Equestrian Blog

News and thoughts from around the equestrian community

While the News category is for brief updates and 'coming soon'-type announcements, this is the place to find articles which will hopefully give you a better insight into the direction at Robinsons....

Bowlers Riding School: 70 Years Young

On Saturday 9th July, I had the pleasure of revisiting my very first commercial customer.  It was the 70th anniversary of the opening of Bowlers Riding School, a legendary riding establishment tucked in between a secluded row of houses on Brewery Lane, Formby, Merseyside.  I had not been back to the yard since the 60th anniversary and I just had to revisit because it held so many good memories. I will always remember the welcome I received on my very first visit in 1971. When I acquired the business from 'old Jimmy Robinson'  back in February 1971, the first riding school I had the opportunity to visit was Bowlers Riding School at Formby, then in Lancashire.  I was a young 24 year-old who has recently closed down my own riding school near Wigan to venture into the commercial world of buying and selling saddlery and riding clothing instead of teaching and breaking horses for a living. Bowlers Riding School had been operating since 1941 and was opened by the late Tom Bowler.  I was welcomed into the yard by Tom’s daughter Mary who was now running the business under the watchful eye of her father who had retired a couple of years earlier.  Mary was to become my best customer for quite a few years to come - I even sold her a couple of horses from my own riding school as we slowly closed it down. Whilst operating from the original tack shop in Wallgate, Wigan I made weekly visits to Bowler's in Formby every Friday.  Not only did I get to know quite a few of Mary’s staff and customers I got to know every single one of her horses.  Replacement saddles, bridles and other items of tack were transferred from my red transit van into her tack room which had that familiar smell of English leather, Belvoir saddle soap and jute rugs. My last visit in 2001 was a delight as over a couple of hundred people made the same pilgrimage I had and I fully expected Saturday to be the same.  The weather was sunny and warm and when I arrived, I was amaze at the number of cars and the people who had turned up to visit. I estimated that well over four hundred people had descended on the yard.  It was 'open house' with demonstrations and attractions, a hog roast and hot dogs, face painting and even horse painting. A mechanical horse attracted the youngsters and even a farrier was on hand to demonstrate his skills. On my arrival I literally had to queue up to see Mary as a stream of well-wishers had made a special effort to visit. Many, like me, were there to relive a memory, a nostalgic trip and most of all too just say thank you. I was amazed to listen to the couple who were of similar age to me who had driven down from Scotland, I was aware of many other visitors from Wales and from all over the North West, I was surprised to see the local Mayor and Mayoress who spent well over an hour just taking in the atmosphere.  Above all I was touched when I witnessed a middle-aged lady embrace Mary and whisper in her ear ‘thank you for changing my life’ Why is it that this lady now in her seventies had captured the hearts of so many people?  It was much more than having introduced them to horses or giving them their first riding lesson.  Since I first met Mary 40 years ago I have heard countless complimentary comments about her and her establishment which just oozed respect. As a member and dedicated partner for the Riding for the Disabled for many years the staff at Bowlers Riding School have changed the lives of many individuals with their patience and understanding.  Over the last 70 years they have introduced countless young girls and boys to a sport which for many was more than just a new experience.  For hundreds perhaps thousands  of those first time riders it was much more than just learning to ride it created a love and respect for all animals and in particular an absolute passion about horses Mary Bowler, surrounded by some of the crowd of well-wishersTaken from Bowlers website: Tom Bowler, a keen horseman bought a pony “Titch” for his daughter Mary and keen for her to ride him properly, he started to give her regular lessons, it was 1941 the early years of World War II times were not easy for anyone and starting a business that would succeed through to the next Millennium was not a plan at the forefront of any one’s mind. Local people began to take notice and with a respect for Tom’s ‘Teaching Method” he was asked teach other Children with great results, they were learning to ride their beloved ponies safely and correctly. Mary has lived at the site of Bowlers all her life and in 2006 confidently handed over the reins to Partners Karen Southeran and Pat Armfield who have made an ongoing commitment to the future success of Bowlers Riding School.   

For Those About To Complain: We Salute You

Last week, we were concerned to read a thread of comments on the Horse & Hound Forum in which we were the subject of some criticism.  Our new website was the topic and it received most of the comments but other points were made which were not particularly complimentary. I won't pretend it was a wonderful way to spend half an hour but it was a valuable use of time nonetheless.  Yes, it's fashionable to greet criticism with a fixed smile as "an opportunity to improve" - which is perfectly true - but it doesn't make the process of reading it any more pleasant.  Having said that, I've also felt that any retailer who can't receive honest criticism, however brutal, shouldn't really be in retail.  Anyone who sells their products to consumers exists purely because they are able to impress enough people to stay in business.  It's not a difficult rule to live by - in fact it couldn't really be any simpler - and you can't really be surprised at what happens when it proves too difficult to achieve.  Actors and other performers have to learn to handle bad reviews when they perform their art to the paying public so why shouldn't retailers expect the same accountability? Of course, you can't be in business for very long before you encounter your first criticism.  One the one hand, you have to expect it; on the other, you must never ever dismiss it when it comes.  Any company that justifies doing nothing about criticism because some was expected is on the slippery slope to complacency and arrogance.  Neither can you always just start doing whatever it was that provoked the complaint.  We have a responsibility to all our customers and merely correcting what one person is unhappy about may not necessarily be the right thing for everyone else.  What matters most at this stage is how we respond to our critics and where we can use their comments as a force for improvement, which is precisely why I'm writing this. It would have been very easy for us to do the traditional, very British thing, which is to close ranks and still attempt to do the right thing, but in a secretive manner, to avoid 'washing dirty linen' and to 'save face'.  In a world of blogging and social media, companies are increasingly finding that that doesn't work.  We need to take guidance from the experiences of super-injunction-seeking celebrities who find that the harder you try to contain a story, the more you fail.  The sensible alternative, it seems, is to invite more comment and to be seen to respond to it properly.  There is at least an inherent honesty here.  Everything is "in the open" and everyone "knows where they stand".  When we as customers deal with others, we all want to be able to use those phrases, so why is it so surprising that it applies here as well? Since last Thursday, we've begun to work with Feefo, a company who specialises in providing feedback for mail order and online retailers.  With clients such as MandMDirect and Joe Brown's on their roster, they have a lot of credibility in the world of catalogues and (I hate this term, but...) 'e-commerce'. Anyway, we sent them information about some recent orders: customers, products ordered, email addresses.  Feefo then sent each customer the following email.  It was entirely left to each recipient whether or not to respond: It's early days I know, but from the results I've seen so far, it seems that people are largely satisfied, with around 95% of respondents idicating that they are either 'Happy' or 'Very Happy'.  While this is a little more reassuring to us, I don't want you to think we're happy that 'only' the other 5% aren't happy with us.  There are plenty of issues raised in the experiences of the remaining 5% that, once addressed, could be of value to every customer. The secondary benefit to this survey is that it invites you to say why you're unhappy, which is absolutely vital to us to help us decide what to do about removing the problem, if we can.  One of the problems I have with trusting the chatrooms too much is that people tend to just say that something is bad or wrong without having to explain why they think that way.  I do of course have to concede a point here: why should they have to explain anything?  Chatrooms are for people to say what they like (within reason) and are not there for the benefit of snooping marketers like me, looking for nicely reasoned and qualified feedback.  I appreciate that when we look at these threads, it's just a digital version of sitting with our ear to the door of your tackroom.  You are of course entitled to speak freely and you're entitled to your opinion of us and everything else, however you've arrived at it.  It is however the worst of both worlds for us to read firmly negative comments and then have little or no ability to do anything constructive to repair the situation.  I'm grateful to anyone who takes the time to explain why they think we've done something badly and I extend that gratitude to you, if you wish to share your views. We'll be looking to do something similar to gauge the views of people browsing the site and I'll be actively encouraging feedback via our Facebook page and our Twitter account.  I believe that I can also add a polling widget to this blog, although I'd value your comments more.  With regard to our website, our website partners are also closely involved in making whatever improvements we can. Will we always enact every suggestion or remove every irritation we read?  I can't promise that but I can say that if we know we can't, or won't, we should always tell you so.  If we didn't do something we should have done, I'd also expect that we should be clear and honest about that.  I'm struggling to think of instance where we have failed to be open in the case of any of the above but of course, if your experience is different, I'd be glad to know. Thanks for your time and for any feedback you can give.  It's always appreciated. Paul.

Basingstoke: Our Opening Gambit

Before I talk about our forthcoming store at Basingstoke and our reasons behind the way we do store openings, let me apologise for neglecting to write an entry on here for about three months. Yes, it's been a busy three months but I like to post something on here about once a month. In my absence, regular blog readers have been in Liz's very capable hands and I hope you've found her articles as interesting as I have. Anyway, that's not my real reason for writing this piece. We are now frighteningly close to opening our third store, the 22,000 sq ft Basingstoke store. I've been teasing members of our Facebook group with pictures of the building as it has taken shape over the last few months but throughout the whole process, we've steadfastly refused to answer the one question we're asked above all others: When will it be open? We've done this for two main reasons. The first one was simply practicality. Back in October, there was so much work to be done to the place and so much can go wrong in the process, we felt it was foolhardy to saddle ourselves with a needless public deadline that we may struggle to hit. You may have noticed that our estimates started with 'Early 2010' (which can mean anytime in a 6 month window) which then progressed to 'Spring 2010' (3 months) eventually becoming 'March 2010' (one month - obviously). I can now confirm that all along, we wanted to have been open for at least a week before the Easter weekend - and Easter Sale - started. We chose to keep that bit guarded in case the manure hit the fan and we missed that target. We'd be disappointed of course but at least we wouldn't look like idiots. I assure you that after three openings in seven years, there are always lots of opportunities for manure to hit the fan - many of them outside our control - so I hope you can appreciate our caution. The second reason we've been coy about opening dates stems from our experience of re-opening our Ashton store in 2003. I've blogged about this before but let's just say we learned a lesson that day about how easily you can lose control of a situation when you're dealing with high levels of anticipation. That was worrying enough but it involved people and systems that were all tried and tested. With a brand new shop you also have brand new staff using mostly brand new systems. Of course the egotist in me wants us to hold a Grand Opening but my more sensible side accepts that it's easy enough for us to create hype but it's more important really that we create something that people want to come back to again and again long after all the bunting has come down. So, there's no mad opening ceremonies, no minor celebrities, no ceremonial ribbon-cuttings. They're nice enough and we've done all that sort of thing before - that's another story for another blog entry - but in the end, they do tend to detract from the point of what you're really trying to do. So, it seems we're on a mission to make this opening as boring and as controlled as we can. I'm aware that all this caution may come across as being a little bit dismissive, a bit everything-would-be-fine-if-it-wasn't-for-the-flaming-customers, taking you for granted. I hope it doesn't look like that because nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout all of this very logical approach we do not take lightly the very high level of anticipation and goodwill that so many people seem to have about our opening. I must say that we are very mindful that such genuine interest from so many people doesn't just happen on its own. It means that we must have done things that are appreciated and that we seem to have inspired some affection. To anyone who has ever said anything positive about our arrival in Hampshire, I really do thank you for your support and for your kind words. From 'Day 1', we just really want everyone who visits to feel like the experience is as impressive as we can make it. That means everything running as smoothly as possible and as close as possible to a manageable number of people to avoid it being anything other than fantastic. Yes, we want everyone to say "Wow" on the way in but it's more important to us that you're still saying "Wow" as you leave. To ensure our staff and our systems are ready, this week, we'll be holding a number of invitation-only days this week for friends and families of our staff, suppliers and press and local mail order customers. Once we've done that, we'll be opening for real. We'll deliberately wait until the weekend is out of the way to ensure things don't get out of hand. So, here it is, I'm guessing probably the main reason you're reading this. I've left it to the end to give myself the chance to tell you all of the above - and thanks for sticking with this for the last 800-odd words, by the way: We'll open to the public at 10am on Monday 22nd March. I really hope you like it! Whatever your thoughts, please let me know what you think once you've been. Thanks, Paul.

Mostly Smooth Sale-ing

As you’re probably aware, we’ve been rather occupied this week by the effects of our Winter Sale, which started last Tuesday (15th). In recent years, we’ve become better able to harness the power of the internet to ensure that as many people as possible get a fair chance to order the products they want. Even so, this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds – as I shall explain. But first, let me tell you about our very first experience of running a Sale. At retail. In a store, a Sale is a fairly straightforward, basic, proposition. There, each customer takes up physical space so we can only fit so many people in a shop at once. As this is Britain, a Sale is an invitation to queue patiently but it’s not quite true to say that has always been the case. In days gone by, there have been a few instances of ‘I saw it first’ physical confrontation and what I should euphemistically call ‘jostling’ over some bargain or another. In the world of mail order, two fundamental problems have always needed to be addressed in order to hold a successful Sale. First, in order to stimulate the calls, we needed to produce a catalogue of some form or other - which immediately creates the potential to increase the problems of the stock-out. Unlike in retail, a picture of a product in a catalogue is a promise on our part that we have it waiting for you. If we then sell out of that product, the catalogue doesn’t remove it from your view and because you can still see it, you still expect (understandably) our promise to be fulfilled. If we can’t deliver on our promise, you feel let down. The lesson we learned was that if we’re going to use catalogues to spark your interest, we also have to accept our obligation not to disappoint you. We were also for many years lumbered with the wholly unsatisfactory ‘solution’ of the telephone. In those days, our routine for handling Sale demand was simple: we crammed as many people onto the phones as we could. The calls came at us like a tidal wave and we dealt with as many as we could. We knew it was difficult for customers to get through because those who did get through told us so - but because we had no idea of the scale of that problem, it was difficult to think of it as something we could really do anything about. Of course, the lack of call-handling clarity was the same for customers too so in many ways, very little had changed since the late 70’s and the disappointment I had felt because my calls never got through to ‘Swap Shop’. I saw the answered calls on TV but I never saw the thousands of kids trying to get through. Everything told me my call should get through but I had to work out for myself why it wasn’t happening. In the first year of our 0870 number, we had access to statistics which showed us just how many calls we didn’t answer – and that number scared us silly. Even when we found that on average, customers make ten attempts each (call, engaged tone, hang up, redial button, engaged tone, hang up, redial button, engaged tone… etc.) it still provided little solace. We all asked ourselves: what must people think of us? Thankfully, the internet was just about to ride to our rescue. We weren’t able to gear up a call centre big enough to deal with the demands we could only put on it once or twice each year. There are even today loads of companies who offer to ‘contract out our call handling capability’ (answer the phones for us and place the order on our system - for a fee) but whose operators wouldn’t know one end of a horse from another. We needed a proper website to handle the demand we had generated and we got one just at the right time. Of course, that’s not the end of the story – it’s more like the beginning. Now we have the capability to handle more orders in a day than we ever could, it’s only natural that we attempt to make our Sales bigger and better every year. Every website has a capacity but unlike with a shop, it can usually be increased by buying more servers and other such boxes with twinkly lights to live in our IT room. There are other ways, unglamorous but necessary techniques to ‘optimise’ our site, keeping file sizes to a minimum and sometimes switching off customer service lookups like ‘people who bought this item also bought the following’ as a means of helping the site to deal with as many customers at a time as it can. In a few short years, such considerations have grown in importance from being little more than an afterthought to almost a science in its own right. Also – and I must acknowledge this point – it would be misleading for me to give the impression that with all our recent technological progress, we now get everything else right all the time. We are not immune today from making mistakes in our product selection, misjudging the quantities to buy and therefore selling out too soon (which is I hope more forgivable) or occasionally not even getting the product here in time (which I agree is less forgivable). With every Sale, we gain more experience and by and large, we use it to do what we can to make the next one better. Whenever we fail to live up to your expectations, please believe me when I say that we are as disappointed as you are. It is of no advantage to us to disappoint customers and it’s always a source of regret. It may be helpful for me to give you an idea of the scale of the demand we can attract - and must service - these days: You could take every individual who has visited our site in the nine days since Saturday 13th December – the day our Sale reminder email went out – and between them, they would fill Wembley Stadium. Modesty prevents me from quoting specifics but you’re welcome to find out here what kind of number that relates to. I would defy any other equestrian retailer to come anywhere close to attracting that level of interest in so short a period of time and it’s just as impressive to me because last year, we ‘only’ managed a ‘Millennium Stadium’ figure! What’s just as important is that we live up to our delivery promises too. For the last two Winter Sales, we’ve stated that we would ensure all orders placed by 7:00pm of the first day of the Sale would be delivered in time for Christmas. Since the Sale began, it’s been great to read comments on our Facebook page and on the chatrooms that show just how much we’ve been able to impress customers with our speed and our service.  As always, I would say to anyone expressing dissatisfaction with us on chatrooms to contact us directly as well - we'll always do what we can to help. As I type, I can confirm that all these orders have left our building and should be with you in time for the big day. We have certainly done all we could do to give our couriers enough time to deliver for Christmas - ordinarily. I only hesitate slightly because I’ve just seen more weather warnings for parts of the UK. I very much hope that the wintry weather does not disrupt the delivery services and if it does, that customers accept that this was a factor outside of our control. Anyway, I hope your Sale experience was a good one. I apologise for the slow running of the site in the first few hours. We think we know why it happened and we’ll do all we can to ensure we can handle that level of traffic better in future. If you ordered last Tuesday, you should have it by now or tomorrow at worst. If you were less than impressed, please let us know by emailing customer.service@robinsons-uk.com but whatever your experience, thank you as ever for your interest in Robinsons and for reading this rather lengthy blog. From everyone here to everyone out there, have a wonderful Christmas and a happy, horsey, New Year!

The UK’s Biggest Equestrian Retailer just got bigger!

We are pleased to announce that our third Robinsons Equestrian Store will open in 2010, in Basingstoke, Hampshire, combining state-of-the-art equipment, our full range of products and a new, exciting marketing programme.   Our New Megastore will be one of the largest in the UK and promises to be the most exciting retail development of its kind in Europe. The flagship 24,000 square feet store in Ashton, Lancashire, has been trading for nearly 30 years, while a second 10,000 square feet store in Cannock, in the West Midlands opened in September 2008.From around mid January we will be looking to recruit members of staff in various roles as part of our new Retail Team.   Robinsons Country Leisure is still a family business, the current owners having purchased it in 1971 from the Robinsons family. We have been the front runners in the Equestrian Retail World for the last 25 years and our Mail Order Catalogue and Internet Site have pioneered sales to the equestrian owner and enthusiast.We already attract over 3000 visitors every week through our Retail Superstore in the north of England, and expect that figure to be similar in our new Basingstoke destination Megastore! At just over 22,000 square feet the new Superstore is only 5 minutes from Junction 6 on the M3 and has a huge catchment area of horse owners and riders.   It will include a massive range of Saddlery and tack including well known brands like Weatherbeeta, Thorowgood, Sabre and Cottage Craft. Riding and Leisure Wear from Toggi, Musto, Dublin, Harry Hall, Just Togs and many more.   The new Rider Boutique, will offer high end Branded Merchandise for the discerning rider, exclusive brands like Konig, Pikeur, Ariat and Gersemi, and will have a prominent position in the centre of the showroom. We pride ourselves in our unrivalled range of Gift items for horse and pony lovers young or old so Birthday and Christmas presents will never again be a problem. The store will also offer refreshments in its very own Nose Bag Café.   Basingstoke will be the only one of our current stores to offer a complete range of Horse and Dog Food.As keen horse owners ourselves we are always looking for ways to care for our horses better so stock a vast selection of Supplements, Lotions and Potions and of course, Medications for when your horse needs First Aid attention.     There will be a comprehensive range of large and small Stable fittings, everything from tie rings to stall partitions.The show room area will feature Horse Trailers, Driving Carriages, Show Jumps and a section dedicated to Dog owners. So why don’t you check out our Website and take a look at all the fantastic Career Opportunities that are now available at our new Basingstoke Megastore!   We are looking for enthusiastic individuals with a passion for Customer Service and excellent Retail experience. If you have equestrian knowledge as well – even better!! For the right people we’ll provide the best training and a fantastic future with the UK’s largest and best, Equestrian Retailer. We have positions at all levels – from Sales Assistants to Retail Store Supervisors and Retail Managers.   I do hope that we have at least given you food for thought and if you are interested in joining us then get in touch.  We’d love to hear from you!!