Local businesses that celebrate the outdoors are reporting noteworthy successes. Jay’s Bird Barn, Watters Garden Center and Hike Shack all have increased their sales in the last year and, in some ways, have done better during the pandemic than before it.
Bird Business Soaring
Eric Moore, owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, said the pandemic impacted his store in three major ways: a lack of inventory, an impact on employees and action from customers.
He had trouble obtaining products from a variety of vendors – from binoculars to hummingbird feeders. “It has been disruptive,” he said. “There was difficulty in getting inventory and rising costs of inventory.”
But, sales increased significantly, growing 18.37% in the Prescott store and 26.07% in the Flagstaff store, for an average growth of 20.3% in the past year. Some of the birdseed flavors could not be found, so customers would buy other flavors of birdseed.
Labor issues arose as employees at both his Prescott and Flagstaff stores tested positive for COVID-19, so they would stay away until they tested negative. Some employees would self-furlough. There was one point when Moore and his wife were the only ones working at the store. He said that while this worked, it was challenging.
“It takes more than two to run the store.”
Several employees missed three days in a row this past month until they tested negative and could come back to work.
“By the following Monday, we were back to normal. We got through it,” he said.
Economically, the good news was that because so many people were sheltering in place, they turned to nature by bird watching and bird feeding and Jay’s Bird Barn sales increased significantly.
Ultimately, “we continue to experience tremendous growth. Our business prospered. We were not harmed by the coronavirus,” he said. “We were blessed that so many people got into birding.”
Moore said they have a lot of new customers as the pandemic turned more eyes to bird watching.
Jay’s Bird Barn, which opened in Prescott in 2003, had to scramble to obtain relationships with other vendors when some vendors ran out of inventory. With binoculars, for example, he stuck with the same vendor, but sometimes had to wait on an order.
“The customers were understanding and patient. We appreciate that a lot.”
Last year, when the government forced nonessential businesses to close, Moore had to lay off one employee. Since the reopening, however, Jay’s Bird Barn has been hiring.
Through the last year, he has learned to keep more of the popular items in stock.
“As owner, I need to run the business a bit tighter because of the volatility,” he said.
Jay’s Bird Barn took the necessary safety precautions to keep employees and customers safe, including additional cleaning and sanitizing and wearing masks. During the summer, they kept the doors open for the air to come through.
Moore wishes that masks and social distancing were more generally accepted. “We enforce it. We tell people if you’re not wearing a mask, don’t come in.”
Jay’s Bird Barn obtained the $10,000 government business grant and called it a blessing. “We were really hurting during the closure.”
Meanwhile, his relationship with customers has been strengthened.
“They want to support us and value our business. They have an appreciation for what we do,” he said. “People have been kind. They would tell us to keep the change. People were tuned in and sensitive. The Lord has been so merciful to us. We want to acknowledge the good and the positive. We appreciate our customers. We had to adjust, adapt and exercise faith. That’s how we got through it.”
Ken and Lisa Lain, owners of Watters Garden Center, adjusted their business to make sure their customers and employees stayed safe. Through this time, their business has increased significantly.
It became clear that gardening was not just a hobby. Many customers started growing their own vegetables and fruit so they were less reliant on stores for food.
Ken keeps an extensive collection of books, ranging from business success to spirituality, but there was no playbook for dealing with the coronavirus.
“Every day, we wake up wondering how to create a safer work environment and motivate scared employees while gardeners are clamoring for more plants,” he said.
Lisa said that they became aware that food security is a real fear, even more than running out of toilet paper. She said the seed vaults ran out extremely early last year, leaving gardeners to scramble for spring vegetable crops.
“Watters sold our entire spring crop of vegetables shortly after, demand was so high. We have tripled the number of vegetables and herbs grown for spring 2021, and we wonder if it will be enough,” she said.
At first, customers were buying fruit trees, grapes and berries; then, demand grew for all types of vegetables.
“We see far more families shopping at the garden center,” said Ken.
“Gardeners are looking for time outside, away from digital devices. Nurturing plants rests the eyes, centers the soul and gives families something to do in the backyard that is still safe.”
At Watters, sales have increased in many areas, including for ornamental trees, shrubs and perennial flowers.
“The backyard has become an extension of the living room, and homeowners want the space to be beautiful,” Lisa said.
As the virus ramped up and the economy slowed down, the couple was concerned that sales would decrease. “I honestly thought shutting the economy down would create a downturn in plant sales like the great recession,” said Ken. “We promised our entire team no one would lose their job, no matter what. We took care of each other. We created a food closet in my office, and the team filled it. If an employee or someone they knew needed anything, they could walk in and take what they needed. No questions. No one ran out of toilet paper.”
Lisa said Watters has been blessed because they did not have employees miss many days because of COVID-19. “We had a two-week scare at the end of last year. We paid our planting team to stay home in an abundance of caution because of exposure.”
“We are fortunate to be a store with fresh air; customers naturally feel safer,” added Ken. “We spread shopping aisles, so over 60% of the store is wide open. Checkouts are now outside to increase airflow, so the staff and customers feel even safer. We think in terms of touchpoints. Sanitation is paramount, with shopping carts sterilized after each use. Light switches automatically come on in the bathrooms and office, pens are cleaned after each use, with hand sanitation stations everywhere.”
Watters obtained disaster relief, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) funds and Small Business Administration (SBA) loans to ensure they could pay their bills and make payroll.
“We promised our staff they would not lose a job, we were in this together,” he said.
The couple says the COVID-19 experience has been a learning process for everyone, especially regarding relationships with customers. “We have done extensive training with the entire team on keeping the store clean, when and how to wear a mask and what social distancing looks like,” said Lisa.
Watters also launched an online presence.
“Customer service is sorely lacking in businesses today,” said Ken. “They think more about themselves or the employees and the customer is forgotten. In 2021, the Watters family is focused on being helpful and friendly, all while being COVID-safe. We are focused on what makes Watters family garden center famous for 59 years, including God’s love and beauty to our community,” he said.
Taking Positive Steps
Raigan Fundalewicz, one of three owners at Hike Shack in downtown Prescott, said hiking gear sales have increased substantially since the pandemic began.
“By far, footwear has had the most significant increase,” she said. “Christmas sales were great, but December is always our best month.”
Fundalewicz said sales are up slightly since the pandemic began and would have been up more if the store hadn’t closed when only essential businesses remained open during April and part of May. They were up 2% overall during the past year.
“Aside from April, it was a good sales year,” she said.
Fundalewicz was grateful that Hike Shack didn’t have to lay anybody off. “It was a little scary, but our staff did a great job of staying healthy and staying protected,” she said.
Like Jay’s Bird Barn and Watters Garden Center, Hike Shack mandated that customers wear masks.
Some employees missed a few days because of COVID-19. The outdoor outfitter used the CARES Act to pay employees to stay home until they tested negative if they came in contact with anyone with the virus.
Hike Shack also exercised safety measures, including providing hand sanitizer, clearing off counters, closing dressing rooms and asking people to social distance. They also limited the number of people in the store. A PPE grant and small business loan helped to keep the store operating.
Fundalewicz also experienced a great relationship with customers. Some customers donated items for them to sell to help them. One man donated a metal sign with the word “home” on it. Customers loved it and it sold out.
“People just wanted to help. It was a cool side effect,” she said. QCBN
By Stan Bindell, QCBN