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Garden Center: Back in January 2014, you wrote about the backyard chicken keeping trend and why independent garden centers should consider carrying products to support the hobby. We’re compiling a report on birding, and I know it’s not considered a part of traditional birding departments, but I thought it would be helpful to get an update on anything new that’s come up.

Leslie Halleck: It’s kind of funny to me that it’s not considered or integrated in some way into more traditional birding departments. In essence you are raising birds, obviously, so I think there could be some co-mingling of those departments in a more strategic way.

GC: During the economic recession in 2009, you introduced backyard chicken keeping when you were working at North Haven Gardens to diversify the product mix and give customers another reason to come in during a slow time. What’s the market for the hobby like now?

There are multiple products retailers can carry for backyard chicken keeping enthusiasts, even specialty, organic products to set their business apart from others.
Photos by Leslie Halleck

LH: With the big push I initiated in Dallas around this whole practice, an entirely new industry has emerged. There are now businesses dedicated to cultivating the practice of chicken keeping. I have a chicken sitter who, any time I go out of town, comes to care for my chickens. There are businesses now that will put together and entire set up for you. They will build coops, and if you don’t want to do the maintenance, they will come and do the upkeep for you. Just as with the do-it-for-me movement in the landscaping industry, there is a new industry developing around urban poultry keeping.

GC: How can garden centers determine the interest, and if it’s there, get started?

LH: With any product line, you need to do a market analysis. You need to look at your surrounding market to figure out the potential. Are there other retailers already doing a great job at this and providing everything a customer would need? Have you asked your customers? Have you talked to local chicken keeping experts and had a program on-site to gauge interest? A lot of times, the people who attend the chicken keeping program have never been to your garden center before. Maybe they’ve never gardened before, but they want to keep chickens. It’s also a gateway for new customers to begin to interact with their yard in ways they haven’t before. They may start composting, then growing vegetables. Ordinances will of course dictate whether or not backyard chickens are allowable. There are many places where chickens are not allowed, or their quantity is limited — so be sure to check the laws.

Lavender Orpington chick

GC: How can garden centers compete if the market is already saturated with these businesses?

LH: Garden centers should be taking advantage of and working with companies that have popped up, because they continue to drive that hobby. You don’t necessarily want your customers turning to those allied businesses for what they need. You want to keep them coming back to the retail garden center for [certain items.] Get in touch with those people, and say, “Hey, would you be willing to do a program here?” It would be a great way to promote their business and it would be a great way for you to gauge interest by who shows up.

GC: You mentioned that the popularity of the hobby keeps growing in Dallas. Is that true everywhere, or just in certain markets?

LH: I have not seen a decrease in the practice at all. It’s taken off everywhere. It took off years ago in Brooklyn and Portland and here in Dallas. It’s interesting though because I don’t see garden centers taking advantage of it or marketing it as much as they could be. I suspect that’s because they don’t want to deal with the hassle of dealing with birds or chicks, or they don’t think there’s enough people in their market keeping them. But they might be surprised.

GC: How else can you tell the hobby has grown?

LH: If you talk to companies such as mypetchicken.com, they may tell you that they can’t always keep enough birds in stock. They are one the few breeders that will ship customers small quantities of baby chicks. Normally, you have to place larger orders, say 25 or so chicks, to get a shipment. And many times they are not straight runs; you’ll have to take males and females in a mixed order. That can discourage many smaller urban chicken keepers. Access to smaller quantities of sexed birds is key.

GC: Would you recommend garden centers offer live chicks then, since it’s difficult to find hatcheries that offer smaller orders?

LH: When chicken keeping was blowing up in Dallas, one of my goals was to take special orders for baby chicks and special breeds, based on what my customers wanted — but couldn’t get. Keeping open stock of baby chicks in the store may not be feasible, as you’re then left to be responsible for the leftover birds. What do you do with them when they don’t sell? But special orders solve that problem, plus it would get customers back into the store. Funky breeds that are hard to find can draw lots of special orders. What type of chickens you offer is going to be based on your climate and weather. It’s just like any specialty item that you might not want to keep all the time in inventory, but offer as a custom order. Garden centers can do that now that there are many more breeds available and hatcheries that are catering to urban chicken farmers.

There are now businesses that have developed around the hobby of chicken keeping, including those that will babysit birds or do the regular maintenance.

GC: Are customers interested in specialty chicks?

LH: People are really getting into fancy and heritage breeds, just like the articles I’ve written about heirloom varieties. Heritage varieties and preservation of those varieties is a big deal. But there are limited quantities, and you have to order them early, sometimes six months ahead. Some hatcheries may have better availability, but you have to order 25. Competition for bird inventory is actually up. There’s a lot of new breeding going on. So you’re starting to see hybrids coming out on the market. It’s just like plants, it’s so funny.

GC: Garden centers would then have the opportunity to become experts on those breeds, then, and curate chicks for customers.

LH: Like plant varieties, people will come to an independent garden center because they are going to trust that, as the expert, you are pre-selecting things that are going to work where you are. You’re not going to do your customers any good if you provide chicks that can’t handle your weather. That’s the biggest, most important thing with any specialty category. Unless you have somebody on staff who really knows what they’re doing, you’re going to have a hard time selling that category successfully.

GC: What if garden centers don’t want to deal with live chicks? How else can they differentiate?

LH: You have to feed your chickens 365 days of the year. At one time, [North Haven] was the only place where you could buy organic chicken feed. And it took a lot to get it. It wasn’t cheap. It’s those specialty products that keep people coming back in year-round to feed their chickens. They are going to be interested in educational programs in-season and off-season. Those were always my most popular programs. People love animals, and they love nature. It gets people engaged, and it gets kids engaged.

GC: What else should garden centers that are investigating this category be aware of?

LH: Garden centers have to get way more savvy and sophisticated about how they are marketing urban farming and livestock. I’d suggest investigating pre-ordering options for chicks and selective or specialty heritage breeds. Because, as always, you have to create some exclusivity.