Equestrian Blog

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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.

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