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: 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