I'm at the AETA International Trade Show at the Philadelphia Expo Center, or what I refer to as the "big metal box." Picture an enormous indoor ring but instead of footing, the floors are cement and covered with various sizes of mis-matched carpeting. I often wonder how horse people, who are outdoor people, can sit inside a windowless building for three days. It's a necessary evil as this show is one of the key ways to make connections with tack stores. It's different from selling at a horse show or event such as the Rolex Kentucky 3 Day. At a horse show I'm usually talking about not just the workmanship of the bridles but also sizing individual horses as well as chatting with the customer about their horse. Sometimes I'm estimating a fit based on a photo on someone's smartphone but the end goal is to provide tack the will put a smile on the customer's face when they see it on their horse. I usually have a few people come by to say they're fans on facebook or follow Five Star on Twitter or else it's to say thanks for supporting off track thoroughbred charities. I enjoy making these connections with customers and it's great when a past customer comes by to say how happy they are with their tack. It's this direct connection that makes my job fun and not seem like work.
Selling Five Star to tack stores can be a challenge. With many stores limited in their buying capacity it's about creating excitement about the brand and building relationships with other small business owners. Sometimes it's about getting them to think outside the box and try something new. I hear from retail customers that they want something different but it can be difficult to convince a store who may already be carrying a lot of inventory with limited shelf space, to take a risk with a new brand. We all want to buy and sell what is going to be a sure thing but there are no guarantees in life and when money is tight we tend to stick with what we know even if it's not the best thing to do.
While I am a manufacturer I share many of the same challenges these small tack businesses face. It is always disheartening to hear that one of your dealers is going out of business especially one that was a good customer. It is difficult for these stores to compete with the big box store that moves into town as well as the large online stores. What happens when there are no more local tack stores? Will it be like the airline industry with a few key players killing the competition so they can dictate the market and raise prices?
Here at AETA, the largest english riding trade show in the country, the talk has been about the number of stores that have closed, partially because of the economy but also because they couldn't compete against the big online stores. The summer trade show is always quieter than the winter show but when there is no crowd of buyers and you see more exhibitor badges than buyer badges that is worrisome. The odd thing is, the number of tack stores is decreasing but the number of manufacturers is increasing. Custom boots, performance show shirts, tack; they offer the promise of new choices for the retail customer but how will these new companies fare when there are fewer stores to buy their products?
The view from inside
While having more product choice is a good thing, we are all competing for dwindling resources. The number of leather goods manufacturers (tack included), has exploded and the process of sourcing quality leather is getting increasingly difficult and more expensive. It's a balancing act between keeping a hold on costs while not sacrificing the integrity of the product and keeping the price attractive to entice stores to order. It's nice to see the number of new smaller manufacturers here at the trade show because they have some exciting new products, but I wonder what the future is going to bring? Are we going to be like those small tack stores having to compete against the big players? When we're all competing for the same resources who is going to be the one to get first dibs and the best choice? In the end will our fate be similar to that of the many smaller tack shops forced to close because they couldn't compete? Will the market be dominated by a few big manufacturers? What will that do to the number of choices and quality?
So the next time you shop for yourself or your horse think about who you are supporting with your purchase. We all depend on you and we appreciate your business!