Backyard Birder’s igital presence helps it take flight
For most of Monique Paajanen’s life, the birds dancing on tree branches and swirling overhead were a mild curiosity. Sure, Paajanen and her sister, Danielle Audrey, had grown up feeding them from time to time and their father built birdhouses and feeders as a hobby. But the true spark of curiosity that would eventually lead to Paajanen and Audet opening Backyard Birder, their Sudbury shop, came when Paajanen met her husband Tapio.
“He’s from Finland and I guess there was more of a scene over there but he was always feeding the birds,” Paajanen remembers telling her mother how weird it seemed at the time. “We always laugh about that now… but it didn't take long to realize (there are) all these birds out there and it's fun.”
Soon Paajanen’s sister joined and it developed into a full hobby. However, sustaining that hobby often meant travelling out of town to buy supplies. Then, in 1997, while in-between work contracts, Paajanen and Audet got an idea: why not launch their own birding supply shop?
“We soon realized that there were a lot of people the same as us that were just getting into it,” she says. That’s the thing about backyard birding: you don’t need to know everything about birds, the enjoyment, explains Paajanen, is in the process of learning. “Anybody can do it.”
Now, 25 years later, Backyard Birder has grown into a destination shop for both birders and people looking to turn their backyard and home into a private paradise. It carries a range of gifts for nature lovers like bird feeders and seeds alongside gifts, landscaping accents and home decor.
As people have turned inwards during the pandemic staying home and social distancing, Paajanen has seen a spike in interest. “Bird feeding has skyrocketed,” says the shop owner. “When you’re shut-in, there’s life out there – the more you put out, the more birds you have and the more you recognize them.”
A growth in digital sales has followed closely alongside that spike in interest. Backyard Birder had always relied on word-of-mouth with the odd print or radio advertisement but the last couple of years have left them looking for ways to stand out digitally and build their presence online. “We were very brick and mortar before, very local but when we had to close down a couple of years ago, we thought: if we want to keep growing, we’ve got to change.”
That means expanding beyond their current community by starting to ship products, a change that is also causing Backyard Birder to rethink its entire approach to inventory. “In our store, we have thousands of SKUs and thousands of products,” says Paajanen. “We’ve always prided ourselves on bringing in a lot of different products.”
In late 2021, Backyard Birder applied for a Digital Transformation Grant through Digital Main Street, a program that combines grants and one-to-one support from the Province of Ontario alongside partners like Google, Shopify and Mastercard among others to help main street businesses strengthen their online capabilities and plan for the digital future. Paajanen says they had already switched their website to Shopify and built out a social media following but their aim is to use the grant money to support their new shipping strategy.
Mostly, Digital Main Street has helped drive their transformation. “I think it did push us to get it going,” says the shop owner. “You’re always busy with day-to-day stuff and when there’s something new and you’re not sure about it, you tend to put it off a little bit.”
But she says she’s learned there’s never really a good time. Getting the shipping side of their digital business up and running has meant both clearing space physically and investing time in their digital identity. She’s been working through Digital Main Street’s content to learn more about SEO and how it fits within her businesses goals. Paajanen says that’s the empowering part – knowing how to talk about what they don’t know.
“A lot of times, it’s not really knowing what to ask,” she says, adding that there’s no shortage of emails from service providers offering some sort of digital tool or service like SEO. “We have like millions of emails from people offering to do it for us and I always thought what is this? Why is everybody pushing for this? Why is it so important? I see now why it is.”
Written by Andrew Seale
Digital Main Street was created by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) with direct support from the City of Toronto. DMS is also supported by a group of strategic business partners, including Google, Mastercard, Shopify, Meta, Intuit QuickBooks, Square, Lightspeed, Ebay and Canada Post.
Continued investment from the Province of Ontario, through the Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade (MEDJCT) has allowed the ongoing expansion the Digital Main Street Platform in order to support more businesses going digital across Ontario.