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.   

Not Just a Pretty Face

The Autumn/Winter 2011 Catalogue is just about to be printed and will be with you by the middle of August but as we’ve found recently, even without anyone seeing a single product, it’s already creating a following. Over the 25 years that we’ve been publishing catalogues, we’ve always found the choice of the front cover to be quite tricky. Equestrianism is, as we all know, quite a broad church, with many riders seeing themselves as a devotee of their own particular discipline and many more equally proud not to be associated with any competitive activity. This peculiar stand-off has meant that we’ve always been very sensitive to the risks of giving the wrong message with our covers. Dressage, for example, is supposed to represent the ultimate in harmony between horse and rider but even the most stunning photography of a dressage pairing in mid-piaffe carries the risk of identifying Robinsons too closely with that particular discipline. Of course, we have nothing against dressage riders (heaven forbid!) but neither have we anything against showjumpers, eventers, carriage drivers or those who prefer any other discipline and the last thing we’d want was for our catalogue to be dismissed by other riders (and bear in mind that we can’t be arrogant enough to presume every rider in the country knows who Robinsons are) as ‘for dressage riders’ or for any other specific group. I’ve blogged before about trying to identify the common themes that unite all riders and horse owners and concluded that there may be fewer than you’d think. The obvious one of course is the horse itself and it’s a fairly safe bet to assume that we’ll always have a horse present somewhere on our front cover... ...probably. So the image has to appeal to everyone and offend no-one – if at all possible. I’ve always felt that this is exactly the mission that the BBC face when they draw up the schedule for BBC1 on Christmas Day: upto 18 hours of films and programmes that everyone can watch without anything that anyone would consider to be inappropriate. That might sound simple but I’ve always suspected that it’s a much more difficult task than it looks. Of course a day full of Disney films either side of the Queen’s Christmas Message would meet that requirement but is there sufficient interest there to stop people turning over? Especially these days, with so many more channels... The consequence of attempting to steer clear of any sort of offence is usually to drive headlong straight into another pitfall - blandness. Carrying on the Christmas telly analogy, that’s why we have the standing joke about Christmas always involving Morecambe & Wise and The Great Escape. There’s nothing wrong with either of these great stalwarts; they’re proven over many years to be very popular viewing. This popularity is also their weakness – we’ve all seen them before. They’re not particularly imaginative. They’re not exactly different, are they? I know that lots of people have had quite firm views over our cover images over the years and whether they’re complimentary or not, I’m always flattered that anyone feels strongly enough to tell us. It would be a far worse situation if we were to inspire nothing but apathy. Certainly, we’ve had plenty of internal discussions and debates over the image with which we’re happiest to associate our brand, twice a year. It’s sometimes an awkward process but always a necessary one which always seems to bubble along until the print deadline is too close for comfort. I’ll admit that we’ve always tended to be a little conservative with our imagery and that in doing so, like the BBC at Christmas, we risk coming across as a little bland. In recent years, we’ve tried to mitigate the difficulties of choosing an appropriate cover by using silhouettes (a move which was inspired by looking at Next Directory covers at the time, I’m not ashamed to say). Instead of trying to take a ‘perfect photograph’ ourselves, they were easier images to come by and we had slightly more control over the composition of the picture this way. Crucially, from my point of view, it was also a unique style which I felt help to make us different (that word, again) from the other equestrian catalogues out there. Since then, we’ve opted to use the world of online stock photography – websites full of usually (but not always) impressive photographs of almost anything you can image. In addition to our catalogue covers, the use of these images has helped us transform our instore experience. Once again though, things aren’t quite as straightforward as they seem. Being mostly American, any search for ‘horse’ on a stock photography website will inevitable return far more Western scenes than we’d ever use, virtually halving the number left for us to consider. Then there are a wide number of pictures of horses that are photographically impressive but that would immediately alienate you, the customer. What do I mean by that? Well, images that carry with them a certain baggage that are easy to spot for you or me are, bless them, perfectly acceptable to many photographers, however good they are. As a consequence, pictures that include subjects like horses with their ears back, hatless riders or riderless horses alone in a field, wearing a bridle are all ruled out of the equation. This year, when we held our usual internal straw poll of the eight or so images to choose between, something happened that I can’t recall happening before: we had an almost unanimous verdict. What made it all the more remarkable was that the clear winner was the most radical, least bland choice available. It’s a black-and-white image and the last time we featured one of those on the front cover of anything, it was the early 1980’s and we couldn’t afford to print in colour. So, in case you haven't seen it yet, here it is in all its glory (see below). We've also posted it on our Facebook and Twitter pages and once again it was met with what can only be described as universal acclaim. Maybe we’ve been lucky this time but I’d like to think we proved that it is possible to appeal to the widest possible number of people without descending into blandness. Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter what I think. What you think is much more important!

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.

All Change Online!

What an incredibly mad couple of months it's been!  We don't seem to like doing things by halves and here we are about to open a new store in Cardiff and launch a brand new website in almost the same week!  I've been promising a blog on our new site about why we feel it's such a big deal, so here goes... Some time in April (I can't say when because at this stage we don't know), we'll take the decision to retire our current website, which has served us well for the last seven or eight years and replace it with a new, more powerful, more attractive version.  Not only will it look different and do many more sophisticated things, it will also live somewhere else.  We've decided that the new website will live at robinsonsequestrian.com but don't worry about updating your bookmarks or anything; we'll do all sorts of linking to ensure that anyone going to our current site will be automatically forwarded to the new site instead. Below, you'll see a graphic of the new homepage (sorry, we're not really knocking 50% of Puffa jackets!).  As you can see, it's visually very different to the site it replaces but the differences don't end there... Avid web users may be pleased to see that it offers a wishlist function - something that lots of customers have contacted us about over the years, er, wishing for.  I'm a big amazon.co.uk fan and I was delighted to see that Father Christmas had clearly read my amazon wishlist last year, so it was hugely important to me that we gave him the chance to do the same thing with our new site! The search box looks the same but under the bonnet, it's like comparing a lawnmower engine with a Ferrari V8.  Our old site only searched the titles of our products and a few keywords, this will look at every word we use about it in the copy - it'll even decide for itself what to suggest if you spell something wrong.  We always had to anticipate that lots of people might search for 'jodphurs' and remember to add such keywords ourselves.  Now the search engine will do it for us - wherever it thinks it needs to - which means you should find what you're looking for much more quickly. In addition to organising our product range by types of product (i.e. footwear, headwear etc.), we will also be able to organise them by the activity you need them for.  The new 'Disciplines' menu allows dressage riders to see everything we can offer them that are ideal for their sport, just as showjumpers, eventers and a host of others will be able to.  You can also drill into this feature (and the new and extended Bargain Zone) even further by specifying items for Men, Women or Children. Overseas customers will also have the opportunity to order in Euros or US dollars. Once you've found the item you're looking for, the improvements won't end there.  Here's another mock-up of the product page (I know, clippers shouldn't live in the T-shirts section!) showing how we'll convey a wealth of information about each product to you clearly and legibly. We'll have the ability to display upto eight images or even a video file for each item we offer and all the information we hold can be sorted into sections, like johnlewis.com ond other major retailer websites. You'll be able to rate an item and write a review, or use the information that others have already left to help decide if a particular product is just what you're looking for - or not. In addition to everything we can write to describe the items we offer, we've also reached and agreement with the publishers of the Threshold Picture Guides to allow us to use some of their information to help you decide what items are right for you.  We'll also be asking all our suppliers to provide us with as many guides and as much associated information as they can.  We really want our pages to be the source of all the information you're ever likely to need about each and every product in the range. We'll be able to offer you ever more sopisticated offers like 'Buy three rugs and get the cheapest free' - which our old site would never have been able to handle.  We'll also be able to offer - and redeem - online versions of our popular paper gift vouchers, which is another missing feature that has been maddening to customers and us alike for years! All the best functions on our current site will remain - although many of them will be more prominent which should make them more popular.  For example, our Live Chat feature has become a very popular and therefore important tool in a short space of time.  Similarly, the suggestion of related items (which I admit weren't always that sensible) will also appear on the new site, together with the ubiquitous 'Share This' social media links.  You always could post an item that impressed you to Facebook or Twitter but I bet you never have, in part, because the button was designed so appalingly. We're doing away with a separate News section and incorporating all that kind of thing straight into an upgraded blog area and calling it all 'News & Events' and we're also changing the way the site is hosted to ensure that we can cope much more efficiently with the mega-busy days like the first day of an online Sale. I hope you can agree, this has all been quite sufficient to keep many of our admin team and Pod1, our web partners quite busy for a number of months now.  We're sure it will work and feel much better, which is, after all, the point of the exercise.  It may however take us a while to acquire and organise all the extra product details we'll now have the opportunity to provide.  I'm currently leaning on all our top suppliers to get more words, more pictures and more video and of course, we'll generate our own content too but with over 20,000 products to populate, that might not happen overnight. Finally, one last little feature that we felt was important: The Trolley.  What do you call the *thing* that you add items into when you're ordering online?  Every bit of advice we have been given has been to call it a 'Basket'.  That's what everyone else does and it's what customers expect to see.  If we were aiming the site at Americans, we could get away with 'Cart' but here, it should be 'Basket' every time.  Why then, did we decide to go for 'Trolley'? Here's a picture taken in our 'New Equestrian Superstore' when we first opened it in 1982.  The thing that made us different then - and to still some extent even now - was the humble shopping trolley.  It was a time where only grocery 'supermarkets' used them and nobody had every heard of doing their equestrian shopping this way and it caused a huge stir at the time.  Some people even thought it cheapened the experience of going shopping.  If you're under 25, I'm sure you can barely imagine such a ridiculous state of affairs (in fact, I often struggle myself :-) *pretends not to be much older than 25*) but it's true and if I could link to something that agreed with the point, I would. Anyway, that's why we defied all the advice and we're going with a Trolley.  Please don't be confused by this departure from the norm because every piece of website user data indicates that you might be! I'm sure you'll cope with the Trolley and I hope you'll love the site.  We can't wait to get it online and I'm sure you're looking forward to having a browse around too.  As soon as we have a launch date, we'll let you know! Paul.

Virtual Insanity*

It's a Friday afternoon and I'm very conscious that I haven't blogged yet about our forthcoming new website, in the way that I have about our forthcoming new Cardiff store. There's so much I'd like to say about our new website, what's going to be better about it and why we need it to ensure that we remain at the forefront of what we do, I could write for hours.  One reason I don't have lots of time to write about the new site is...the new site!   The project is taking up so much time for so many people here at the moment - and the next few weeks promise to be nothing short of mad! The amount of work required to find, manipulate, improve all the words and pictures we have is huge and it strikes me that it's almost as big a project as our last big move, when we shifted our entire warehouse and admin from Rainford to here, nearly six years ago. Over at Pod1, our web developers, the site is slowly taking shape, with buttons, functions and product details being added little by little.  As with any shop opening, it's difficult (and risky) to give you a firm launch date but we anticipate early April - which also happens to be our estimate for the Cardiff store opening. I haven't got much more to add for now but I will, in my next entry tell you much more about the new site and add a few teasing images, too. Have a great weekend! Paul :-) *The name of this Jamiroquai track seemed very apt for this blog entry - but without the 'useless twisting of our new technology' bit, of course!

Store Number 4: Same Robinsons, Different Concept

We’re pleased to announce that we will continue the pattern of recent years and open another store.  Last year, when we opened our Basingstoke Megastore, we only really needed to announce the location , mock up a picture and leave the rest to your imagination, knowing that the site was large enough to live upto the reputation of our Ashton (‘The UK’s largest’) Megastore.  This time it will be different… The new Robinsons Store will only be 4,000 square feet, a healthy size for a tack shop but, we recognise, a fifth of the size of our largest stores and therefore a significant change to what Robinsons are known for.  It will be located within the shopping village at Pugh’s Garden Centre in Radyr, Cardiff – about 2 minutes from the M4. “Only 4,000 square feet?  Why on earth are you doing that?”, you may ask, perfectly reasonably expecting Robinsons to always stand for vast emporia of horse and riding equipment.  We’ve spent a lot of time and print over the years beating our collective chest by relentlessly stating how large our stores are.  It’s a quality that’s probably quite deeply ingrained in what the Robinsons brand represents and we have thought long and hard about tinkering with that association.  Our large store policy certainly isn’t broken, so why does it need to be fixed? The answer lies in the fact that in business, it’s dangerous to ever say ‘never’ and also the fact that real-world opportunities often overtake such long- standing and firmly-held views.  You only have to look at the world of grocery retailing.  At some point, Tesco decided that it was either going to have to confront the fact that its own reputation had set limits on what it could do or it would never be able to operate stores in certain locations like city centres or smaller towns.  By taking a flexible approach (and using names that clearly indicate the difference to their customers), they have successfully created their Tesco Metro and Tesco Express styles of shop. In almost exactly the same way, we felt that we were missing opportunities to expand our retail base while waiting for the next suitable site (at the right price) for a 20,000 sq ft store to become available.  The advantage of this smaller type of store is that it’s much, much easier to replicate elsewhere if it proves popular.  This just leaves us with the issue of ensuring as best we can that customers don’t arrive at a smaller store and think ‘is that it?’ I can’t stress how much we are keen to avoid such a reaction and by how much we don’t take such issues lightly.  Years ago, we decided to trial catalogue distribution at selected shows around the country and the first date in the diary was Badminton.  The show circuit was really the reason why we went into Mail Order in the first place and we’d had a full-size tent with every item in it for many years in the 1980’s.  When our catalogue sales took off, we decided to stop doing the shows.  So, having decided to return, just to give out catalogues, we took a small space in the (then) Your Horse Village stand and arrived in the lorry with about 10,000 copies of that year’s catalogue.  On the first day, with crowds of shoppers flooding past us, taking catalogues from the pile quicker than we could bag and offer them, a lady walked past who was, let’s say old enough to remember seeing our mobile store at Badminton 20 years earlier.  She looked the stand up and down, slowly taking in the name on the front, the size of the pitch and a distinct lack of anything other than a huge pile of catalogues and wandered over.  “Excuse me dear”, she asked me, “where’s your real stand?  I saw your lorry in the car park and I was so pleased to see you were here.  I’m looking for a [I can’t remember what type of bit it was] for my daughter.  I don’t suppose you have it…here, do you?” I then spent a particularly soul-crushing few minutes politely explaining that I was afraid we didn’t operate a stand like that anymore and suggested that she might find anything her daughter required in the catalogue I was proffering to her.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, she declined and walked away in search of the elusive bit elsewhere.  Deep down, I knew that by our actions, and in the name of progress, we’d inadvertently encountered a lady who had very positive feelings about Robinsons and, by behaving quite differently to her expectations of us, we’d dented them somewhat. Perhaps, it’s an impossible task to avoid doing this to some extent although I’d hate that to sound like we just shrug our shoulders on the rare occasions when it does happen.  On the other hand, we gave away nearly all 10,000 catalogues that weekend to a huge number of people who seemed very happy with what we were there to do and whose view of Robinsons was enhanced, or at least, not diminished by our ‘unexpected’ behaviour.  It’s easy to over-state the importance of a single example but then I always feel that it’s important not to forget it, either. Of course, I could justify our latest direction by pointing out that the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of equestrian retail in the UK is still done from premises not much bigger than the Nosebag café at our Ashton store and that in comparison, 4,000 sq ft is a very respectable size indeed for most equestrian shoppers – especially if the alternative for us was nothing at all until we found a much larger site in the area, whenever that would be.  I could spend ages collating market statistics to prove it to you but I also appreciate that it doesn’t make a scintilla of difference.  It’s really a matter of your (that’s the collective ‘your’) perception of our brand. We have long accepted that in so very many ways, we are not just judged against our direct competitors.  Of course, we are when it comes to obvious things like pricing and offering product X or clothing brand Y.  When, over 15 years ago, a customer expressed frustration that we didn’t offer baby-changing facilities at our old Ashton store, we knew that the ‘competition’ in question was with ASDA or B&Q.  How many tack shops did you know where you could change a baby in the mid-90’s?  None?  Of course, that was and still is a perfectly acceptable expectation for a customer at a 20,000 sq ft shop to have – which is why we didn’t take long to offer baby-changing facilities shortly after.  Similarly, we must now accept that we are effectively in competition with ourselves.  If we are proud to boast about the facilities at our flagship store, won’t it be a problem if we’re not able to offer them everywhere else? The answer, we believe, is in the name.  As I alluded to above, the absolute number one thing any company has to do if it’s going to act in a way at odds with most customers’ expectations is to describe any distinction as clearly as possible.  So, Tesco Metro is their brief way of saying ‘it’s not as big as the Tesco you’re thinking of because it’s in a city centre’.  Yes, there’s a potential for disappointment: Tesco Metro staff may commonly have encountered customers who’ve exclaimed “what do you mean there’s no garden furniture in here?” (although I doubt it), but at least the difference is clearly explained – it does what it says on the ‘tin’, as someone once said in an advert and it’s much less likely that anyone can claim to have been misled. Marketers also love the logical conclusion of this idea, the notion that you can extend what a brand stands for, as long as you add a little qualifying word to it.  ‘Brand stretching’ is the correct term for this and everybody seems to do it now – Nike Women, Diet Coke, Next Flowers and of course the myriad of Virgin brands.  It does seem very enticing but it comes with some danger to the brand as it only really works if customers are willing to accept that Brand X now stands for not just the usual type of associations but a whole extra bit as well. Of course, this is the tricky bit for any brand.  We have to ensure that we can convince the good people of the Cardiff area that a visit to their Robinsons store is just as interesting, enjoyable, fulfilling and worthwhile as many riders around Wigan, Cannock and Basingstoke do already.  We have to do that with less space and, obviously, less stock than we can claim to offer at our current three sites.  This will mean that we’ll need to be a little more ruthless when it comes to out-of-season items.  We’re not used to removing electric fencing (for example) from our other stores at the end of the summer, but we may have to do that there if we want to make room for all the in-season items.  Of course, we’ll look to ways to reduce that effect by trialling services that allow you to order those items you can’t find on the day – but that might be getting a little ahead of ourselves for now. The solution we have arrived at is to follow a similar naming model to Tesco (and Argos and Sainsbury’s and probably others too) where a certain store size – or ‘format’ – is referred to according to the level of expectation it’s fair to have of it.  That’s why over the last year, we’ve tried to consistently refer to our Ashton and Basingstoke stores (both 20,000 sq ft and both with café facilities) as ‘Megastores’.  While not small, our Cannock store is smaller and does not offer ‘sit-down’ refreshment facilities, so we have described it as a ‘Superstore’ to avoid any implication that it’s identical to its larger siblings.  At Cardiff, and anywhere else of a similar size that we open, we must be clear that a 4,000 sq ft branch it is something different again.  Currently, the word ‘Store’ seems to sum up its description as accurately as anything, i.e. neither ‘Super’ or ‘Mega’ in size.  And so, the Cardiff Store will open, later this Spring and will still be, by my reckoning, amongst the largest – if not the largest –equestrian store in South Wales.  I really hope you’ll like it. We can’t wait to open and of course, we’ll confirm much more about dates nearer the time.  In the meantime, have a look at the Pugh’s website if you’re not familiar with the location and of course, look out for future announcements very soon.

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!!

Bengt Höök: An inspiration and a friend

We were saddened yesterday to hear about the death of Bengt Höök, President of Hööks Hästsport - the largest equestrian retailer and mail order operator in Scandinavia. We had known Bengt for many years and were proud to call him a friend. We had worked on many projects together and we both shared the same commitment to finding new, different and well-priced products. He was always generous with his advice and genuine with his praise of Robinsons. We admired him greatly. Our thoughts go to his family and the whole team at Hööks.