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No longer just one bird expert and free samples, today’s more-eventful seminars offer retailers opportunities to educate and reel in sales.

By Cheryl Reeves

Omar Gonzalez of Omar’s Exotic Birds
Retailers such as Omar Gonzalez (pictured) of Omar’s Exotic Birds hold species-specific seminars that connect customers who own or are interested in buying certain birds.
Photo courtesy of Omar’s Exotic Birds
Despite their tendency to move product, in-store educational events often have benefits that extend beyond increased credit card swipes and dollars in cash registers.

Retailers pointed out that when they hold seminars and classes, the first objective isn’t just sales, but rather how to educate and build deeper relationships with bird-owning customers.

Todd Marcus, owner of Todd Marcus Birds Exotic in Delran, N.J. said he is a big believer in seminars as a way to keep up an ongoing conversation about education.

“Usually we have two speakers plus an open Q&A forum,” Marcus said. “The most popular topics are diet and behavior modification.”

Along with learning, retailers reported, customers want to be wowed with chances to win prizes, scoop up free samples and enjoy the overall experience of attending a special event.

“Bird people love a chance to chitchat among themselves,” said Jack Lance, co-owner of Bird Paradise in Burlington, N.J..

It’s crucial for customers to get all the education they need to raise their birds right, he said, adding that Q&A forums are important to include so customers get a chance to participate.

In terms of seminar topics, some retailers enjoy focusing on specific bird species. Among these retailers is Omar Gonzalez, owner of Omar’s Exotic Birds in Lake Forest and Brea., Calif.

“For example, one three-hour seminar would be everything about African greys,” Gonzalez said, “so all the customers coming in for the event have that connection.

 “We have a raffle and also set up a booth filled with products perfect for African greys,” he added.

Gonzalez said he covers the topic gamut, including behavior, nutrition, toys, and even supplements and cleaning products.

“The seminars are also a great way for a person considering purchasing a bird to learn everything they need to know to responsibly make that decision,” he noted.

While retailers often set up their own classes and seminars, manufacturers can be an important resource for these events.

Top Sources Bird Owners Use for Pet-Related Information
(as a percentage of total bird owners in 2008)

Bird/Pet Store Personnel 37
Books/Library  32
Internet/Online  30
Past Experience  27
Friend/Relative  23

Source: 2009-2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey

Dena Tucker, president and designer at Greenfeather Bird Supply LLC in West Hartford, Conn., advised retailers not to be shy about contacting manufacturers for samples, products to raffle off and even photos to download that help promote an event.

“I offer stores images from my website,” Tucker said. “I go and speak on the importance of bird toys and then directly help customers choose products. People often bring their bird so it can pick out its own toys, which adds to the fun.”

Gail Shepard, director of marketing for Shawnee, Kan.-based manufacturer ZuPreem, said her company participates in many retail seminars and classes by sending speakers and contributing samples, discount coupons and more. She said even a small retailer can carve out a space to set up a small booth for a manufacturer to work within.

“Having these events, beyond the obvious importance of education, is a great way to fight back against the big box stores,” Shepard noted. “Retailers should make sure people know there is something special going on. If someone drives by, they should be able to see banners or balloons or something that indicates an event is happening. Picture how a car dealership attracts with fluttering, colorful banners. That’s the idea.”

She suggested that retailers can save money by not printing the specific date of the event on the banner so it can be reused for other events. To promote the event, she recommended that retailers e-mail blast customers, stuff flyers into bags and create buzz on social networking sites.

Many retailers and manufacturers reported that sales usually go up at events and also suggested holding seminars on Monday or Tuesday nights, or whenever there is a need to fill a gap in one’s slowest business day.

“It’s about getting that foot traffic,” Shepard pointed out, “and entertaining as well as educating.”

Along with seminars, Gonzalez said he does another educational event called “30 Minutes With Omar.”

“People sign up in the store for an appointment and come in with their bird,” Gonzalez said. “I do a one-on-one session with them. This has had a significant influence on sales. The bird is like their child, and they want to do everything right.”

Educational events often improve store sales and can offer opportunities to benefit other organizations as well.

For example, educational seminars mix well with charitable causes, said Rick Horvitz, president of Golden Cockatoo, a retailer in Deerfield Beach, Fla. His store’s True Early Bird Dinner is an annual charity dinner that donates the proceeds to various bird causes and nonprofits.

Horvitz said the event features a buffet dinner, high-profile expert speakers, raffles, blind auctions and manufacturer reps handing out samples and answering questions.

“Besides increasing sales during the event, people are having fun and connecting while contributing to bird charities and learning how to take better care of their birds,” he said, adding that when one speaker talked about the importance of bird toys, he sold close to $500 worth of them at the event.

Moreover, Horvitz said, “The feedback you get from customers during a seminar is a big payoff. They tell you what they like and want to see more of.”

But nothing resonates with and attracts consumers to events as much as the word “free,” retailers reported.

“When you say ’free,’ it works,” Lance said. “Admission to Parrot Palooza is free. However, well before the event, we offer redeemable tickets that people get with their store purchases depending on how much they spend. For example, if they spend a certain amount, they’ll get a ticket that gives them $10 or $20 off event purchases.”

Equally important, Horvitz stated, is offering contests and door prizes.

“People love the chance to win,” he said.

Well-known authors and book signings are also popular attractions at seminars, retailers reported, and lend an air of celebrity to an event. Customers don’t want to miss the chance to meet their favorite author in person.

Tim Facer, a sales associate at Avalon Aviary in Loveland, Colo., said bird expert and author Sally Blanchard is a big hit when she comes in to speak.

“Popular and respected pet bird experts like Blanchard make a seminar extra special,” Facer noted.

Whether a seminar is a small gathering or large event, retailers can increase attendance and sales by drawing on every resource possible.

“My advice to retailers is to put a lot of thought into the event,” Shepard said. “Practical planning is imperative. Don’t overestimate what you are capable of: Start small and learn as you go.”

Shepard advised retailers to give manufacturers 90-day notice so they have advance time to provide everything a retailer needs.

“Then you’ve got to get the word out,” she added. “Have a fish bowl in your store so customers can drop business cards into it—use that to do an e-mail blast. Use Facebook, community newspapers. You can even hire a teenager to stand outside your store in a sandwich board to pass out flyers. There are many affordable, creative ways to get attention.”

Lance encouraged retailers to reach out to local bird clubs for speakers and promotion.

“They are a great resource and have a passion for birds and education,” he said.

From cleanliness to customer service, several factors can be key to leaving seminar attendees with a positive impression of a store.

“Make sure your store is clean when holding a seminar,” Shepard advised. “Have seasoned employees on the floor. It’s all about learning, having fun and selling. It’s also a way to say thank you to customers—and their birds, of course.” 

Keys to Educating and Engaging Employees

Getting employees involved and invested in a store’s educational and sales goals is no trivial pursuit. In an effort to increase profits and make a store a destination for consumers, retailers reported that they increasingly provide continuing education to enhance reputation and develop the highest quality team of employees.

Additionally, a culture of growth is imperative in upholding positive workplace morale, according to retailers. Supporting employees with a continuing education program also shows that a retailer values their contributions and wishes to see them succeed.

Here, retailers and manufacturers share ideas on how to build a confident, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and proactive sales staff.

• In-store Training

From knowing how to deal with people to understanding birds, trends and products, learning from experience is vital. In particular, industry participants reported, knowing each species of bird, being well-informed of brand attributes and listening to customers are on-the-job skills that increase with time. Staff meetings help keep everyone informed.

Knowing the product is essential, said Sally Adams Trufant, general manager at B&B Pet Stop in Mobile, Ala.

“We select several items each month to feature on sale,” she reported, “and we’ll do more intensive product knowledge training on those particular items, including what other items should be sold with them as automatic add-ons.”

Trufant said she also has manufacturers’ reps come to the store to do training sessions and that all employees in the particular department are required to attend.

At Golden Cockatoo in Deerfield Beach, Fla., employee knowledge comes from their homes as well.

“Everyone who works here must own a bird,” said Rick Horvitz, president of Golden Cockatoo. “To fully empathize with the customer’s concerns, and effectively educate and sell, employees must come from a place of having a bond with a bird of their own.”

Dena Tucker, president and designer at Greenfeather Bird Supply LLC in West Hartford, Conn., said she immediately knows who the best employees are when she walks into a store.

“They radiate confidence and competence and are the ones who come up to you immediately, like a waiter in a restaurant,” Tucker noted. “They say, ‘How can I help you?’”

She added that retailers should train their employees to make customers feel important and welcomed. 

• Motivational Speakers

Almost everyone needs inspiration, and having an expert speak at a staff seminar or meeting can be a great way to rev up energy. Retailers with tight budgets can find speakers through local bird hospitals, breeders, sanctuaries, bird clubs and artisans.

Horvitz highly recommended Bob Negen, founder of Grand Haven, Mich.-based WhizBang! Training, as a great motivational speaker who covers a wealth of topics. Among these are staff development, inventory management, skill setting, customer service, website marketing and more.

“He’s been great, especially with a seminar called ‘Marketing Ideas That Will Explode Your Sales,’” Horvitz said.

When interviewed, Negen said the best overall way to train and develop sales staff is to make up a list of non-negotiable standards that both management and staff adhere to.

“One example of such a standard is [this]: Everyone has to be on the floor exactly when their shift begins,” he said.

Negen added that retailers can get the most out of their employees by recognizing each person’s special skill.

“Draw out their ideas at meetings,” he advised. “Maybe you’ll see that a part-time kid is, beyond traditional sales, highly skilled at mobile media and social networking. Develop that.”
 
• Online Certification Programs and Manuals

Many retailers take advantage of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council’s (PIJAC) online Avian Certification Program and/or PIJAC’s Avian Distance Learning Materials Resource Manual.

“We utilize PIJAC’s online program—our employees are required to get the certificate,” said Jack Lance, co-owner of Bird Paradise in Burlington, N.J.

Donna Garrou, owner of BirdStuff in Orange, Calif., recommended using PIJAC’s Avian Distance Learning Materials Resource Manual as a tool for the more formal side of training.

“I actually go over it with employees,” Garrou said, “and because there is so much content in each chapter to retain, we only cover about two pages in a session. Then I ask employees questions—often the test questions.”

• Trade Shows and Symposiums

Mingling with industry insiders is the kind of experience that’s hard to beat, reported many retailers. If possible, retailers recommended, send one employee to a convention or expo, and afterward, the employee can speak at a staff meeting about what he or she learned.

“Our managers go to trade shows, workshops, symposiums and other events,” said Omar Gonzalez, owner of Omar’s Exotic Birds in Lake Forest and Brea, Calif. “In addition, anything I learn in my own travels, I share with employees. Keeping them in the loop is key.”

• Retail Associations

NexPet, a co-op specifically for independent pet retailers, is a goldmine of benefits for a small membership cost, according to Horvitz.

“NexPet, run by Barry Berman, offers staff training programs and management education with workbooks and online courses,” he said.

Horvitz added that besides great employee training programs, NexPet membership also includes marketing and advertising tips, vendor discounts and many more benefits.

The association also offers an online FlexQuiz Training Program featuring sections on birds and selling skills. —CR

 

 

 

*This Web Exclusive is a continuation of the Bird Marketplace article “Teachable Moments: Worth Every Penny,” which appears on page 34 of the December 2010 issue. Click here to become a subscriber.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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