Retail, Small Business & Startups, and Technology

GR’s global mom-n-pop throttles down

Birdwatchers’ Marketplace was an Internet marketing pioneer in 1995.

May 23, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Debbie and Charlie Lea look forward to scaling back a bit at Birdwatchers’ Marketplace, which opened in 1995. Photo by Johnny Quirin

A quiet family business in northeast Grand Rapids that has been selling birdseed and products for birdwatchers on a global basis since 1995 is moving to a new location where the owners will need less time to run it.

When Birdwatchers’ Marketplace opened in 1995, it also launched an Internet marketing business — thought to be one of the first in the world in that particular market. Being among the first Internet companies, the company landed an impressive domain name: birdwatchers.com.

Charlie and Debbie Lea announced in mid-May that after 19 years, they are planning to close their Birdwatcher’s Marketplace store on Plainfield Avenue NE and will move their operations to a warehouse at 5216 West River Drive NE where they can still sell to their regional customers and also fill online orders.

Birdseed and birdfeeders are the core of their business, but they also sell bird houses, bird baths, squirrel baffles and more. At one time, they were even a major North American distributor of a Swiss brand of bird-watching binoculars.

“Now, we're making the switch from a retail location with high overhead and long hours to a warehouse environment with low overhead, short hours, and a focus on the core products that have been the backbone of our business for so long,” said the Leas in an announcement.

When asked how large the business is compared to others like it, Debbie Lea said she had no idea.

“We are just a small mom and pop,” she told the Business Journal in an email. “We do know we’re No. 1 with our customers, or we wouldn't have survived for 19+ years. There have been many stores like ours come and go over these years. We started counting up how many there have been in the GR area over 19 years, and there were, at one time, nine. So we feel pretty proud that we have been able to (make) a comfortable living and have a successful business.”

While birdseed has been their bread and butter, the Leas have long sold a wide array of products for wild bird lovers around the world. Last month, for example, they shipped an Oriole feeder to a customer in Brazil who ordered it online.

The Leas both worked in retail before deciding to start a business of their own. A relative had given them a bird feeder one Christmas and, with that, they were hooked on feeding and watching wild birds.

“We’re addicted to it,” joked Charlie. “We were closet bird-feeders, originally. We didn’t tell anybody we fed birds — that was something old people did.”

As the new business was getting started, Charlie and Debbie wondered if they should try to sell their products on that new thing called the Internet. Debbie figured they couldn’t afford that, recalled Charlie. But then they learned from local provider Iserv that a domain name could be registered for their new business for $175. Charlie said he wanted to register “birdwatchersmarketplace.com” but Iserv said it could only be 13 characters, so they settled for birdwatchers.com.

“We’ve been selling online, living dangerously, ever since,” said Charlie, laughing.

In reality, selling via the Internet then was still very new and considered to be risky; many people were not willing to give their credit card information to someone they had never met in a distant location.

Charlie said one of their first Internet sales in 1995 was to a man in Siberia who was studying tigers and needed a spotting telescope he had seen on birdwatchers.com. Charlie said he and Debbie were “petrified” at charging an order on a credit card from Russia — but they did, and it worked out just fine.

At first, birdwatchers.com was essentially a catalog; it had no point-and-click “shopping cart,” so orders could not be entered via the website. Then, in 1998, a Washington Post staff writer wrote an article about all the things becoming available on websites.

“For instance, type ‘gifts’ and ‘birdwatcher’ into a search engine. Your list of options includes Bird Watcher’s Marketplace (www.birdwatchers.com) a Grand Rapids, Mich., store that boasts it has the Internet’s ‘largest selection of hummingbird feeders,’” wrote reporter Maryann Haggerty.

Then she took a little poke at birdwatchers.com, pointing out that the website did not support point-and-click shopping; a customer had to mail or fax the order form. So the Leas got cracking and added “shopping cart” capability to the website.

Their domain name probably has some resale value in itself: Debbie said that in the last couple of years, they’ve had “quite a few inquiries about it but we’re not interested in that yet.”

When the Leas decided to start their own business, they consulted with the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center, now known as the Michigan Small Business Development Center.

Carol Lopucki, state director of the SBDC, which is headquartered at Grand Valley State University, said mention of Charlie and Debbie Lea takes her on a walk down memory lane of clients over the years.

“I so enjoyed their energy, their enthusiasm, their desire to stretch, their eagerness to grow their business. That is, once they decided to definitely purchase it — the first huge hurdle,” said Lopucki via email.

There were many meetings with the Leas to help in their strategizing, and Lopucki said that since the store was in her own community, she would stop in to see how they were doing.

“They quickly were so busy that our meeting times became difficult to schedule, and before I knew it, they were on the Internet,” she said. “They were truly pioneers in the online world,” said Lopucki. “In those early days, I myself, along with a couple key staff, were their direct consultants. Such fond memories of working with them!”

The Leas are in their 60s now, and getting tired of “the long, long hours. We’d like to cut back,” said Debbie. Since 1995, she said, “we’ve done nothing but grow. Even during the economic downturn, our birdseed business grew.” During the worst of the recession, business wasn’t great, but they were still making money, she added.

Rather than give up the legion of loyal customers completely, they decided to close the store and begin operating solely from the warehouse. Nearby customers who see something they want on the website can order it and then pick it up at the warehouse to save shipping costs. And they have a big email list of regular customers they can notify if the warehouse is going to be closed for a while.

“We’ll still be busy, but on our terms,” said Debbie.

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