Equestrian Blog

News and thoughts from around the equestrian community

Robinsons would like to add you as a friend

Recently, I wrote a blog entry about the difficulty of knowing when to embrace the new ideas that have come from the growth of the web. With so many people talking about 'social networking sites', I decided to spend a little time getting a little better acquainted with them.  Unfortunately, being the wrong side of 30, this was a revolution that had taken place outside of my normal world, so I had to take the plunge and create my own profile somewhere. After settling on facebook, I have to say I found the whole thing quite addictive and I can certainly see why the idea has caught on so strongly.  In no time at all, I seemed to find a number of friends on there, as well as people who I hadn't heard from for years.  Overnight, it becomes possible to become re-connected to friends you'd almost forgotten you had.  You have to say, it's a pretty powerful tool. In the meantime, I've had all sorts of emails from companies who hold seminars on 'Social Networking for Business' and the like.  Inevitably, where there's a social phenomenon, business is never far behind it and it raised once again a question we'd already debated here: should we create a Robinsons page? While this is supposed to be contrary to the non-commercial ethos of social netwoking sites, it's not necessarily true to say that no companies should have a presence.  Of course, many companies of all sizes do have pages of one form or another.  As a customer myself, there are plenty of brands that I would be interested enough in to have a look at a page which represents them. To my mind, it's about how you do it, though.  If we were to just blunder in and start trying to just sell things on there, I don't think it would work very well.  It has to offer something that makes you want to visit - and then visit again.  In the end, we decided upon 'The Robinsons Online Riding Club'.  It's a great way to allow interaction between visitors and it's good for us to keep visitors up-to-date with what's going on here.  If everybody gets something out of it, why shouldn't it be a good idea? So, follow the link, have a look and see what you think.  Of course, you're very welcome to become a member, too.  After that, we'll wait and see what happens next because your guess is as good as mine!

The Perils of Success

As seasoned readers of this blog may attest, much of my information from the outside world comes from the BBC website.  On one of my many forays there recently, I came across a story which made me grimace. The story was (believe it or not) 'Riot Fears Absent Ahead of IKEA Sale', which on the face of it seems quite a departure from the concept of news.  Aside from the quite blatant (for the BBC) commercial nature of the story, this story tells you not what has happened, but what was unlikely to happen.  Of course, the reason why the absence of riot fears was news is that in 2005, that's precisely what happened when IKEA opened a store in Edmonton, North London.  It was this story that was the reason for my cold sweat as it reminded me of the day we re-opened our Superstore on Sunday 3rd November 2003... As you may or may not know, in September 2002, we lost our retail store in Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire after it was destroyed by a fire.  Happily no-one was injured, but it meant that we had to take over a year to clear the site and custom-build a brand new Superstore as a replacement. By November the following year, the anticipation amongst local riders had been building for weeks and at our Sunday opening time of 11am that day, hundreds of people were there to witness the official opening of the new Superstore which was then, as now, the largest of its kind in the UK and beyond.   As we were sponsors of The Pony Club's Prince Philip Cup at the time, we decided to invite the holders of the Cup (Wylye Valley) to open the Superstore.  A stretch limousine, red carpets and a big ribbon were laid on, especially for the event.  As a finishing touch, we even arranged for two mounted police from the Merseyside Constabulary to escort the limo, a gesture we were very grateful to accept as it helped make our opening such a great spectacle. After such a long time of being unable to serve our retail customers, we had been concerned that we needed to win this custom back as quickly as possible, so the fact that we'd managed to generate so much interest was, I remember, a great relief.  I also recall that weeks beforehand, we had decided after a fair degree of deliberation not to advertise the grand opening, just in case too many people turned up.  In retrospect, that was quite a wise move. Put simply, the day turned very quickly from being a dream to a nightmare.  Once the doors opened, more and more people continued to pour in, so that by late lunchtime, the Nosebag café was gridlocked, queuing time at the main tills had risen to 45 minutes and at least one customer had fainted while waiting to be served.  With so many people inside, we had begun to adopt a nightclub-style 'one out, one in' policy of admittance.  Everything we tried to do to maintain the safety of the situation seemed to have a knock-on effect elsewhere. Outside, things were if anything even worse.  For at least half a mile in each direction along the A49, cars were parked both sides, nose-to-tail - many on yellow lines.  With only enough room for two cars to pass slowly in the space between, every time a bus or a lorry came along, they had to wait for a gap in the traffic coming the other way before they could pick their way through.  Very quickly, tailbacks began to snake back both north and south.  There was nothing else for me to do but to jump into the road and hold back the traffic in one direction every time a bus or a lorry was trying to get through in the other.  My abiding memory in all the gathering chaos was of standing on one of the Queen's highways, directing the traffic, holding it back so the Police horsebox could pick its way out through the congestion!  I couldn't help thinking that things were the wrong way round!! Worse still, there was a Collectables Fair on at Haydock Racecourse that day.  Again, you may or may not know that the entrance to Haydock Park is approximately 400 yards south of our Superstore, along the A49 Warrington Road.  Their traffic was becoming caught up in our traffic and tailing back still further another mile south along the A49...    ...where it crosses the M6 motorway!  It was, I believe at this point, where queues were affecting cars attempting to leave the M6 at Junction 23, that the police helicopter was mobilised! Once you realise that you've lost control of a situation to that extent, you have to begin to worry about the consequences.  All I could think was how much more scary the day could have been if we'd advertised our opening properly.  Looking back now, I'm staggered and eternally grateful that it wasn't worse.  With the 'benefit' of that experience, I now have every sympathy for all concerned when stories such as the IKEA opening happen. The moral of the story?  In business, the vast majority of the time, you're constantly guarding against failure.  It can become second nature to try to maximise every opportunity because if anything doesn't work as well as one had hoped, the costs can be high, financially, to one's reputation and - dare I say it - one's ego.  With shop openings and high-profile promotions, it can often pay to spend a little time guarding against success.  Too much of it can be even worse than not enough. The cold sweat's gone now I've shared that with you. Thanks, Paul. �

New Catalogue, new thinking

One of the pitfalls of being involved in any sort of publishing is that you often forget what the time of year is. The relentless need for monthly magazines to produce next month’s issue (often with the following month shown on the cover) by the end of this month means that to writers and publishers, summer starts in March, Christmas occurs around early October and Easter can be as early as the New Year! When speaking to our friends at magazines like Your Horse, I often feel like I’m entering a strange world where the next six weeks have ceased to exist, kind of like amnesia but in the other direction. When you think about it, the same must be true of anyone working in the soaps. Every so often, you’ll see a giveaway, like evidence of snow in an episode aired in May – look out for that this year! One of the more interesting 'work' days out I am fortunate to have is to a venue which just happens to be an occasional location for Emmerdale. I’m told that the continuity people who are there during the shoots are permanently worried about making everything look like it’s a month and a half in the future. In the case of the humble catalogue production department, our timing can be even longer into the future. With Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter campaigns, the deadlines may be less frequent, but the thinking is even further ahead. With that in mind, I was almost going to tell you how we’re very happy with the way our Autumn/Winter ’08 catalogue is shaping up and then I remember that you’ll only recently have received our Spring/Summer catalogue. Do you see what I mean? Time and again, time plays this trick on me. Maybe I can put it this way: I hope you like our new selection and indeed our new catalogue. We’re very proud of it and we hope it’ll be very popular, but I expect it to be the last of its kind, a throwback to a simpler age. In the evolution of mailorderus catalogi, we’re at the point in time where the species has to adapt to a changing environment. If we don’t develop the equivalent of warm blood or opposable thumbs, we risk becoming a dinosaur and nobody wants to look forward to being a rather famous skeleton. So what are we going to do next time to make this new catalogue seem like a quaint, old-fashioned relic? Well, I’m sure you can agree that I can’t possibly discuss that here (yet), but I’m also sure you can probably guess the direction we’ll be heading. And here comes the other curse of the publisher: the fact that you hardly ever get the chance to be proud of the thing you worked so hard to create - because you already know that in the pipeline is something that promises to be much, much better. I can’t wait until we can share it with you… Merry Christmas! Paul.

Keeping Ahead of the Cyber-Joneses

We all love the web, don’t we? The fact you’re even reading this blog means that you’re probably quite a seasoned surfer. By and large, we’d all agree that the internet has brought so many fantastic aspects to our daily life. How many people would have thought even five years ago how sites like Google Earth, BBC iPlayer and Wikipedia would seem like such vital day-to-day tools? Today, we feel cheated if we can only get the grainy level of satellite imagery of our holiday hotel on Google Earth when not that long ago, we had maybe only two pictures from the brochure as our guide. A decade ago, if you forgot to ‘tape’ something on TV, it was just tough luck. Now, the BBC give you seven days to watch most shows on demand. There was a time when only schoolkids and people with perhaps a little too much time on their hands actively read an encyclopaedia. Now, any pub quiz question can probably be answered on a Wiki site. Our expectations about the availability of information have risen enormously and as a result, we’re all much less tolerant of not having access to the information we need right now. It leads one to wonder what today’s equivalents are. What I wonder is there that we don't really have access to today that in a few years' time, we’ll feel disappointed or even angry if it’s denied to us? While I don’t have the answer to that one, I’m sure that whoever does will be living very comfortably by then. If you can predict the future, you can become very successful as a result. That’s why we have to keep an eye on developments. The problem we sometimes face is not uncertainty about the future, it’s uncertainty about how to prepare for it. What do I mean by that? Well, let me rewind right back to the dawn of the web as a means for companies to promote themselves, the mid to late 90’s. Back then, you didn’t really need to be a genius to predict that this technological revolution was eventually going to change the face of consumer buying behaviour. Most people knew that. What they didn’t know was how quickly and how far the consumer would want to browse and buy this way. In the dot.com boom and subsequent crash, lots of people lost a lot of money trying to see how the new online world could work for them. In our own corner of the business world, we faced a slightly different challenge: it was all well and good to see how these new companies like amazon.com and the late boo.com could spend millions in driving the online revolution with a new generation of wired shoppers. Back then, we had survey data telling us that only 30% of customers had a PC at home. We knew we had to watch from the sidelines, try to learn from the expensive mistakes of others and wait until the time was right for us. The biggest problems were always demographic and practical. Our customer base has always had far more women than men. Back then though, the typical web user was male. Dial-up modems and modest processing speed meant that going online could be a time-consuming business – If you could call it ‘surfing’, it was more like surfing on a mill pond. We all know that spare time is not something that most horse owners have in abundance. There was also a much greater reluctance to trust sites with personal data. The world of online shopping seemed, quite frankly, a world away. And yet we couldn’t afford not to be online, so we began to play a game that we still play today: keeping one eye on the future and another on the expectations of our customers as they stand today. It means, as it has always meant, that we are likely to disappoint some people for asking them to use a technology that they’re not yet comfortable with while annoying others by appearing to adopt too slowly the technology available. To paraphrase something that Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, it seems we can please some, but not all of the people all of the time. Here’s the rub: it’s getting harder, not easier. With the advent of Web 2.0, a techie term for the huge amount of new technology coming onto the web, there are more areas in which we have to exercise our judgement of timing. “Is it too soon to have such-and-such on our website?” “Isn’t it about time we updated this-and-that?” So many questions with not so many obvious answers. Some features, like video clips of products were quite easy to support. Others, like the suggestion of a Robinsons forum have created a huge internal debate. At the moment, we're still unsure that we could moderate it effectively, which is why it's not there. The reason I raise this point is not to attempt to demonstrate that we don’t know what we’re doing – far from it. It’s more to illustrate that while we realise there are many more things we could do with our website, we have to be sensible about adding the right ones in the right order. Believe me, we’ve had loads of ideas (although I'm sure you can appreciate why I'm not going to list them here on a public forum), ranging from the slightly madcap to the potentially revolutionary. As we always say, the day we run out of ideas is the day we should really think about chucking the towel in. Thankfully, that day seems to be quite a long way off! I’m always amazed at how many readers our blog entries attract, so perhaps I should turn the question to you. If you have any suggestions for the future direction of our website, please let me know by email or by adding a comment. You may just give us the reassurance we're looking for that it is time to unleash the next wave of features that online riders are looking for!