Dozens of tack shops around the country have been forced to close, with many citing internet competition and soaring running costs as their downfall.

Ian McNeils Horse Supplies, which still sells horse lorries in Melstead, Hants, closed its tack shop last year.

“We can earn more from renting the building than we could from running the shop,” a company spokesman told H&H.

It is not just small firms that are feeling the pinch. Derby House closed its flagship Lancashire store last year and went into administration, before being bought out in November (news, 16 January).

Traditional saddler and equestrian outfitter Calcutt and Sons of Sutton Scotney, Hants, has been trading for 60 years. It told H&H that, although support from the hunting community remains strong, it is struggling to entice a younger generation of customers. This resulted in a 30% decrease in turnover over the past few years.

“It probably started seven or eight years ago and every year it has got worse,” said managing director Ian Compton.

“We just don’t see the younger generation and I don’t really think that we can get them back. They are attuned to the internet; they don’t really go shopping.”

Look in store by online
Even once customers have been enticed inside a shop, there is no longer a guarantee that they will buy.

A common practice to which numerous H&H readers have admitted is trying items on in store, then buying them for less online.

“When I was looking for a new riding hat, I did try a few on in a shop, but found the same hat online for £20 less, so bought from the web,” said Rachel Buckle.

Other customers try to use the cheaper online price to push bricks and mortar retailers’ prices down in store.

“I will almost always try on in store if it’s something like boots or a hat,” said Dawn Trevor. “I then ask them to match an online price, or throw in something else at a reduced price as an incentive.”

Selling from your bedroom
So how are some websites able to offer rock-bottom prices?

A Gatehouse HSI skull cap is sold in tack shops for around £145, but H&H found the same hat being sold for as a little as £96.05 online.

It’s all down to overheads. Sole online retailers do not have to pay for the rent, heating and electricity costs that come with running a store and therefore can afford to sell products cheaper.

However, there are complaints from within the industry that traders who are not holding stock are exacerbating the situation.

These so-called “bedroom traders” — often individuals working from their own homes — only place orders with a wholesaler once a customer has paid for an item. This process means that, with virtually no overheads, they are able to offer bottom-line prices that most stores cannot match.

“I think the explosion in micro online sites, all attempting to be cheaper than the others, in some respects is to blame,” said Paul Bentham, sales and marketing director of Robinsons Equestrian.

“I can sympathise with small independent retailers. Every year it is becoming more and more difficult.”

Another independent retailer complained: “You will find products online cheaper then what you can buy them in for.

“The big brands aren’t keeping tabs on what’s going on and how cheaply their products are being sold from wholesalers.”

It’s not all doom and gloom
Some independent retailers are finding a path for success in this climate. Knowledgeable staff, an online presence and a well-stocked shop seem to hold the key to success.

“I much prefer to go to a shop where I can ask for advice and actually see what I am purchasing,” said H&H reader Rosie Walsh.

“The key to a good tack shop is stock and variety,” added Aurelia Stephenson.

Kirstie Johnston recently opened Forelock & Load with her brother — an equestrian and shooting shop — on the family farm between Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket in Suffolk.

“I think now you have to go the extra mile to be able to stay afloat,” Ms Johnston told H&H. “We want to provide a knowledgeable base and a place to exchange advice so that it’s more than a shop.”

Ms Johnston is hosting a “Dressed to thrill” field fashion show next month (28 February) to promote the store.

At the other end of the scale, Countrywide Farmers launched a new equestrian catalogue in September, containing more than 7,000 products. The brand aims to offer “more choice than ever before” with four shopping options — in store, by phone, online at home or online in store using new kiosks with touch screen computers.

Robinsons has opened another three stores in the past five years, as well as developing its internet platform.

“Retailers can get caught into this very common trap where we think of equestrian people as different from the rest of the human race and they are not,” said Robinsons’ Paul Bentham.

“They are used to being approached via multiple channels and they expect the same thing in our industry.”

This story was originally published in 23 January 2014 issue of Horse & Hound magazine