Survival of the Wild: Customers flock to Loehmann’s Wild Birds Unlimited for squirrel feeders and hummingbird houses

“Could you put your hands behind your back please!” a woman exclaimed. “Stop touching things. . . just. . . come here.”

The woman, clearly annoyed, hustled over to where a potential male customer was standing observing a small house.

“Ughhh. . .”

A few moments later, a man and woman walked in together and asked if they sold “food without seeds” here. Nodding casually, the manager pointed them towards the mint-green left wall of the store, where the shop showcased most of its fine cuisine. The couple crept over towards the “no-mess” blend and surveyed it and the other five options carefully. The two customers then took a look further back in the store to see if they needed anything before the man shouldered the 20-pound sack of food and carried it to the counter to be paid for.

The light-colored hard wood floor creaked and squeaked as both the cashier and the couple walked back to the front desk. Halogen lights flickered in the particleboard ceiling above them. The whole room smelled slightly of treated wood and peanuts, but not in an unpleasant way. In the background were the songs of jays, sparrows, and woodpeckers, playing like soft music in a restaurant.

The cashier, a college-age man working at Wild Birds Unlimited, had brown hair long enough to touch his neck on all sides of his head. He completed the couple’s transaction up at the front counter, then kindly sent them on their way. He gazed out, looking at the cars outside the window that belonged to people eating at restaurants near his store.

Surrounding this Sacramento branch of Wild Birds Unlimited in Loehmann’s Plaza are popular eateries such as Boudin, Noah’s bagels, Chipotle, Jack’s Urban Eats, and Jamba Juice. Students from surrounding schools such as Jesuit, Saint Francis, and Country Day flock to Loehmann’s to eat and spend time with friends after school in restaurants like these, but few visit Wild Birds Unlimited.

When walking through the plaza, people can recognize the familiar logos of their favorite popular restaurants, but few pay attention to the dark green letters advertising the bird store. It appears to quite be out of place among such large franchise businesses and such a young crowd constantly on the hunt for food. It is surprising that the store survives in Loehmann’s Plaza, and perhaps even more surprising the kind of “wild bird” store it is.

The store is not, as I had expected, filled with wild birds and strange people. It doesn’t sell wild birds, only accessories and food for the birds already in the backyard. Also, a typical wild bird store might have weird old bird people selling bird products to old, strange bird people. The Sacramento branch of Wild Birds Unlimited is exactly the opposite.

Thaddeus Boles, the college-age employee, is not only the cashier but also the manager. After graduating from high school, Boles attended college out of town. He came back to Sacramento to attend Sacramento State University and found an advertisement for the job on Craigslist. In need of a job that could fit his class schedule, he pursued the opportunity and acquired a position at the store seven years ago.

Boles, who graduated last semester from Sac State, now manages the store. He is not at all a weird or old “bird person.” According to him, the Sacramento branch is in the top third of business. In other words, his store gets more business on average than about two thirds of the other stores.

On Friday afternoon, the business was fairly good. At around 2:45, a mother and her three children walked in. They strolled by the front counter in the center of the store, then went left by the bags of food hanging on the side wall. The woman had a boy that looked to be 11, and two girls: one about 10 years old and the other about 3. They continued to a rack near the back of the store to look at the hummingbird section.

“Can I help you find anything?” another employee asked.

“We just wanted to know a little bit about. . .” the mother was suddenly distracted by her 3-year-old daughter, who was about to remove a hummingbird feeder from its rack. She then had to switch her attention to her son, who was fondling a tiny birdhouse.

But that Friday afternoon at the store, things were relaxed for the most part. The other employee, Ellen Alberts, had been in the back room on her lunch break for at least 40 minutes. When she returned to the front desk, she was eager to give a tour of the bird food, squirrel feeders, pole systems to support feeders, bird baths, bird houses, hummingbird section, bird observation section, and even the jewelry displays.

She gestured to the small racks of necklaces and earrings on the front counter, then went on to explain how their food is unique. According to Alberts, they don’t include any fillers in their food as many other bird stores do. She then pointed to the small, carpeted section in the front right part of the room, where there was a case of binoculars and monoculars, as she talked about bird watching.

In the same corner lay a grey radio that plays the CD’s “American Woodland 1, 2, and 3” all day long. Bird sounds and the trickling of a creek filled the store like background music. After a while spent in the store, one stops noticing the birdcalls, just as many seem to not notice the store itself.

According to Boles, there are around 30 customers per day. In stores like Chipotle, there are often 30 customers at a time. Initially, it is surprising that this number of customers can keep Wild Birds Unlimited going. From 2-3 p.m. that Friday, there were six. However, 30 is apparently enough to sustain the store.

Part of the sustainability might be due to repeat customers. Boles said that he recognizes about two-thirds of them.

“Some come in once a month; some come in once a week,” he said. He added that business has been gradually rising since its opening around 16 years ago when Loehmann’s was built. Although people complain about the economy, Boles explained, they still regularly visit the bird store, and Boles is often there to greet them.

The store also survives because it isn’t as dependent on the economy as a restaurant is, Boles said. When the economy gets bad, many turn away from eating out because it is more expensive. Wild Birds Unlimited doesn’t seem to be as affected by the economy’s ups and downs, as most of the customers are repeat customers and only buy certain necessities for their hobby.

The franchise part of the business also helps keep the Loehmann’s Plaza branch running. In 1981, Jim Carpenter opened the first Wild Birds Unlimited store in Indianapolis, Indiana. He has since then made it a franchise, opening up a current total of 285 stores. Boles explained that most of them are on the East Coast, but that there are 14 in California. If business is bad in California, the store can survive on the success of the franchise in other parts of the country.

Collectively, the franchise survives on the business of younger couples, mothers and their children, and bird enthusiasts of all ages. The store doesn’t get the business or attention that most other businesses in Loehmann’s Plaza do, but it survives. It has been, and will likely continue to be, there for those “bird people” and others who rely on it.


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