A Chat With May’s Profile, Suzanne Vlietstra, president of Hobby Horse Clothing Co.
CS: What’s the average SKU count in your catalog?
SV: About 1,200.
CS: Overall SKUs?
SV: It’s probably about 1,500 or 1,600. There’s a few other styles. There’s some stuff we stick online that’s not always in the print catalog. But our print catalogs are kind of weird. It’s kind of “magalogy.” And so is our Web site. We’re real interactive with our customers. This is such a specialty niche. There’s a lot of newcomers in it that are a little overwhelmed with, “What do they need?” “How do they get it?” “What color do they wear?” They’re very excited about this. It’s very important to them. Like I said, it’s their passion. And yet a lot of them just don’t know really what to do. So we really try and hold their hand and help them.
Therefore in the catalog it’s quite “magalogy.” Every spread in the catalog has a sidebar that talks about some aspect of what they’re going to need to compete and be successful competitors utilizing our products or our product categories. I always say, “I don’t really care if they buy it from us, as long as they feel confident in their purchase.” Eventually they’ll buy something from us. And we’ll create a good impression by helping these people succeed in their sport.
CS: What’s the current number of employees at the company?
CS: What are your annual sales?
SV: Two million-plus. Depending on what we’re doing, it’s two to three million.
CS: How did you break into the catalog business?
SV: When I was working at home in junior high and high school we moved towards doing more apparel. I started as a custom business, where I was sort of a studio and the customers would come in and meet with me, like a designer. And I’d measure every little part of them and design some stuff. And I worked with a wonderful gentleman who’s a tailor. He and I would draft patterns for each and every person. Every outfit was custom — sort of like having a wedding dress made. Every one was one-of-a-kind custom. I call that my apprenticeship. I learned a lot. But I also learned I was never going to make any money. It was very customer service intensive.
So after a while, and after people from outside the area wanted our products but couldn’t get personally measured, I looked around and I saw very few naked people. Then I figured out it must be possible to standardize clothing. And if it works for mainstream apparel, why wouldn’t it work for this specialty niche that we were involved in — Western show apparel. So we averaged a lot of the custom patterns and came up with certain categories of fit that seemed to be the more common ones. Of course this was long before we had Excel to do it for us, so there’s lots of paper and pencils. And we came up with a kind of standardized, graded set of patterns, base patterns, we call them blocks, that seem to work for our clientèle. And our clientèle was younger then of course. Our clientèle has been aging with us. It used to be like 20 to 40 [years of age] would be our age group, or 15 to 35, but we’re all getting older. So we came up with these kind of standardized groupings and I started to figure out, “Well, maybe I can do something that isn’t custom. Maybe we can be more things to more people.”
That’s when my concept of “Ready-to-Win, instead of Ready-to-Wear, Show Apparel” was born. So I started doing that, started wholesaling a little bit. And we still wholesale and retail. Some stores contacted me and I thought, “I really have to have a catalog.” So the first catalog I did was actually buying full-page ads in a horse magazine and binding the catalog into the horse magazine. So it got mailed to their readership. That was my first accidental stumble into cataloging.