For Warren and Courtney French, birding has been a lifelong hobby. Married almost 35 years, the couple raised their two kids, now college graduates, in Massachusetts and always had backyard bird feeders.
“Birding is a way to leave modern life behind,” explains Warren. “It gets you out into nature and slows you down. Courtney and I will work all day, get a glass of wine and sit and watch the birds for half an hour. It brings us back to a simpler time.”
A few years ago, the couple was ready for a change. Courtney, a career nurse who grew up on Cape Cod and Warren, who served in the Navy and operated a family business for 30 years, wanted to retire somewhere along the east coast.
“I am 53 and was too young to retire completely. I’ve always been a business owner, so it made sense to own another business. Courtney and I love birding, so I thought we might as well turn a lifelong hobby into our semi-retirement career,” said Warren.
“We had never been to Fredericksburg and had never come to Virginia. But knew we wanted to be within a couple of hours of our oldest daughter, who had moved to Maryland. We heard from several people how nice it was here. Fredericksburg offered us a great lifestyle opportunity. It has an adorable little downtown with a great mix of people from all over the country. A lot of people lived here while in the military and retired back here because they liked it so much.
Before settling on Fredericksburg, the couple contacted Wild Birds Unlimited and asked about the demographics of different markets.
“We started looking from Cape Cod and further south along the coast. When we found Central Park in Fredericksburg, which is the largest shopping center on the east coast, we felt inspired,” said Warren. “The location is incredible, and the business climate in Fredericksburg is great. This is a vibrant community.”
The couple just celebrated the one-year anniversary of opening of their store, which has seen success far beyond expectations.
“We answer questions here. So many people come in with backyard bird feeding issues, and we problem solve,” said Warren. “One thing I love about this franchise is the quality of everything, and the support! We are the local experts at what we do but that is because we have this franchise behind us. It’s not like some other brands where everything you do is set in stone. For example, we have a little more latitude as far as carrying different products. We worked with our WBU coaches to initially help set up our store. This was a new type of business for me, and so was the retail end of it. There was a learning curve, but I know business and we just followed the WBU system. Our loyalty club membership, called the Wild Birds Unlimited Daily Savings Club, tripled expectations in our first year, and our sales were six figures over our first year goal. We bring all kinds of high energy to the customer experience.”
For Courtney, bonding with customers and her fellow community is her favorite part of the ownership experience.
“I was a nurse for many years. I like establishing personal relationships with customers. I enjoy finding out about their vacations, kids and health and how the items they purchased here worked out for them. I love welcoming customers into the store and the familiarity we establish through repeat visits. They become like friends to us,” she explains. “When we first opened, I really noticed how much bigger our world became. We meet the most interesting people, whether customers, naturalists or other store owners. Many WBU franchisees have become some of our closest friends and are so giving and generous with their time.”
When asked about characteristics unique to his store, Warren is quick to identify his location’s personality, and also notes that franchisees have a wide latitude on vendor and product selection.
“At our store, we are not focused on the gift items. We focus on the core hobby items. Wild Birds Unlimited proprietary products are real work horses – they can be cleaned and fixed periodically and keep on working. Our customers know that what they are spending their money on is not junk. I don’t care where you are: downtown, in the outskirts of town or in the country. What we do here is specialize in bringing birds to you. We use superior feeders and seed. At other stores, up to 73% of bird seed can be fillers. So 73 cents of every dollar can be wasted on things birds don’t eat. Our store is different and unique. We supply bird food formulated for our region that is fresh, nutritious, and off-the-scale good.”
“Jim Carpenter, WBU’s founder, said it best when he said we bring people and nature together. I come from a hunting and fishing family who loved nature. I love bringing my hobby into my job and sharing the love of backyard bird feeding with people who aren't familiar with the hobby. I have customers who come in and have never set up feeders at their home. By the time they leave our store, we have helped educate them to attract many different types of birds in their own back yard, and I feel like we are contributing to their happiness,” Warren concludes.