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This month’s bird

The Hairy Woodpecker

The Optics Conundrum

BY JOHN RIUTTA | Contributing Editor - April 2010


Publishers and distributors happily supply both front and backlist catalogs outlining the benefits of their particular publications. Little expertise is required to make effective stocking decisions. Discounts are reasonable, carrying costs are not high, retail prices are low, and the store fixtures needed to display them can be as simple as a single ordinary bookshelf.

Optics, however, with their technical complexity, widely varying discounts, high carrying costs, and larger demands in terms of both floor space and fixtures, not to mention employee training and  security, are a different story. Add to this the aggressive competition from the “big box” and Internet-only retailers, and the independent birding or backyard nature shop owner is tempted to throw his or her hands in the air and exclaim “Why bother!” But don’t throw in the towel just yet. Optics can be effectively and profitably sold by independent shop owners – it just takes a bit of planning and self-education to make it work.

Buying, stocking, and selling optics does require more effort than other birding and backyard nature products. It all begins with making connections and learning about the options. One of the most effective ways to do this is to meet face-to-face with representatives from as many optics manufacturers as possible. However getting one from each company to make a store visit could take months – years even; therefore go to where they concentrate and cover the entire spectrum of product offerings in one week-end: attend a birding festival or birding trade show. Whether it is the Birdwatch America in Atlanta, Georgia, the Space Coast Birding & Nature Festival in Titusville, Florida, the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, Texas, or the San Diego Birding Festival in San Diego, California, optics companies send their representatives to all the major events throughout the U.S. and Canada. According to Joshua Lazenby, Operations Manager for Kowa Optics, “A lot of the people representing optics companies at birding festivals are corporate staff; in just a few days a store owner can meet key people, discuss and learn the variety of options available in the marketplace, and make valuable business connections.” Adds Charles Studholme, owner of One Good Tern in Alexandria, Virginia, making a visit to a trade show or birding festival “it allows you to get your hands on the new (product) releases and talk to people face-to-face.”

Once back at the store, the decisions must be made as to what optics to stock, how to display them, and how to sell them. Stocking decisions can be based around a variety of criteria. For years, many large retailers resisted MAP pricing and many optics firms maintained fairly high minimum purchase levels for retailers. However the Internet has changed all this. Faced with a number of price wars by “big box” stores as well as abuses by some Internet-only retailers, there has been a considerable shifting of the business playing field toward the benefit of the smaller retailers. Observes Studholme “many of the optics firms realized that if they didn’t do something to help the smaller brick and mortar retailers, in a few years there would be no place stocking their products other than Internet sellers.” Thus, thanks to some sharp legal work by Swarovski Optik, MAP pricing is now very common, minimum purchase requirements have been substantially lowered, and terms are much more commonly available to smaller retailers.

MAP programs and the optics manufacturers’ willingness to aggressively pursue those establishments who violate them have dramatically helped to overcome one of the problems that until not long ago plagued small stores selling optics. Customers would spend considerable time with a staff member trying out various models only to say “let me think about it overnight,” then buy one of the models they looked at for ten dollars less online. Now the tables are turned, and many optics manufacturers have even implemented different agreements for Internet-only businesses than for brick and mortar establishments. “I price every optic we sell at a price equivalent to what the customer could find online,” notes Nancy Mattson, Manager of the Audubon Nature Store in Portland, Oregon, “and MAP policies make it possible for me to do so and compete effectively.”

The selection of optics is a key element to a store’s success in selling them. It isn’t so much necessary to carry a large number of products, but it is important to present customers with options. This includes different price points and different brands. Too many store owners make the mistake of carrying only one brand. Even a small total number of products that span three or four different brands seems far more impressive to a customer than a larger total number of models of only one brand. As Barry Stevens, co-owner of the Ithaca Wild Birds Unlimited and owner of the Johnson City, New York location, advises “You can’t just carry low-end models; you must have at least a few mid-range ($500.00 - $600.00) units as well to give the store’s selection a level of seriousness.”

Two other important things to remember in selecting which models to stock are; avoid “bubble packed” optics, and stick to brands with national advertising campaigns. In addition to being environmentally problematic, bubble packed optics prevent the customer from fully examining the product. As Lois Geshiwlm, co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Saratoga Springs, New York, is quick to point out, “Being able to put your handson the product really makes a difference.” As for the importance of advertising, if your customers are not seeing the products advertised in at least one of the national bird watching magazines, they are far less likely to consider the product as appropriate for that activity.

Presentation of optics is very important. While an expensive, fully illuminated glass-fronted cabinet to display the product, such as Stevens installed in his Ithaca WBU store (“Right on my power wall so it is immediately visible to everyone walking in the door.”), can be a tremendously valuable sales feature, it isn’t absolutely necessary. What is essential, however, is to make the products visible and to avoid keeping them in shadowy recesses that detract from their appearance. As many brands of binoculars are still primarily black, it is important to make certain that they are placed in a well-lighted space. Mattson employs the Audubon Nature Store’s glass topped cash-wrap area as her store’s optical product display area. “It makes it a focal point for the product as well as offering a good place to lay out multiple products while showing them to customers.”

In many ways, smaller retail establishments have more freedom in their customer relations activities than larger ones. Rather than each employee being tied to one area of the store and responsible for serving many people at the same time, employees of a small store most commonly assist customers on a one-to-one basis; a fact that can be strongly leveraged to the store’s advantage when it comes to selling optics. Rather than simply showing the customer the optical products over the counter [“Always pull three different models to show; three is the magic number” wisely counsels Studholme], an employee can and should pick up a few binocular models or spotting scopes, as the case may be, that are of interest to the customer and move to a window – or even outside – for the customer to examine. As indoor retail lighting is most commonly fluorescent and imparts a yellow color to everything it illuminates, allowing the customer to examine the binoculars in natural light will help them to make a more informed choice – something that should be noted by the employee to the customer at least twice to help build customer confidence in the employee’s expertise.

While optics, especially higher end models, can seem dauntingly technical and complex, leading many store owners to worry that either their staff or even themselves are not “up to the task” of discussing them intelligently and with confidence, there are now many different ways to overcome this hurdle and obtain the knowledge not only to speak effectively about the products you choose to stock but to inspire customer confidence as well. In addition to optical companies arranging in-store or area training sessions, many provide extensive educational materials, including on-line training specifically oriented to retailers. "Between our reps, myself, and other folks from the factory" notes Clay Taylor, Naturalist Market Manager for Swarovski Optik North America, 'we do a ton of dealer education. We try to do all we can to make sure our dealers are comfortable and fluent discussing high-end optics; it really makes the difference."

In the end, the decision of whether to stock optics or not is entirely up to the store owner. While it does indeed entail a bit more thought and effort, many, including all those retailers cited here, have found it well worth it. As most every birder and birding product retailer knows from experience, optics are a prestige product. Even a small selection that is wisely chosen, effectively displayed, and confidently demonstrated, can significantly elevate a retailer’s reputation in the eyes of the clientele. Even more, as optics are not only used by birders but by a wide variety of people for many different reasons, establishing a store’s reputation as an “optics specialist” can be expected to bring additional customers into the shop who might never have otherwise entered, giving the business many new opportunities to increase the bottom line – something it doesn’t take a binocular to see the value of very clearly.