Archived: Not Just a Pretty Face

First published on 11th July 2011 on http://www.robinsons-uk.com

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!

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Archive: The Importance of Being Honest…

First published on 17th October 2012 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

…or ‘Who on Earth are Feefo and Why are they Emailing Me?’

If you’ve placed an order from Robinsons this year, it’s likely you’ll have received an email from a company called Feefo in the days and weeks that followed to ask you to rate the items and the service you received. Of course, I expect many of those who received this email chose not to respond.

Let’s be real for a moment, there’s no way we should expect otherwise – we’ve all done that, haven’t we?  With that in mind, I extend my sincere thanks to anyone who did take the time to complete the short survey, however you chose to rate us and whatever you said about us, good or bad.  Without your honesty, we wouldn’t have the same ability to grade the quality of our service – and we wouldn’t have the chance to put things right if they’ve gone wrong here and there.

In the past, I’ve blogged about improving our commitment to transparent behaviour and since then, I’m pleased to say that we’ve been far better able to react to occasional problems and we now have much more confidence in our ability to consistently provide the level of service we expect of ourselves.  We’ve also (touch wood) not encountered any instances of severe chat room criticism since the one in June last year that made us change the way we think about this subject.  Please let me know if you know different, though! I don’t want you to think that all this makes us complacent, that we can consider the job is done and just concentrate on something else now.

Transparency is an all-or-nothing commitment and it’s now something we look at every day, to measure not just the usual performance stuff, like how many orders we sent out but how well we’ve done impressing the people who received them. And so, before I finish this post, I must ensure you know how we are now more honest with you, as a result of our kind Feefo respondents.  To quote Jack Byrnes (Robert de Niro’s character) in ‘Meet The Parents’, I need to complete the “circle of trust”.

The performance data from the Feefo emails is freely available at any time on the Robinsons Review page on the Feefo website for anyone to view.  It’s also used to add details to our Google listing, to indicate that our service levels might make us a better choice for anyone searching for the things we offer.

In the old days, Marketing Managers tended to be cautious of such measures because the rating might go down.  Today, we accept that we have to ensure that it remains as high as we can be because we’re aware (and we’re also very happy) that everyone can see it. As I type, the proportion of people who rated us as ‘Good’ or ‘Very Good’ is 93% – which is about the same level as M&M Direct, Joe Brown’s and other large mail order companies that most people have heard of.  It’s reassuring to know that our customers rate us so highly but of course, we shouldn’t be really happy until it’s trending at 100%. I honestly hope you feel this is as important as we do.

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Paul

Archived: Fancy an early night? ;-)

First published on 15th December 2008 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

If you’ve received your Sale Catalogue and you’ve found something you like, I invite you to go to bed early tonight, just like I’ll be doing. As you’ll no doubt already know, our Winter Sale starts online tomorrow morning at the less-than-Godly hour of 3am and we all need to be up and fresh in time for it. Why on earth do we put ourselves (and you) through this inconvenience?

The simple answer is that we’ve found over the years that it’s the safest – and fairest – time of day for us to start a sale. Here’s a little of what we’ve learned over the years: I’m afraid to say that starting an online Sale in working hours has proved to be a complete ‘no-no’. We tried it one Christmas Eve and it instantly killed all our systems. It meant that I had slightly depressed Christmas that year and I’m sure lots of customers were disappointed.

Unfortunately, the fact that it was so easy for everyone to access the Sale was precisely the reason it was so difficult for us to handle. We had to find a way of ‘frightening off’ some of the initial surge in demand. The obvious solution is, I’m afraid, unsociable hours – which is why we’ve started our Sales overnight for the last few years. In fact, midnight used to be our preferred time but even this could lead to problems. If the site still ran slowly over the first hour or so, customers who had planned to stay up until midnight to spend half an hour shopping online were still up at 2am and starting to complain that they hadn’t been to bed yet.

We felt that not only was 3am even more inconvenient (and therefore even safer), it also meant users are more likely to have had some sleep and therefore any delays (perish the thought) should be less troublesome – we hope… There’s also an inherent fairness in making things really awkward for everybody. It means that those who inconvenience themselves the most are most entitled to the deals which are least commonly available, so morally, it seems to work well. It’s the same ‘law of the jungle’ that governs other areas where demand hugely exceeds supply, like tickets for Cup Finals or Glastonbury.

It sounds like Customer Service heresy to say so, but it’s the simple fact that few retailers will admit – even though everybody knows it: If you want something enough, you’ll do what it takes to get it. There, I’ve said it. Please don’t think less of me. I’m just trying to be honest with you!

All Sales are naturally very busy times and to an extent, we as customers do with in reason accept that fact – don’t forget, we’re all somebody’s customer, so I feel I can say that. When Next (for example) hold their retail Sales (ususally from 5am), there are almost always long queues at every store. The thing about Sales at retail is that it’s obvious to all how many people are there – because you can see them all. While each person has made the effort to travel there, I’m sure that if the event was ridiculously over-subscribed, the fact that such a crowd would be obvious to others often serves to make some of them think again and drive straight back home. Retail Sales are therefore self-limiting to some extent.

On the web, it’s not that straightforward – for anyone. We have a good idea of the number of people who visited the site on the first day of each of our previous sales, so it would be inaccurate to say we don’t know what to expect, but that doesn’t mean to say our estimates will be right this time. It’s also a lot easier to join in as a customer, because you don’t even need to leave your bed, so even our best estimates could be way out. Of course, this has a bearing on the amount we invest in our systems to accommodate this expected demand.

From the customer’s viewpoint the unpredictability will be even more frustrating. Over-subscribed websites work slower (or fall over completely) and items sell out sooner, all things likely to frustrate people and understandably so. At least the company holding the online Sale will know why things are slow – or worse – because they can see the visitor stats. The poor customer may appreciate it’s busy but they won’t know the just how many people are also online’, so there’s a chance they’ll get even more frustrated. Unlike with retail, this self-limiting factor just isn’t there. I should pause here to point out that I appear to be painting a very negative picture about the process. That’s because we try wherever possible to bear in mind a ‘busiest day imaginable’ scenario – so we can prepare to handle it. I refer you to my earlier blog about store openings The Perils of Success, in which a similar theme is explored: being too busy can be worse than not being busy enough.

Yes we’ve had our moments over the years where our online Sales have sailed close to the wind of disappointment in some quarters and I’m also sure it’s impossible to impress all of the people all of the time – although we’ll never stop trying to do that. Over the last two years, I feel we have got a lot closer to the kind of infrastructure that allows us to deal with such a vastly inflated demand.

This year, I believe we’ve been able to improve our capability even more, so I’m optimistic (make that cautiously optimistic) that this Sale will be our best ever – for all of us! In recent years, we’ve been let down firstly by hardware (the boxes of physical kit we have) and then by bandwidth (the ‘speed’ of our web connection). Consequently, it’s required us to add more web servers and a load balancer to ensure that more people can interact with the site at the same time. We’ve also freed up our systems by removing functions like ‘WebChat’ and ‘Others also bought’ for the busiest times.

The other big difference this year is that we’ve been able to increase our bandwidth by a factor of 12. Does this mean we can handle 12 times the demand? In theory, yes but in practice, we’ll have to wait and see… Eventually, if our IT team have done all they can do and we’re still busier than expected, we will at some point run out of things to sell. In effect, our stock levels will have become the ‘weak link’ in the system. We buy and make available ever more stock for our Winter Sale each year and we’ve done that again this year but obviously no seller expects to hold significantly more than they believe they can sell.

Again, to the frustrated customer, a problem here may look like we don’t know what we’re doing – but that’s because they can’t possibly know how many other people are online – or what they are buying. To give you an idea of our online Sale stock this year, it’s more than we currently have at our Ashton and Cannock stores combined. Will that be enough, just right or too much? My answer today, the day before the Sale is that I think it will be about right – although I’m sure that some of the lines will sell out very quickly. I will however know a lot more by this time tomorrow – if I’m still awake!!

If you’re planning to go online tomorrow at 3am, good luck and email me with your comments either way.

Paul.

Archive: How ‘Antlers for Horses’ Became Popular

First published on 9th November 2012 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

Sometimes, the success of something is all about being in the right place at the right time. We could never have predicted the success of such a silly product as the Horse Head Antler which first appeared in a Robinsons catalogue in 1992. This ‘silly’ product has since stood the test of time and it is likely that not many people have any idea how it all came about. Pauline Bentham, our gift buyer at the time spotted the antlers on a plastic horse’s head at a trade fair in Philadelphia, USA. She bought one pair for the princely sum of $10 and brought it back to the UK.

She made some improvements to its design and commissioned an order of around a thousand pieces from a local manufacturing company. Over the four weeks prior to Christmas in 1992, we sold over 800 units at around £10 each! With the benefit of this experience and a bit of lateral thinking, we added similar products for the following festive season: ‘jingle bell’ nosebands and rein sleeves, matching hat covers, exercise sheets and leg wraps all made from bright red and finished with white fur fabric trims. From nowhere, a new and (very) popular collection of inexpensive fun items had been created.

The following Christmas, about 5,000 of these ‘silly’ products (which were exclusive to Robinsons) were sold. We then attempted to wholesale them to distributors in the UK and because they were still perceived as too silly, nobody wanted to take them on despite our huge success. No-one copied the idea for the next two years anywhere in Europe. In 1994 at a trade fair in Germany one of our international buying group partners was arm-twisted into taking a risk. It took promises of a ‘sale or return’ deal to convince these steely-faced Germans that they had nothing to lose.

After the first year of success they placed an order for the next year for over 10,000 units! Today, the Christmas Antlers live on despite the fact that production in the UK had to be terminated and moved to China and the fact that some competition in the market has also sprung up. It’s difficult to calculate how much this range made since it was inspired, twenty years ago. It did more than bring a smile to someone’s face, it made a statement that Robinsons were innovative and were prepared to offer alternative products which were not always aimed at the serious competitor. It made us look different from our competitors, a difference we’ve been keen to maintain ever since!

Archive: Robinsons Launch ‘Rider Rewards’!

First published on 11th December 2012 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

Robinsons, the UK’s number one equestrian provider is pleased to announce the launch of a new customer points programme to help riders get the most from their horsey purchases – and we’re calling it ‘Rider Rewards’.

We’re all familiar with the idea of so-called ‘loyalty schemes’, many of us will have a Tesco or a Nectar card and more and more of us seem to be collecting points for some card or other. With this in mind, Rider Rewards are intended to be the definitive version of points in the equestrian world.

“We’re really excited by the launch of this, the first phase of ‘Rider Rewards‘,” said Paul Bentham, Sales & Marketing Director. “The structure of earning and redeeming points was designed to be as similar as possible to the Boots Advantage card as we’d all identified it as one of the most popular schemes amongst retailers with a comparable offering. Many of our head office staff are avid Boots Advantage card holders and it didn’t take long to get them to explain why they love it so much!”

“The main difference we’ve decided to make from the Boots model is that you only earn 4 Advantage points with every pound you spend at Boots, but we’ve decided to give you 5 points for every pound you spend. As with Boots, every point you spend can be redeemed at the value of 1p each.”

At this stage, Rider Rewards can only be earned and redeemed for purchases from the Robinsons website. In the coming months, the principle will be extended to orders placed via telephone and then purchases at the four Robinsons stores around the country.

“We plan to launch Rider Rewards across our entire operation in the new year but the chance to launch it online before Christmas was an opportunity we didn’t want to miss,” said Martin Bentham, Operations Director. Here’s a brief run-down on how it all works, with an instance of how one purchase can help you claim other products free in subsequent orders and how you can choose to combine payments between points earned and conventional card payment.

Example
One day, Miss Jane Smith places an order with Robinsons, a pair of Dublin New River Boots, at £109. She has no points previously in her account but by spending £109, she instantly earns 545 points which can be used at 1 point = 1p for future transactions.

Her order arrives and some time later, Jane decides that she’d like a couple of pairs of thick socks to wear with her new boots. She decides to buy a Requisite ‘Pack Of 2’ Argyle Socks, for £7.50. With 545 points to her name, she has the equivalent of £5.45 in her account, which means that Jane has the choice to pay the £7.50 for the socks on her card or redeem any amount of her points to pay for them and pay the difference, conventionally. She chooses not to pay from points and so earns more points for this second purchase. This means her points total is now (545 + 35) = 580.

Six months later, Jane decides she needs to get another pair of gloves. She’s totally forgotten about her points balance but in the process of placing her order, we’re able to remind her. She orders a pair of Harry Hall Glow gloves at £3.50. She notices on the payment screen that her points level is more than the 350 points she would need to get the gloves free of payment. She decides to save herself the £3.50 and ‘pay’ for the gloves from her saved points, which doesn’t earn her any more points and reduces her balance of 580 by 350, leaving her with 230 points remaining.

Shortly afterwards, Jane decides to buy her sister a pair of Requisite Two Tone Jodhpurs for her birthday. At a price of £20, she knows she doesn’t have the 2,000 points she’d need to pay for them in their entirety so she chooses to pay for them by a combination of points and conventional payment. She redeems her full bank of 230 points (£2.30) and pays for the difference on her card (£17.70). The £2.30 redeemed value doesn’t earn her any points, but the £17.70 entitles her to earn another (17 x 5) 85 points for future use. What will she decide to do with them? The choice is hers…

Here are a few restrictions and further benefits of collecting our Rider Rewards:

  • Currently, Rider Rewards can only be earned by and redeemed against purchases on the Robinsons website (www.robinsonsequestrian.com). In early 2013, the programme will be extended to telephone ordering and then to the four Robinsons retail stores (Ashton-in-Makerfield, Cannock, Basingstoke and Cardiff).
  • Rider Rewards points can be redeemed against a part of or the full goods value of an order at the rate of 1 point = 1p. Points can be used as a part-payment method.
  • Rider Rewards points may be redeemed against the cost of products in an order and also against any postage and delivery costs, at the same rate of 1 point = 1p.  Where refunds occur on orders where payment has been split between redeemed points and conventional payment, spent points will be refunded first, then pounds spent until the value of the refund has been reached.
  • Each point earned will expire 365 days after the date it was earned. You can log into the new Rider Rewards area of the ‘My Account’ part of the website to see how many points you have earned and what the expiry status is for each of them. If you have points that are nearing their expiry date, you will be sent a ‘Use them or Lose them’ email alert at the email address held against your account, two weeks before the points are due to elapse (although you have the choice to opt out of these alerts).
  • You can view your points balance at any time by logging into your account from the header area of any page of the Robinsons website and clicking on the ‘Rider Rewards’ option on the left-hand menu. Please keep your login details and your password secure.
  • From time to time, we may operate ‘Double Points Weekends’ or similar activities in which you can gain additional points for qualifying purchases. These activities will be communicated by email and via our homepage.

Archive: Robinsons and the Royal Mail – What You Need to Know…

First published on 15th October 2009 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

As you may have seen on the news, the country is about to face a period of strikes by postal workers. Naturally, you’ll be concerned that all mail order will therefore become totally unreliable and to be honest, who could blame you? If you’re still reading at this point, please allow me to explain what we’ve done to ensure that Robinsons is unaffected by the strikes as much as we possibly can be. I’ve tried to keep this information as short and to-the-point as I can:

Suspension of all Standard Packets sent via Royal Mail

As soon as the Communication Workers’ Union held a ballot which gave them the opportunity to plan strikes, we knew we had to transfer our business to other carriers. From Monday 19th October right through until Christmas (and possibly beyond), we will therefore be sending all our standard packets out via The Home Delivery Network, using their 24 hour delivery service. This decision comes at quite a substantial cost to us, which we will not be passing on to you. We felt that as long as we can keep your confidence, the extra cost will be worth avoiding hundreds or maybe thousands of lost orders. Just to clarify, the 24 hours described above relates to the time it takes to leave our mailing room to arrival with you. It’s not quite the same as our £9.95 Express Delivery service, which for orders placed before 12 noon (Monday to Thursday), promises a 24 hour delivery from the time you order until arrival with you. I hope I’ve been able to explain the distinction well enough.

Where we may still have to depend on Royal Mail

Sadly, it’s a little more complicated than simply transferring all our delivery business elsewhere. There are some occasions where we may have no option but to continue to use Royal Mail. These instances will be quite specific parts of our business like overseas delivery of small parcels, affecting very few customers. Unfortunately, if you’re one of those customers, this comes as no consolation at all. Even then, we will continue to look for alternatives if the Royal Mail service is unworkable. Aside from the goods we send out, I’m sure you’ll also know that we send out catalogues from time to time. In early December, we will produce our Winter Sale 2009 catalogue, as we do every year, mailing it to hundreds of thousands of customers. In recent years, we have moved away from using the Royal Mail to collect these catalogues from us once they are printed. Unfortunately, because this is still standard ‘letter post’, the industry still works on the basis that the Royal Mail always handle the mail over the ‘final mile’ of the delivery. It is financially impossible for us to by-pass them, using couriers, on such volumes and we are just not big enough to use our own network of local agents to deliver catalogues like (for example) Next do. Again, we are looking at our alternatives and we also hope that the dispute – or at least the industrial action – may have been resolved by then. All we can say is that we’ll keep you post… er, make that informed.

Robinsons and the Royal Mail: What We’d Like You to Know…

Okay, this bit is more about how the dispute affects us than about how it affects you but as you’re still reading, I have a couple of things to say that might interest you. Since 2007, Robinsons have been members of The Catalogue Exchange, a not-for-profit organisation which represents the interests of companies who trade via catalogues. By a strange quirk of fate (or perhaps it was deliebrarely done so), the decision to strike was announced on the second day of our industry’s biggest trade fair*. Between us, the members of CatEx (as we all call it) represent hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue to the Royal Mail and our combined voice is being used to pressurise both sides of the dispute. Our very capable President is Nigel Swabey, the Chairman of a number of well-known catalogue companies including, currently, Scott’s & Co and he has done a number of press interviews to put our case. In a recession, every business is expecting to fight harder to even match last year’s performance. Those of us who depend on a reliable postal system face having to do so with a huge extra burden to deal with. For many (like us), the dangers are of wasted opportunities, which is bad enough. For some, it could make the difference between survival and failure. Please don’t take the impression that we (Robinsons) are fighting for survival – As we expect to illustrate quite soon, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Are we concerned that our business could be severely affected by this action? Of course we are. Any other company who depends on mail order (including all the website operators) would be lying if they said anything else. Okay, that’s it. Rant over. Even though this is our blog and in theory we could rant about anything on here, I promise you I’d rather not do that, normally. After all, I would like you to want to come back here occasionally and that’s unlikely to happen if we fill the blog with industry moans when all you really want from us is to know that our range is wide, our prices are reasonable and our service is reliable. I hope you appreciate that these are rather unusual circumstances and it is important to me and to us all here at Robinsons that you do not lose confidence in the service we can provide to you. What use is a mail order service, however good it may be, if it lacks the credibility to inspire your confidence? We never take your confidence for granted and we do all we can to retain it. Unfortunately, we realise that this time, the actions of others may affect that and all we can do is promise you the same level of service you expected from us before. Thanks for reading! Paul.

*If you watched the BBC’s lunchtime 1 o’clock News on October 8th, you will have seen me, just for a second, in shot behind Hugh Pym while he was reporting on the strike story from Earl’s Court. Not that impressive, I know, but true all the same…

Archive: The Perils of Success

First published on 23rd April 2008 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

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.

Ashton Reopening

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.

Archive: Basingstoke – Our Opening Gambit

First published on 13th March 2010 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

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.

Archive: Virtual Insanity*

First published on 4th March 2011 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

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!

Archive: All Change Online!

First published on 23rd March 2011 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

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.

2011 web mock 1

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.

2011 web mock 2

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’?

1980s Shop interior pic

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.

Archive: Our Leeds Store Will Open… …As Soon As We Announce It!

First published on 15th December 2014 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

Since we announced an intention to open our fifth store in Hunslet, Leeds, we’ve been inundated with questions about when it’ll open. I guess that’s not surprising but it’s still great to see how warmly we’re being welcomed by the local equestrian community.

While we’ve needed a few weeks to turn two bare, empty units into a stunning 15,000 sq ft store, we’re very keen not to disappoint all those who can’t wait to visit by making our opening any later than we absolutely have to. The fact that we’re in December has only added to the pressure with Christmas shopping plans understandably the reason behind many of the queries – although I can guarantee that it will be before Christmas!

What’s our ‘opening date’ going to be, then? The best answer I can give is this: “as soon as possible”. Not only is that the truth, it also handily removes the problem of having a given date known about well in advance.

Why is that a problem? Well, rewind to November 2003, the day that our Ashton store re-opened following a year of re-build after our 2002 fire. We rather inadvisably chose to make our opening date a Sunday, where trading hours are restricted to just six hours, and simply let it be known what date it would be a few weeks in advance. We didn’t spend any money advertising it and there was no such thing as Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking sites, back then. What happened that day involved thousands of people, an ambulance, a police helicopter and literally dozens of technical parking offences – and it all came about just from word of mouth.

I won’t go into it in depth because I’ve blogged about it before but it’s fair to say that that experience has made us very sensitive to what can happen when dealing with huge levels of expectation. Of course it’s lovely to be at the centre of it and we certainly appreciate the attention but it’s also necessary for us to be responsible and avoid problems and poor experiences, when we have already learned the lesson.

Today, social media is vital to our communications. Every day, we try our hardest to gain the most clicks and the greatest level of engagement we can. With things like store openings, I have to be honest: social media scares me a little. We’ve all heard the stories about what can happen when, for example, a teenager’s parents are spending a weekend away; the teenager in question arranges a bit if a party because, well, their parents aren’t there to stop them. Before you know it, the whole thing’s gone viral and the police are being called to remove eight hundred rioting revellers from a sleepy cul-de-sac.

Of course we’d like as many people as possible to visit our new Leeds store, when it opens – but I’d hate for any of them to regret being there. Here’s the deal, then: we won’t have an official ‘opening date’, we’ll just tell you when we’ve opened. If you follow us on Twitter or Like us on Facebook, that’s where we’ll announce it first. If you’re a recipient of our emails, I’m sure you’ll notice it appearing on the odd email too.

I promise there’ll be no celebrity cutting a ribbon (been there, done that – with Milton in 1997*) that you might feel aggrieved about missing out on, just a brand new shop with a fantastic new team of staff and a regular amount of other shoppers to make your visit as pleasant as possible. I know anticipation and novelty are great ways to build awareness and hype but it doesn’t last and it actually counts for very little if we then find it harder to tempt you back to our Leeds store in the future – when all the attention has moved to where (and when) the sixth Robinsons store will be opening… I hope this all sounds sensible to you.

Thanks,

Paul

* Milton?  Cutting a ribbon?  Here’s the proof (we used a carrot):

Milton ribbon cut

Archive: New Catalogue, New Thinking

First published on 25th March 2008 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

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.

Archive: The World of the Smaller Catalogues

First published on 7th February 2013 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

As HMV, Blockbusters, Jessops and many others have found recently, if something can be downloaded these days, there’s far less demand for the physical version of it. While we’ve certainly noticed that we don’t sell the same proportion of books and DVDs that we used to, thankfully, most of our range needs to be a physical item because riding and horse-owning are physical activities – although I’m sure that if anyone was able to perfect a way of downloading a way to a groomed horse or a mucked-out stable, they’d never have to worry about money again!

On the one hand, we’re thankful that we’re not in an industry that is so vulnerable to digital alternatives but on the other, it’s a mistake to think that we’re not in any way affected by the changes to the way that the public consumes information digitally. Take for instance the case of the humble catalogue. Like most companies that were working in ‘mail order’ before the World Wide Web was even a glint in Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, the catalogue still holds a special place in our hearts.

Catalogues gave us the opportunity to find new customers, to try new things – to become the business that we are today. We’re so proud of our roots and the progress we’ve made since then that any visitor to our admin offices today will find our staircase adorned by pictures of every main catalogue we’ve ever produced.

Catalogues on Stairway

On the other hand, catalogues are incredibly time-consuming to produce, eye-wateringly expensive to print and post, they’re always one mistaken detail or broken supplier promise away from making us look like liars or idiots for months on end – and many people would say they’re not particularly environmentally responsible.

As much as we’re proud of our catalogue heritage, only a misty-eyed nostalgic would claim that catalogues don’t have their difficulties. Certainly, there have been many times over the years when looming deadlines or unreliable technology have raised our stress levels and we’ve had to console ourselves with the thought that ‘if it was easy to do this, everyone would be doing it’.

In rather a sharp twist of irony, the arrival of the internet as a shopping medium has all but proved that old throwaway line. Distance selling online is now much easier (and cheaper) for small traders than paper and, guess what? these days, it often does seem like ‘everyone’ is now selling equestrian products online. The battleground for us to compete for your affections these days is, it seems, not in the letter-box any more but in the virtual world.

In the 29 years we’ve been producing brochures and catalogues, we’ve seen the number of other companies doing the same thing go from two or three in the 80s to perhaps twenty or so ten years ago and back to two or three again today. It’s even conceivable that there will be no other equestrian-specific paper catalogue worthy of the name by this time next year. We won’t know until then but the fact that it’s even possible is astounding enough.

This puts us in a tricky position. We know that when we launch a catalogue, sales go up sharply. Would all of these sales still happen if we suddenly stopped putting ink on paper? We’d rather not find out if that’s the case by just trying it, in case it proves to be a big mistake. There’s also the question of catalogue size to consider. It’s great to be able to produce over 200 pages of products and, in doing so, show off the breadth of our product range simply by inviting customers to ‘feel the width’ (which is something that websites still struggle to convey). This is all well and good but at 200+ pages, many of them will contain the same popular-yet-unchanging products that we’ve printed ten or twenty times or more. Should we really worry that you might think that we don’t sell ‘old favourites’ in products like haynets or water buckets or grooming kits if we don’t keep showing you that we do?

Last October, I decided to put a question to the thousands of people who Like our Facebook Page. I created a poll called “What Form Should the Robinsons Spring 2013 Catalogue take?” and gave a choice of three answers:

  • ‘The Same as Usual: A4, about 150 pages, a full selection of Spring stuff’
  • ‘Just new stuff and good ideas – I expect you to still offer everything else’
  • ‘You know what? I don’t even need a catalogue these days. I’d still order!’

FB Poll Screenshot

At the time that I write this, it has elicited 72 responses:

  • 32 people (44%) chose answer ‘a’: keep the status quo.
  • 35 (49%) went for ‘b’: a version with fewer pages and a smaller range in print
  • Just 5 (7%) plumped for ‘c’: the paperless option – no catalogue at all.

While I’d like to thank those 72 people for their help, we have to be a little careful here – it’s not what a market researcher would call ‘scientific’ but it’s interesting, all the same. It proves nothing but it does lend support to the theory that we could significantly cut down on the amount of paper we produce without adversely affecting our ability to tell you what great products we can offer you.

We know what proportion of our orders are placed via our website but we have to be a little careful not to presume that all those orders were only brought about by the website, not the catalogue. In short, we don’t want to take for granted that you will order from us even if we don’t send you a catalogue. Why should you? It’s our job to entice you to order and if we don’t do that bit properly, why should we expect you to order at all? To inform our view, we’ve looked at what’s happening with paper in other industries and other markets.

Catalogue companies like Joe Brown’s and M&M Sports have dabbled in smaller, thinner catalogues. We may not know what those exercises have proved to them but the fact they’re even doing it indicates that they’re at the same crossroads that we are. Where the old-fashioned ‘big books’ still exist, they appear more likely to come with a price, albeit a nominal price and I even heard a rumour (and it’s only that so don’t quote me) that Argos may be getting away from 1,000+ pages, in favour of developing their very impressive smartphone app further. If that does happen, it’ll surely be another nail in the coffin of the old-style ‘doorstep’ catalogue. So, against all this background – and more besides, we’ve decided to keep in step with innovation and produce a smaller, slimmer Spring/Summer catalogue (see below).

It’s probably only a matter of time before we decide to do the same with its bigger sibling, the Autumn/Winter catalogue. Some may suggest that we’re even seeing the beginning of the end of paper catalogues as a means of customer communication. I’m not sure about that; there were many similar predictions about the impending demise of paper around the time of the ill-fated ‘dot-com boom’ nearly fifteen years ago. Just like the famous old Mark Twain quote, it turned out that rumours of the catalogue’s death were ‘greatly exaggerated’, the lesson being that just because someone has said that something is on the way out, it doesn’t mean that they’re right. It’s a good thing to remember but at the same time, let’s not forget that nothing lasts forever. Mark Twain did eventually die, so you could say that those ‘exaggerated’ rumours, although inaccurate at the time, would come true sooner or later…

SS12 OFC
Thanks for reading, as ever!

Paul

Archive: For Those About To Complain – We Salute You

First published on 28th June 2011 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

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 indicating 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.

Archived: Welcome to the Rob-Blog

First published on 22nd January 2008 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

Joining the Blogosphere

One of our New Year’s resolutions for 2008 was to continue to present a more human face to Robinsons, and I hope you find that to be the case. One way to do this is for us to write a blog. If you’re new to the concept of blogs and blogging, I believe it comes from the words ‘web -log’ and it means a series of articles on a website to give a little more personal insight and information. Have a look on www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ to see how the BBC use blogs. I should also add that normally, Vicky Maylor our Customer Relations Manager would be heavily involved in this sort of thing. As it happens, Vicky is currently away on maternity, waiting for the birth of her first child. As many Americans put it, we’re “missing her already”!

Where Everybody Knows Your (Virtual) Name

So, with all that said, Happy New Year everyone! I hope that 2008 is a good year for you. My theme for this January edition of our blog is the growth of the online equestrian community, which is quite apt as by writing this blog, we have in some small part helped it grow a little further! When I left University in 1995, I was lucky enough to have been using email and browsing the web well before most people because at that time universities were at the forefront of the internet’s adoption. Back then, I could see how it could change the way the world would work but I had no idea whether these changes would be noticeable one year or two decades. Now, thirteen years later, the virtual communities the internet has created are hugely influential and can give an interesting insight into the thoughts of the people they represent. At this point, I’m going to confess to you that from time to time, I make a point of looking for comments about Robinsons on various forum sites because it is precisely this insight that we always need to have. How can any company claim to be in touch with its customers if it is not taking every opportunity to listen to them? Unfortunately, I know that it’s more likely that I’ll read posts where someone’s not happy with us than those where we get praised. I can accept that. As a customer myself, I’d be unlikely to heap praise on Tesco just because they had what I wanted but I know I’d be more likely to tell someone if they’d run out of bread. We all have expectations of the places we shop with and because we expect them to be met, it’s only worthy of note when they’re not. I never like to see evidence of customers being unhappy with us, but I have to remind myself that these instances are in the tiniest minority of cases. Now, I don’t mean that to sound as bad as it might appear at first glance. Of course I don’t mean to say that because such problems are rare, we can just ‘put up’ with them happening. What use is that to the customer that’s not happy? Of course we want to make everyone happy, if we can. Here though lies the curse associated with forum surfing. If I suspect from a forum that a customer isn’t happy with us, what can I do about it? I could post a reply and say “Hi, I’m from Robinsons, let us put this right” and as a commercial posting, it will probably be removed within the hour. Worse still, there is a chance that the customer concerned (and other posters) will take exception to my clumsy interruption and move to another forum. Sometimes, if there are enough details (dates, items, UK regions), we can work out who the customer is from our own records and approach them by email. More often than not, the customer has chosen not to complain to us directly and unfortunately cannot be found. I have to conclude that happy or not, that is the way they want it and we have to respect that. Only when someone says something untrue about us, almost to the point of being libellous will I ask the forum administrator for the right to reply. The reason I’m telling you this is not to frighten posters away from websites, but to encourage anyone who is unhappy with anything we’ve done just to tell us about it – even if you do still want to tell other forumers. I promise you that each of our employees is a human being who wants to make sure that you’re pleased with the service they give and is rightly proud every time they’re able to do so.

Recent Events in Amersham

My thoughts turned again to the online equestrian community recently, following the awful news about the neglected horses in Amersham, Bucks. Both of the main forums that I frequent were filled with outrage and sympathy, and understandably so. With the power of the web and Google Earth at my fingertips, I was soon able to find out the precise location of the establishment and cross check the address with our own records. For what it’s worth, I am relieved to say that the individual arrested in connection with the case does not appear on our customer database. As a footnote, I’d like to add our best wishes to the charities who assisted with the rescue effort. We will be contacting them with a donation to help them rehabilitate the dozens of horses, ponies and donkeys they have taken with them. We all hope they return to full health as quickly as possible. If you’re reading this, perhaps you too could spare a small donation to the charity of your choice. There is a special news page on our website giving further information about all of the charities involved. Thanks for reading. Look out for next month’s instalment! Paul.