On a recent Friday in New Plymouth, Idaho, Flying V Saddlery owner Jerry Vincent is found not in his colorful retail shop but instead in a back room where he is skillfully working a small strip of leather that will become bridle reins.
“We have to do a super-good job,” said Vincent, 75, as he meticulously worked the leather. “We have to take care of our customers.”
Thirty miles the southeast, near Star, Idaho, Rick and Kristie Bean welcome a handful of customers — including hobbyists and a couple of horse-industry professionals — to the larger of their two shops. No one walks out with a big-ticket purchase, but almost everyone talks about current needs and future wants.
Rick Bean, 57, then goes back to work on a saddle, as he has done for 40 years.
“My love is not just to be a saddle-maker,” Rick Bean said. “I kind of evolved into a leather artist because I have built high-end saddles.”
Bean, Vincent and other western saddle-and-tack providers occupy a unique niche in the retail world, selling hand-made saddles and tack to horse owners in the face of growing online competition. At the same time, they are coping with a shrinking number of recreational and working horses and the lingering impact of the multi-year recession that reverberated through the economy.
“We get some walk-in trade, but not a lot,” said Greg Gomersall, 55, another saddle-maker in the New Plymouth area. “I’m sort of a hermit, so maybe that’s a good thing.”
Separately, he and Bean joke about their lack of technology savvy. Yet Bean is launching a new website. And Greg Gomersall Saddlery now derives about 15 percent of its revenue from customers who first find the business on Facebook, the owner said.
In a retail world gobbled up by online websites such as Amazon, saddle, individually owned tack and Western soft goods and accessories remain across the region because they are largely “touch” industries.
“Consumers still like to have the opportunity to touch and feel products, and have a relationship with retailers that is outside the digital world,” said National Retail Federation spokeswoman Ana Serafin Smith. Many e-commerce brands are making plans to open stores — Amazon has stores in 21 states. At the same time, many store-focused retailers are investing in their online presence “to make sure they are engaging with consumers during this technology revolution.”
Bean spreads out in his home-based workshop for big projects and to custom-make saddles — which can take more than 1,000 hours to build and can cost $20,000 to $45,000, he said.
He also does many smaller repairs to saddles and tack in his main retail store, mainly to stay in front of customers as much as possible. Including tack, Western clothing, jewelry and accessories, RC Bean Saddlery clients “range from kids all the way to the deep-pocketed,” he said. The business also sells used saddles and tack in an adjacent building.
“It’s never been harder to be in the saddle-and-tack retail business,” Bean said. “In the saddle world it has gotten tougher because there is so much information on the internet. And I would say probably half is false or misleading, so people will come in here after reading it.
“People do choose a saddle on the internet by price and buy it,” he said. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
The half-dozen sales representatives calling on Bean’s business report they have fewer customers, as more mom-and-pop saddle shops close.
The industry benefits from a stronger economy and higher disposable incomes. But the impacts of the recession linger in the form of a reduced horse population. “A lot have sold their horses,” Vincent said. “Hay prices were high and a lot of people had lost their jobs.”
The U.S. population of privately owned horses stands at 7.2 million, down about 2 million, or 27 percent, from a decade ago, said Cliff Williamson, American Horse Council director of health and regulatory affairs.
However, annual spending on horses has increased over that period by $20 billion to $122 billion, reflecting higher costs and an improving economy.
Vincent said people who sold horses during the recession have been slow to get back into horse ownership, and many horse-related businesses haven’t been replaced.
“We are seeing a little bit of recovery,” he said. “A lot of people are going back to work in the oil fields. That has helped.”
Bean said his customer mix has changed. Mountain outfitters provided about one-third of his revenue in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, they have either switched to off-road vehicles or continued to use their original saddles and tack as fewer participants entered the outfitting industry.
Horse trainers remain a major source of business for Bean, as have hobbyists.
Gomersall said the half-dozen trade shows he attends each year don’t generate as much revenue as they used to, probably because people have more access to information online.
The bulk of his business remains working cowhands who order custom handmade gear.
“And I do notice people are not content to wait as much as they did 10 to 15 years ago,” Gomersall said.
As for product mix, Hamley Western Store in Pendleton, Ore., optimizes its inventory by paying attention to customers and niche opportunities.
Hamley management team members Todd Thorne and Penny French said the 10,000-square-foot store is doing well but is continuously challenged by big online retailers as well as larger brick-and-mortar competitors with strong buying power.
Carrying unique bronzes and “boutique” offerings, saddles and tack made by local crafters, and clothing and accessories that for the most part don’t compete head-to-head with larger players on price help the store succeed as a local-niche player that also appeals to visitors, they said.
Vincent has done something similar at Flying V Saddlery, recently working with an employee to design custom leather purses, to broaden the customer base in addition to adding a price point.
Thorne, a former bond trader, said internet retailing in the aggregate reduces profit spreads but also provides a high degree of up-to-the minute price transparency. This challenges smaller retailers such as Hamley — which builds saddles, tack and other handcrafted leather items in a dedicated shop and retails Western and ranch goods in a landmark store renovated in the mid-2000s — but also helps them make better decisions.
“We also have had to recognize we do have to be active with respect to internet marketing and social media as well,” Thorne said.
French said refurbishing and redecorating the store amounted to a “total reinvention” that created a pleasing sensory experience that draws customers. For example, the store has “vintage custom saddles created by the Hamley saddle-makers of the past. We are lucky to have them back in the collection,” she said.
In Star, Idaho, Bean is reflecting on the future.
“I used to have store employees so I could stay home and build saddles,” he said. “Now Kristie and I are in the store most often, and do have part-time help.”