Hard work, market research and offering a personal service are key to success in running your own tack shop, says Jean Waterworth, proprietor of Iron Horse Equestrian Supplies, Moss, near Doncaster.
Jean set up her business five years ago and earlier this year won the ‘Small Retailer of the Year’ category in the British Equestrian Trade Association’s awards.
“Winning the award was a big surprise to us as the competition is extremely tough,” says Jean. “It’s very rewarding to have our efforts recognised.”
After being made redundant at the age of 55, Jean was initially quite happy to take life easy and explored various hobbies before boredom set in.
“I decided to look for a part-time job, but my husband, Roy, suggested we do something with the redundant barn next to the house.
“I was less than enthusiastic at first, as the only thing around about us was horses. Then the idea for a tack shop was suggested. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a good idea, so I started to do some market research.”
Jean’s working life had been spent in fashion retail and she is adamant business acumen and merchandising experience are equally important - even more so than equestrian knowledge.
“My daughter Vanessa had always ridden. As a family we had been involved, but I was by no means an expert, but I did know how a shop should be run.
“I spent 12 months researching the equine industry and visiting hundreds of tack shops. I was quite surprised by what I saw - so many of them were so badly set out and the stock was not well presented, so I knew I could do better.
“I also had to source suppliers, which was not as easy as I expected. Before they would agree to deal with us, I had to convince them it was a serious business and we knew what we were doing.”
Meanwhile, Roy, a builder by trade, set about renovating the barn and turning it into a retail outlet. Help was also sought from Business Link.
“We didn’t get a lot of money from them, but they were extremely helpful in terms of support and advice,” says Jean.
“Choosing a name was a problem. We didn’t just want to name it after the farm - we wanted something which people would remember.
Eventually, we came up with Iron Horse and bought a huge statue, which we put above the door, hoping this would become a talking point and a reason for people to remember us.”
With such a huge array of equestrian products on the market, knowing what to stock was always going to be a challenge.
“We decided how much money we had to spend, broke it down into sections and spent so much on each one, before expanding it over time.
“We learnt as we went along - if someone asked for something we hadn’t got, I would get it in for them and order one for the shop as well.
“You do need a big range - if people come in and there isn’t much to see, they won’t come back. You have to cater for everyone from the happy hackers to those who want a better quality product. I don’t have any more money in my bank than I did five years ago, but we have a lot more stock in the shop.”
Feed, including hay, shavings and various beddings are sold from a separate building, and with business partner, Charles Jordan, Roy started producing their own dust-extracted,chopped straw product, Easy Lay, last year.
“The feed market is particularly competitive, with not a great mark-up,” says Jean. “We started out with a few core lines, and order products in at customer’s request. There is a vast range of feeds, and some of them have a very short sell-by date, so you do have to be careful not to get caught out.
“We also offer a delivery service, which is more often than not the same day, and I think people do appreciate that.”
“Likewise, the range of clothing available is huge, but I don’t order too much of one product and would rather sell out than have old stock left.
“Inevitably there are always some items which have to be sold off at a reduced price, so it is not all profit.”
From day one the shop was busy, despite very little initial advertising. “I think trade has grown mainly by word of mouth. We have developed a good local following, but people do come from a long way away,” says Jean.
The shop opens seven days a week and has a late night, but living on site can be a mixed blessing. “It’s good because there is no travelling involved and we can fit it around other things, but it also means there is no escape. If I want a day off I have to go out.”
It soon became apparent the business was getting too busy for Jean and Roy to run alone.
Vanessa had long since left home and given up horses to concentrate on her career, but three years ago she took the decision to return and join the business.
“It has worked out well,” says Jean. “Even though Vanessa now earns less being at home, it has enabled her to start riding and competing again, which she is really enjoying, and her lifestyle has improved.
“She has brought another dimension to the business in that she can offer more technical advice in the shop.”
Since then the family has also been joined by full-time employee Jo Hopgood and part-timer, Marilyn Bell. Jo deals with the administration and has set up a website and online shopping facility.
“There are many aspects to running the business, it’s not just a case of being in the shop selling, but everyone has their own area of expertise and it all fits together like a jigsaw,” says Jean.
The growing trend in internet shopping does not seem to have greatly affected business.
“I am sure there are people who come into the shop to look at products and then go away and order them on the internet at a cheaper price, but there is nothing we can do about that.
“We don’t seem to have been greatly affected by the recession, although I do think that could still get worse. I have, however, noticed a switch in shopping patterns. People are not buying new horses, so they are not coming in to get them kitted out, but they are still spending on the ones they have.
“What we can offer is the best possible personal service and I am sure that is why we have developed such a loyal customer base and why they voted for us to win the award.”