A Chat With May’s Profile, Suzanne Vlietstra, president of Hobby Horse Clothing Co.
CS: How many times a year is the catalog mailed?
SV: Once. We’re missing so many obvious things we should be doing in the catalog business, and yet it has worked for us. But I think there’s a time on the table to pick up with a partner or an advisor who can show us what we need to be doing.
CS: What time do you generally drop the book?
SV: Early spring is our best time, but we still don’t have our book out [at press time] because we had to stop and make 30 new styles of garments, photograph them, fill them up and now the catalog will come out pretty quick. This hasn’t happened before, by the way. This had to do with the limited editions. Which is due to changes in the marketplace and changes in our material availability going to this limited edition program. It’s more profitable, but it’s almost like having to invent a new business.
CS: When will the catalog be mailed this year?
SV: End of April. And it should’ve been the beginning of March. That’s like a giant fumble for somebody who’s been cataloging a long time, and yet I didn’t anticipate it and our product makes it change so much. I figured it was better to send out a catalog with products that exist than black holes in it.
We’re not mailing millions of catalogs. We’re not analyzing one-tenth of 1 percent response. I think a lot of small catalogs, that have food stuff, the creative products that changes often, you find yourself reinventing yourself all the time. After all these years in business, I’m having to seriously reinvent myself this year. And I didn’t anticipate that.
CS: What are the factors that have made Hobby Horse successful?
SV: I really know the market, because I am my own customer. And for whatever reason, there’s never been much serious competition to us. We pretty much occupy this niche by ourselves. There’s a lot of women who have custom shops, and the Internet has really allowed them to proliferate. Like the lady you hire to make a prom dress kind of lady. They tend to be a lot more expensive than we are. And then there’s a lot of nasty, made in Sri Lanka Western wear. And there we are in the middle.
We do three things really, really well: style, value and convenience. It’s fairly obvious to me, but nobody else has mounted a significant challenge to that. Our universe of customers is maybe a million people around the world let’s say. Nobody really knows, but we’ll call it a million people. And they either buy the schlocky Western wear, which isn’t appropriate except for beginner level, or they go to custom, that can cost three, four, five times what ours does. Or they always sit in the middle with this really “nichey” marketshare.
We’ve had a great run. We do what we do really quite well and people like us for it. We allow a lot of people of moderate means to dress and play their sport on a reasonable budget. For example, almost all of the garments that we sell, blouses is our biggest category now, we don’t have any blouses that retail for more than $200. And on the custom ladies, there are people paying well over a $1,000 for a blouse to ride around in circles in a horse show. And then there’s a lot of people thinking that they can buy a $29 cotton shirt from Myanmar. So there we sit in the middle. To me it’s a really obvious niche, but nobody else has really challenged us in it. And the stuff that we make is well made, it’s appropriate for the sport, the styling is current. You can call us and generally, let’s say you had a daughter that wanted to show a horse and she has to show this weekend and it’s Tuesday, you can call me and the girls on our customer service lines are horse people and very experienced, they’ll talk you through it and the measurements. You can have a box of stuff on your doorstep tomorrow. And if it doesn’t work send it back.