This business is one for the birds. Literally.
It’s Just for Parrots, technically. And the store lives up to the name.
Currently, there’s more than 70 birds on hand – cockatoos, green-cheeked parakeets and Quaker parrots. Don’t forget about the pricey ruby macaws, with their rainbow of colors.
More parrots are on the way next month.
Operating in the vast, $70 billion pet industry, store owner Sharon Roberts acknowledges her bird business is just a small slice.
Still, her first year with Just for Parrots topped projections, generating $160,000 in sales.
“We didn’t expect that,” Roberts says. “When it’s a small business, you know what you think it’s going to do, but you never know for sure.”
The no-frills mom and pop shop leases 4,400 square feet in a strip center facing Glenstone Avenue with Dancing Mule Coffee on the corner. Roberts and her daughter, Jennifer, are the only employees.
With the unexpected first-year sales volume, Roberts says it’s evidence of the demand for a hyperniche pet store.
“The big-box stores don’t have the knowledge base,” she says. “They have small birds. They refer people down here, and if we don’t have something, we send them back.”
But the corporations do have the resources to expand. In the past couple years, new stores have opened in town by Petco Animal Supplies Inc. and PetSmart. And Springfield has responded: The PetSmart store at Primrose Marketplace was one of the top 10 performing locations among nearly 1,500 nationwide in 2016. PetSmart alone accounts for $7 billion of the industry’s sales.
On the whole, U.S. pet owners spent $69.5 billion last year on live animal purchases, veterinary care, supplies, medicine and grooming/boarding services, according to the American Pet Products Association. The biggest expenditure was food, coming in at $29 billion.
The style at Just for Parrots is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s old-fashioned – no mass quantities and certainly hands-on involvement.
Roberts refers to the youngest of birds in the store as her babies. It’s more than a term of endearment. She feeds the youngsters by hand three times a day, comes in when the shop is closed for feedings and takes some home at night for a fourth round.
“That’s Ralphie,” says daughter Jennifer Roberts, over the chirping and talking of birds in the shop during a recent morning feeding. “Ralphie bites.”
An African grey parrot on the other end of the store lets out a “woo-hoo.”
Sharon Roberts knows birds. She’s worked in the industry since the mid-1990s, with stints as a breeder, traveling toy saleswoman and at a bird store in Rogersville. She says Springfield’s been without a niche bird store for 10 years.
It’s currently breeding season, and Roberts and her husband Bill are soon heading to Florida to buy another 15-20 birds.
“If we’re lucky,” Sharon Roberts says, noting it’s hard to predict the quality of birds the breeders will have on hand.
She says the biggest surprise of her first year in business was the closure of a longtime distributor. In August 2017, Quality Pets shut down seemingly overnight after three decades in business. Roberts says the company’s reps referred her to a few distributors in Texas.
“But there was a delay,” Jennifer notes.
Roberts handpicks her store’s birds from about 20 breeders in Missouri, Florida, Texas and Louisiana. She says five of them are local. But bird sellers don’t like to talk about their suppliers too much, because those breeders also sell direct to consumers. Roberts keeps those names to herself.
“We pick up all of our babies,” Roberts says. “We never ship our babies, so they are never without care.”
Just for Parrots sells birds from $9.95 for finches to $3,200 for the ruby macaws. Most popular, Roberts says, are the Quakers, in the $300-$400 range.
With some 2,200 customers in the store’s database, Roberts projects to exceed $200,000 in sales this year. About a dozen parrots are presold in the store, waiting for the right age to go home with the owners.
“People are finding out they make great pets,” Roberts says, noting birds live 60-80 years on average.
The oldest bird in the store is Charlie, an African grey.
“He’s 23 now,” Roberts says. “He’s not for sale. He’s my bird.”
He’s also a talker, like many parrots.
Roberts recalls a recent conversation with Charlie. She was working in the other room, when she heard, “Sharon, Sharon.”
“What do you want, Charlie?”
“Come here. I need you.”
“I’m making toys. I can’t,” Roberts responded.
“Give me one,” Charlie said.
“Damn,” said the bird.
Charlie has quite the personality, too.
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