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Industry Profile: Sky Pet Products
14th May 2015

By Sandra Pearce

There’s a buzz in the air at Sky Pet Products. Sandra Pearce visits the Northamptonshire-based manufacturer and distributor to learn what’s on the cards…

Big parrots such as your African greys and macaws have ‘been and gone’, says Lee Gardiner. There is now a clear shift towards smaller parrots such as conures and caiques, which are not only easier to look after but are far more suited to a role as pets.

In fact, the conversation with Lee and his wife-and-business-partner, Felicity, reverts often to welfare issues facing parrots today. Which would not be surprising if Lee and Felicity were running one of the handful of parrot rescues in the UK, but they are instead in the driver’s seat (along with Andrew Falconer) at Sky Pet Products, supplying and manufacturing a range of bird and parrot cages and accessories, small animal cages and dog beds. So it is not surprising to learn that every product they manufacture is designed with the pet’s health and welfare in mind. It’s also not surprising to learn that Sky Pet Products supports the Cockatoo Sanctuary and Rescue in Ipswich as well as the Safehaven Parrot Rescue in Tewkesbury.

“There are a lot of Africa greys being sold, but a lot end up in rehoming,” said Lee. The cockatoo is also one of the most notorious birds to have kept as a pet, and hundreds have ended up in rescue. To boost their charitable efforts, Felicity does elaborate bird paintings – on feathers! – which she sells.

Both Lee and Felicity have kept parrots and other bird species for years. Lee, now 44, has kept and bred them for over 30 years and currently has 20 parrots in the family home, where the couple’s two young daughters are following in their footsteps and know the difference between macaws and parrots!

Retailers are encouraged to call the office for advice. One of the most common questions asked is which cage for which bird, because it’s most definitely not a case of one size fits all. Birds might spend 100% of their time in a cage, so features such as perches and toys become important. There are also considerations such as ease of access for owners to feeders and water dishes, and even strength of the cage bars for the larger, stronger species.

The couple are concerned that there is insufficient regulation to ensure that retailers and bird owners have a standard to work towards. Yes, the situation is better than what it was, but as Felicity explains, there needs to be more guidance on choosing the right bird for the right customer, and then the right product for the right bird. There is a lack of specialist training for retailers, let alone council officials in charge of pet shop licensing, she notes.

Evolution has to start somewhere, and so Felicity writes articles for magazines and social media sites. Sky’s brochures also go beyond simply stating cage sizes. “We talk about why we have designed the product the way we did; the unique points that make it work,” says Lee.

Sky Pet Products has been around for seven years, and last year saw 30% growth in sales, in part due to its securing the distribution of a number of product lines and the customer base of the former Melton Pets Direct. It also took on the Vitapol Treats range from the Czech Republic, and now distributes the ZuPreem range – ZuPreem is the top-selling pelleted bird food in the US, he adds.

It’s all organic growth brought about by strong demand. Two years ago, Sky occupied 4,500sq ft of office and warehouse space in rural Northamptonshire. It’s now on 13,000sq ft and is in the process of building a new warehouse (ready by June) to increase space to 18,000 sq ft, that will increase pallet space from 390 spaces to 590. It’s keeping all eight members of staff very busy.

“Growing our market share is the strongest way of growing the business,” he said. And that means constantly adding new products and ranges, offering good product availability, a sound price point and excellent customer service.

Rainforest Cages, parrot and bird cages, is Sky’s own-label premium range of 70 products, with good spare parts availability, if ever needed. “At the end of the day, a retailer needs to sell a product that he knows he can fix if something goes wrong,” said Lee.

Rainforest Cages has a long-standing customer base who keep returning as the cages cater to every size of bird from finch to parrot, and at every price point.

In 2011, Sky Pet Products went on to acquire the Becks Bird Barn range of Java Wood and Java toys, while Little Zoo caters for small animals, and not forgetting the popular Montana cages.

Though some products are sourced from the US and Europe, in the main, products are made in China. Freight charges are still comparable  – China supplies flat-packed, but cages from Europe are ready assembled, so you are transporting air, he explained. Besides, the Chinese have upped their game, and there are no real European parrot manufacturers left, he added.

To illustrate this point, Sky Pet Products is home to the Chester & Wells range of dog furniture. With a distinct English look about them, the beds are made in China. The range is especially popular in Germany, with containers shipped direct.

It’s a new dawn
What a far cry from the dark days of January 2007 when the bird market collapsed overnight due to the double blow of bird flu and the ban on import of wild-caught birds. “When you read stories in media that birds kill people, well, shops are not going to sell birds,” Lee said. It was a very worrying time for the bird industry, and many businesses closed. “We had not planned for a doomsday market,” he added.

Things have now moved on, thankfully, and there is now growing interest in birds. Sky Pet Products has about 700 retailers on its database, and this year has seen the most enquiries ever. Interestingly, strongest growth appears to be north of Birmingham and up into Leeds.

People who like birds have always been around, says Lee. But faced with poor availability, they have turned to the Internet to get their products. “They are in your neighbourhood, every neighbourhood. You just don’t know it,” he said.

Some retailers might say that the market is not there, and point to parrot cages that have been sitting on the shop floor for months on end. “If parrot cages take too long to sell, then you do not have that customer profile in your area and it is not economic to stock them. Parrot cage sales are a shadow of what they used to be,” he advises. “There is a much greater shift towards small parrots, such as caiques and conures, which also have a price point that is a fraction of the bigger parrots. And their suitability as pets is much, much stronger. That’s the market that is out there – smaller parrots.”

As a general guide, there are about 20 species of robust birds that are bred in the UK, including the budgerigar that might sell for about £20 to caiques and conures that can sell for £200 to £500.

Recognising this, Sky Pet Products has entered a partnership with Rob Harvey Specialist Feeds and is now hand-rearing caiques, conures and Quaker parrots in Devon. “We want to put hand-reared pet parrots into shops,” said Lee. “It’s all about how the birds are handled from hatching – you can tell when a bird’s not been handled properly.”

They’ve been selling the parrots for about a year, but sales have been ‘quietly, quietly’ as they are working on building up the breeding pool. So far, they’ve had a 100% success rate, with retailers reportedly being very happy with the quality and temperament of the birds. Retailers are more than welcome to visit the site and learn more about how the birds are hand reared, he said. The aim is to eventually breed about 500 birds a year.

Even with smaller birds, such as finches and budgerigars, sales are growing, he said. He knows of one retailer who put a budgie in a cage and priced it as a complete set-up, showing the necessary food and accessories. Sales flew out the door.

Apart from hand-reared parrots, this year Sky Pet Products is growing its Skyline range, adding six new parrot lines, and most exciting of all, says Lee, is the soon-to-be-launched Fun range.

Up to now, cages from China have always come bundled as four or six flat-packed units. For some retailers, this has put them off as they do not have the space for multiple units.

This year, however, following a successful tie-up with an Australian distributor, Sky Pet Products will introduce single, easy-to-assemble, flat-pack bird and parrot cages in colourful packaging that shows the finished product. It’s economical and aspirational, and Lee and Felicity are convinced the single units will encourage more retailers to give birds a go.

The range of seven China-made cages will launch in June, and will suit 90% of available bird species, from finch to conure. Said Lee: “It means independents can now offer more than the one-size, small white bird cage. It’s a first for the country and has the potential to revolutionise the bird market.”

Exciting times, indeed.