And both franchises sell a lot of the same products, Hall concedes.

But she's not going to say anything bad about a new competitor. "I've been there, opening a new business," says Hall. "If they survive, we survive. It'll be good for the entire community."

And it's a community where apparently the unwary easily become hooked. They start with a small feeder, but then before they know it, they've got feeders all over the place to attract different types of birds.

Lane knows. She likes to sit in the morning with coffee and watch the birds in her yard. "It beats watching television," she says.

Wild Birds Unlimited is Charlottesville's second  bird specialty shop.