This interview is part of a series chatting with local business owners, artists, organizers and people in our community who are learning to adapt during COVID-19.
Bobbi Wright – The Birdhouse Nature Store
Briefly describe your business.
We are a retail store that specializes in all things back yard birding. Feeders, houses, birdbaths, seed and gifts inspired by nature. We have our own seed blend which is growing in popularity and we offer in various sizes, including a refillable bucket program that has become a highly appreciated program for keeping plastic bags out of the environment. (In its first year we sold 324 20-lb buckets and 804 refills which has kept 1,128 bags out of the landfill.)
What does working from home/your workplace look like for you right now?
Honestly it’s been pretty overwhelming and rewarding all at once. I am so happy that I was able to shift to keep up with all the changes that were being thrown at small businesses, and I’ve been pretty tight with safety. My customers have appreciated this, with a few exceptions.
It’s been a tonne of work – taking everything online was extremely time consuming. The work we do inside the building went from needing one person to work at at time to having three working at top capacity and falling over at night when the day was done. When summer arrived, business slowed a little which is typical for a business such as this. Which honestly has been welcome after four months of what felt like crazy!
How have you adapted your operations during the pandemic?
Initially when the pandemic was imminently shutting the doors to most businesses, I didn’t know if we would survive. We closed our doors and initiated layoffs and initially moved to a phone order system that I alone was handling. Within about 10 days [I] had moved the business to an online order and porch pick-up model, with scheduled pick-ups to facilitate social distancing.
An interesting quirk of the pandemic is that so many more people turned to feeding the birds in their backyards as a source of entertainment during the lock down. For us that meant that business went from being almost dead at March 20th to tripping over the volume of orders we were processing and barely being able to keep up with seed. My daughter initially came in to help me as I was overwhelmed, but concerned that the tap would shut off as fear mounted about the virus.
My employees were brought back in stages to help deal with the shift in volume, all while trying to maintain social distancing for us as well as our customers. At some point, we added a walk up window, as COVID numbers decreased in our area. [It] takes care of those who wanted to not order online, as well as to satisfy our credit/debit provider to lower and/or eliminate our telephone orders for safety.
The front yard was cordoned off with rope to encourage lineups for different needs. One side was the scheduled pick-up line for online orders and the second line was for those who wanted help at the Walk Up. We’ve also shifted the store hours a few times, trying to find the right balance between business and rest. I initially went from 7 days to 5 days a week with Mondays and Wednesdays being closed as our main supplier delivers on Tuesdays. We did this for quite some time but it became clear that only having one day off at time, meant not enough rest and recovery, not just physically but mentally.
How have you been supported by the community?
Our customers have been absolutely amazing. They’ve been quick to appreciate the work that has gone into keeping all of us safe. They have embraced the changes we’ve made to different processes like how we are currently managing our refills of The Right Stuff Seed Blend.
What is something good that has come from this difficult situation?
Aside from the increase of business which has been lovely, discovering that my business is essential as we feed animals and support nature was an amazing discovery. It was never something that crossed my mind but is a value add for sure going forward. And the value of being online is never to be underestimated again. I had always wanted the store to keep a destination vibe, but I think the world has permanently changed and having the online shopping has been a wise investment.
What advice do you have for other business owners at this time?
If you’re not online, get online! Invest in the changes needed now to absorb any future pandemic set backs. Anything that keeps your business going while in lock down mode is key.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Taking care of yourself and your employees is key at this time. Especially the mental health component. Rest and recovery can’t be emphasized enough. Be clear with your employees about what they should be worried about business-wise, and what they need to let go and do the same for yourself.
Stand in the gap where possible between them and unruly customers. Anxiety is running pretty high for everyone, and whatever you can do to ease this for yourself and employees will help you and the business in the long run.
Stay tuned as we share more local folks who are Makin’ It Work.