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Published: 8/31/2013 - Updated: 7 months ago

Coops hot sellers as chickens get popular, even high-end retailer finds rising demand

BY MAGGIE NEIL
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
Williams-Sonoma’s Cedar Chicken Coop & Run with Planter is an unexpectedly big hit. Williams-Sonoma’s Cedar Chicken Coop & Run with Planter is an unexpectedly big hit.
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It took Williams-Sonoma one day to sell as many chicken coops as the high-end retailer had projected to sell in a month.

Once pigeon-holed as dirty, noisy fowl, these birds have a new reputation: Chicks are chic.

The trend has been a hit in urban and suburban neighborhoods around the country, especially in the past several years. BackyardChickens.com, an online forum dedicated to all things chicken-raising, adds about 200 members every day. The online hatchery (it also sells coops and related gear) MyPetChicken.com was on the 2012 Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies.

Now retailers such as Williams-Sonoma are cashing in on consumer demand. In April, 2012, the company launched Agrarian, a line designed to satisfy Americans’ canning, beekeeping, and other homesteader needs. It included an array of very good-looking — though not exactly cheap — chicken coops.

The most popular one, the Alexandria Chicken Coop & Run, ranges from $599.95 to $1,449.95, depending on the size. If you’re in for a splurge, try the $1,499.95 Cedar Chicken Coop with Planter. For the extra $50, you get a large coop equipped with a drainage system and a planter “ready to fill with soil and plants.”

Of course, most chicken coops aren’t that expensive.

In the Toledo area, Tractor Supply was selling a coop last week for $149.99. An accompanying outside pen could be added for another $129.99.

Allison O’Connor, vice president of merchandising for Williams-Sonoma, is the brains behind Agrarian. She said she included coops in Agrarian because she felt there were no beautiful coops made in the United States. But the American chicken craze is definitely homegrown, experts say.

It started in the 1980s with Martha Stewart, self-professed chicken fan, Susan Orlean wrote in her 2009 New Yorker piece, “The It Bird.” After visiting a commercial hatchery and deploring the living conditions of its chickens, Ms. Stewart began keeping them in her backyard. Her Americauna hens became famous for their pastel blue and green eggs, and Ms. Stewart herself was so inspired that she created a paint line based on the colors.

Williams-Sonoma’s Briar Extended Chicken Coop & Run is an unexpectedly big hit with consumers. Williams-Sonoma’s Briar Extended Chicken Coop & Run is an unexpectedly big hit with consumers.
HANDOUT NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Ms. Orlean also credits the slow-food and locavore movements.

“More people want to take control of what they eat and are making their own food,” said Svetlana Simon, farmer and founder of Heritage Hen Farm in Boynton Beach, Fla.

Ms. Simon believes that this desire transcends social status. Even the wealthy want to get their hands in the dirt (or clean chicken poop) if it means fresh food. Ms. Simon, who was an architect before she began farming, designed Beau Coop, the $100,000, Versailles-inspired hen house featured in Neiman Marcus’ 2012 fantasy Christmas list.

It isn’t just a coop: there’s a living room, a broody room, a nesting room. There’s a library for humans to put their gardening books and an iPod charger. Included in the hefty price tag are 10 heritage hens; Ms. Simon will hand-pick the breed according to the climate of their new home. She will also meet twice with the new chicken-raisers in order to “eliminate the learning curve.”

“The truth is, sometimes it takes someone with excessive revenue and means to help change the way people think,” she said.

It certainly hasn’t hurt that the ranks of celebrity chicken raisers include Hollywood A-listers Jennifer Aniston, Ellen Pompeo, and Reese Witherspoon.

With its Agrarian line, Williams-Sonoma is not only responding to a trend but broadening the market appeal of DIY homesteading, Ms. O’Connor said. “We are a resource point,” she added, pointing to the long list of how-to books, accessories, and tools to make backyard farming both accessible and beautiful.

In addition to a coop, chicken raisers might want an Amish Handcrafted Egg Basket ($44.95), a Reclaimed Artisan Chalkboard ($39.95), or perhaps a package of Probiotic Egg Boost ($15.95).

Agrarian is made and designed entirely in the United States. Ms. O’Connor said she travels coast to coast, scouring farmers markets and local fairs, and pores over Web sites to find artisans and small businesses that might like to partner with Williams-Sonoma.

At the end of the day, she concludes, “it’s a lifestyle choice.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Maggie Neil is a reporter for the Post-Gazette. Contact Maggie Neil at: mneil@post-gazette.com.



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