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This month’s bird

The Hairy Woodpecker

Judging a Seed Mix by Its Cover

A good package design can help bump up your bottom line

BY SHARON STITELER | Contributing Editor

How often do you think about the packaging birdseed comes in? Probably not that often. As a retailer you’re more likely to be concerned with the contents – the seed itself – since that’s the product you’re selling, and will have the greatest effect on the birds that come to the feeder.

Yet for the customer, especially the one who’s new to bird feeding, the packaging may be the first point of contact, and the design of the packaging says a lot about how these mixes present themselves.  

Looking at seed packaging in both grocery and pet food stores I was struck by how many common elements different brands shared, whether they were positioning themselves as high-end or discount brands:

1. Clear packaging. Virtually every bag had a clear “window” that let the buyer see the contents, even if the mix was filled with millet, milo, or oilers that looked dusty or old. Possible reason: customers are unaware of what makes a quality mix, so they take the clear packaging to be a sign that the mixes have nothing to hide. A birding specialty store could turn this to their advantage by keeping a bag of low-quality mix on hand to educate customers about how to spot a poor mix.

The exception to the clear packaging rule? Bulk seed: large [20 lbs or more] bags of oilers, nyjer and nuts came in large plastic or brown paper bags. Since these will be bought by those willing to spend more money up front for volume savings we can assume that these are people dedicated to bird feeding.

2. Cardinals. Some packaging uses illustrations of birds, some use photos. And while there are variations in the birds they show, thereby implying that you will attract using their seed, they all have Cardinals. Regardless of the mixture, male Cardinals featured prominently on even the cheapest seed.

It’s easy to understand why; they’re striking birds, easily identifiable by even the novice birder – they don’t blend in. Unlike the Blue Jay, another easy-to-spot, relatively common bird, Cardinals don’t have an aggressive personality or loud call. Male Cardinals also have another big advantage in terms of packaging: their image can be printed using only black and red ink, a less expensive process.

Knowing that beginning bird feeders love Cardinals, you could create a display showing how to attract them, what feeders are best, and what to look for in seed quality. You can also suggest other cool birds which may not be as colorful but are rarer, and can be found in your area.

3. “Premium.” Most pre-packaged mixes, from the most expensive to the cheapest, stated they were a “Premium” mix. It’s a handy word that means “quality” but only in comparison to something else –a basic mix vs. a more specific mix for example. But when even the bargain-basement seed is labeled as a “premium mix,” what meaning does that have? It implies a lot of positive things (freshness, desirability to birds) without promising anything.

Other positive-sounding words included “advanced,” “blend,” “formula,” which create in the customer’s mind the idea that this particular mix has some sort of advantage over other mixes by virtue of the company that makes them, rather than the quality of the seed itself. My personal favorite was one mix advertised as “all natural” (make sure to watch out for artificial bird feed!).

I’m not suggesting that the birding specialty store try to copy these packaging trends. Indeed, one of the larger retailers, Wild Bird Centers, has redesigned their packaging to be almost exactly the opposite: a simple design featuring minimalist drawings of birds that’s visually striking and really stands out from the crowd. What you should do is study the packaging to see how these mixes are being targeted toward your customers and potential customers, so that you can educate them on what truly matters in bird feeding - freshness and content. Things which can be measured rather than implied with a word like “quality” or with an illustration.

The worst case scenario is that the customer decides to try bird feeding, and passes by a good mix because a lower-end seed is using the same packaging ideas, and the customer can’t tell the difference. Using a crummy seed, they don’t attract the birds they want, decide they can’t get birds at all, and give up. But, if you make sure to educate the customer now, it will pay off later. When he’s at the grocery store and suddenly remembers he needs bird seed, he’ll know whether he’s really getting value for his money. Even if it’s a “birding emergency” and he buys the seed there anyway, he’ll be able to make the best choice, and won’t feel like his money has been wasted by feeding the birds, and chances are he’ll remember the person who showed him how to go beyond judging a bird seed by its packaging.