Horse Sport asked Isabelle Charron of Gourmet Animal in St. Jean sur Richelieu, QC, Tracey Dickson of Sandridge Saddlery in St. Lazare, QC, and Victoria Strongman, the long-time manager of Maple Hill’s Victoria Saddlery in Victoria, BC, a few questions about running their respective shops.

How long have you had your tack shop, and what inspired you to open it?

Isabelle: Twelve years. I opened the store because of my lifetime passion for horses.

Tracey: I’d always been a horse-crazy kid. My dad helped me get started and we’re now in our 33rd year of operation.

Victoria: The owners wanted to create a fun, local tack store; they opened about 17 years ago.

What is the greatest upside to having your shop? The greatest downside?

Isabelle: The upside is working with and serving horse lovers. The downside is the long hours.

Tracey: Having my own business has allowed me flexibility in my schedule. The retail business is pretty stressful, however; your responsibilities don’t end when the door closes.

Victoria: It’s fun to market and pick items we think our customers will love.

Is knowledge of business administration and accounting an asset?

Isabelle: I think it’s important to have somewhat of a business head to do everything at first. Once you grow, it may be possible to pass along these tasks to someone else.

Tracey: I have some accounting and business management training, and I still need advice from experts; it’s definitely an important thing to factor in.

Victoria: Extra knowledge is always an asset, but you learn a lot on the job about accounting, marketing, and how to run a small business.

What is a typical day like?

Everyone: There isn’t really a typical day!

Isabelle: I usually come in around 7:30, do paperwork and open the store at 9:00. During the day, other than serving customers, I place orders, do the accounting, and so on.

Do you have a mobile boutique that goes to horse shows or other events?

Everyone: No.

Tracey: I don’t think it’s worthwhile to “dabble” in mobile selling. You need to be properly equipped with a truck and trailer and have the stock and personnel to support both.

How important is social media to promote your business?

Isabelle: We mostly post on Facebook. I think word-of-mouth is still the best way to advertise.

Tracey: We use Facebook and have a website, and we also send out an email roughly once a month to highlight what’s on sale. Word-of-mouth is still useful, and recommendations from local trainers are very helpful.

Victoria: We stick to social media, plus website and word-of-mouth.

What percentage of your total sales do you do online?

Isabelle: Our online boutique isn’t ready yet. I’m trying to work on it, but it takes a lot of time and energy!

Tracey: Our website isn’t a fully automated “shopping cart” site, but I feel that if we speak to the customer prior to shipping things out, we can ensure the equipment will be the right size and exactly what’s needed.

Victoria: We probably do 10-15% online.

Has it become more difficult over the years to compete with the big chain tack shops?

Isabelle: Yes and no. What hurts us is the prices the big chain tack shops can offer. On the other hand, they don’t automatically offer the same personalized service that we smaller shops can offer.

Tracey: The larger threat is a combination of internet shopping and the Facebook black market, where riders and horse owners are buying and selling to each other. It’s frustrating to see people “in search of” items I have on my shelves!

Do you organize any special events to bring customers into the shop?

Isabelle: We organize conferences with our feed partner and other suppliers, and hold Open House days.

Tracey: We’ve run all kinds of horse care and tack-related seminars, holiday get-togethers, and various celebrations.

Victoria: We have two store-wide sales every year, as well as a Christmas event, Boxing Day, and this August we had a new summer event.

Have you had any memorable experiences, positive or negative?

Isabelle: We have great customers, but what comes to mind is a constant struggle trying to find good employees that will do the job and stay on more than a few days or months.

Tracey: We’ve had so many wonderful customers over the years. There are, of course, unpleasant experiences. We were almost robbed once; all of our stock had been removed and was piled in our backyard waiting to be whisked away!

What advice would you give someone who is thinking of opening a tack shop?

Isabelle: The best advice would be to be patient. Don’t bring too much inventory at first and see what your customers want.

Tracey: You need to be knowledgeable about horses and their equipment and be prepared to learn as much as possible in order to better serve your clientele. That’s the “service” component which makes retail a viable alternative to shopping online. Be sure to bring in and hold onto the best staff possible. Finally, you’ll want to be familiar and comfortable using social media, which has become an essential part of current marketing strategy.

Victoria: Take your time, pick your brands carefully, and take part in the community. And have fun!