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The State of the Bird Segment

Posted: June 14, 2011, 6 p.m., EDT


The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Part 1

When I opened my pet store in 1987, many of the pet birds I sold in my store were wild caught. Fortunately, the Wild Bird Conversation Act was passed in 1992, outlawing the import of wild-caught birds. The hand-fed baby craze then took fire, and throughout the 1990s, the bird segment realized tremendous growth. Then the bottom dropped out.

Ask almost anyone involved in the pet bird segment today what their business is like, and they will not answer in a positive way. Breeders will complain that the demand is down and they can’t get people to pay the prices they deserve; stores and distributors (especially full line) will say their bird business is half or less then what it used to be; vets will complain that the economy has resulted in people cutting back on well-bird check ups; and rescues/sanctuaries will tell you they have more "business” then they know what to do with as more and more people give up their birds. The 2011-2012 American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey reported an almost 30 percent drop in pet bird ownership from 2002 to 2010. It’s a sad turn of events for almost all parties involved—especially the birds.
 
To bring the reality of this situation home, I talked with a couple of folks who make 100 percent of their living through the world of pet birds: Dr. Greg Burkett, a Certified Avian Vet who has three bird-related businesses, and Melanie Allen, bird product manager for Hagen.
 
I wish I could say that talking with Dr. Burkett helped allay my concerns regarding the decline of the pet bird segment. But unfortunately, I caught him at a time when his business is down well over 50 percent over the last three years. When pressed for a tangible reason for this decline, he cited:

• He stopped selling baby birds in his store, which also led to a significant decline in food and accessories
• More people are giving their birds up to rescues/sanctuaries. This phenomenon has been building over the last several years, which will probably be the subject of a future blog. Dr. B feels the reason for this is primarily due to some stores selling birds without teaching people the right kind of physical and emotional care or providing them the tools they need to properly raise and train these complex creatures. And the poor economy isn’t helping things although in my opinion it really doesn’t cost that much to keep a bird, so I don’t see that as a good excuse.
• When the price of gas hit $4 a gallon, his vet practice took a nosedive. He went from seeing 40 patients a week to 10. His peers in bird practices throughout the country have realized the same drop in revenues.

Melanie Allen has seen many changes to the segment in the 20-plus years she has been involved. When I asked her what the biggest challenges facing the pet bird segment are, she had a most interesting perspective.

"There doesn’t seem to be one outstanding challenge for retailers as far as the bird category in the retail market—but more like a combination of challenges that includes a change in lifestyle for people, economics, and negative media hype that affects all exotics in the companion animal industry,” she said. "We, as an industry, have to consider too, that we’re rebounding from one or two generations of pet people who shouldn’t have had birds as pets in the first place. Perhaps this is reflective of the hype in the 1980 to ‘90s, when having a hand-fed bird made the parrot a more acceptable pet—all without considering very critical aspects of keeping a bird for a pet that we now know, such as behavior, diets, husbandry; we put those domestic hand-feds out there to the public with an expectation that made the exotic parrot look as easy as keeping a puppy or a kitten. And, it wasn’t.”

While I have only quoted two folks, I could have quoted ten more and the general feelings would be the same. Houston, we have a problem.

Now what? Stay tuned for my next blog where I will share some excellent suggestions from experts on what retailers and others involved in the pet bird segment can do to overcome these challenges and thrive during difficult times.

Or, perhaps you have some ideas of your own on how to rebound from this downturn? Please email me at carol@carolfrank.com



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