Staying tuned to customers gives business its wings
At 20, Backyard Naturalist one of oldest mom-and-pops in Olney
More than 20 years ago, Debi Klein bought a bird feeder kit, assembled it and soon saw her first chickadee.
That experience sparked a hobby that became a passion and her inspiration for opening the Backyard Naturalist, which offers bird-feeding supplies, bird feeders, books and nature gifts.
She and her husband Mike opened the shop in Olney on Sept. 15, 1989, in a nearby strip center, but moved it to its location at 17910 Georgia Ave. two years later.
Twenty years later, the business is thriving when other mom-and-pop shops have not, especially with the economic downturn in recent years and the addition of more chains to a business landscape that once had very few.
"I think we have stuck to the basics and provide really great products," she said. "We have a solid business model that was well researched and well executed."
Klein said part of the businesses' success stems from a supportive community.
Klein, who lives in Wheaton, said she knew from the beginning that she wanted to open her store in Olney, and it has proven to be a great fit.
"We chose Olney because there was a growing population of new homes at the time, and we noted that the people in Olney were investing lots of time and energy in their yards," she said.
Although their customers come from all over the area, the majority of her customers are local residents.
"Many of our customers have been with us for the whole 20 years," Klein said. "The multi-generational appeal of this hobby has seen our client base grow along with us. Many have had children and grandchildren who are now regular customers in their own right."
Virginia Mauk, director of the Olney Chamber of Commerce, said that while mom-and-pop businesses have been a fixture in Olney, proposed new development might make them a "rare breed" in the future.
"The Kleins are big proponents of small, individually-owned business and they feel that that is what makes Olney a great place to do business and what gives Olney its unique character," Mauk said. "This thinking is what makes them a success."
Mauk added she believes staying in tune with their customers is what has kept the Kleins in business for so many years.
"It isn't big ideas and high-powered marketing, it is the personal touch that makes them successful," she said.
Georgette "Gigi" Godwin, president and CEO of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said businesses that are "innovative and deliver what customers want will stand the test of time. There's no one-size-fits-all' for customers and the same goes for businesses that serve them."
Godwin said all businesses, big and small, are facing the same challenges brought on by the slumping economy.
"The difference is which businesses listen and evolve with them," she said.
And it is more than a just a unique product line that lures customers, Klein said.
"We are not just selling bird feeders, but we are opening the window to an appreciation of the natural world in your own backyard," she said.
Even with the recession, the Backyard Naturalist has continued to hold its place in the business community while other establishments have failed.
"Sadly, a lot of good business didn't make it," she said.
In recent months, sales are down, but not dramatically, Klein said.
"We notice people are buying smaller bags of seed, even though it costs more per pound," she said. "Some are buying it less often."
The Kleins say they remain grateful that customers keep coming in through the door.
"We don't take that for granted and we love the personal connection," she said. "You don't open a bird feeding-supply business to make a zillion dollars. We still feel the passion 20 years later, and hope we're still doing this 20 years from now."