Shopping for the Barn

Stocking your barn involves a variety of purchases, beginning Day 1 and continuing over the years. Besides the obvious furnishings of feeding and watering accessories, your interior can include such items as stall gates, saddle and bridle racks, and blanket hangers. Plus, you'll buy products for stall maintenance, grooming, and insect control.

As an "equinomicist," you're a smart consumer. In your search for quality and value, you'll weigh the benefits of two venues of retailers--local shop or mail order. Each choice offers advantages.

Choose Your Convenience

Buying at the tack shop or feed store gives you the visual and tactile sensations of shopping. You have the opportunity to study the merchandise. You can feel the edges of a feeder, or pick up a manure rake. You can ask a sales clerk to explain the difference among several brands of fly repellents. And when you're considering a new utility cart, you can test-drive it in the shop and even in your own barn--before you write the check.

A shop provides immediate service. You need the product, the retailer offers it, and you purchase it.

But what about those catalogues that keep cluttering your mailbox?

You're probably on the mailing lists of those out-of-state suppliers who tempt you with seasonal sales and money-saving coupons. How do you compare the photos of their goods with what you see on the shelves at the feed store?

Millions of Americans choose to shop by mail, including thousands of horse people. With a phone call, fax, letter, or online form, you can order almost any item you'd need for your barn. A stack of catalogues or a connection to the World Wide Web gives you access to the stable equipment you crave.

Catalogue shopping can save travel time. You savor the pleasures of browsing through many choices, although you miss the up-close-and-personal examination of a product. Because distance separates you from the actual goods, you must evaluate possible purchases through photo-graphs and catalogue copy.

For stable gear, you can shop the specialty equine catalogues, or wade through the goods offered by livestock suppliers. Manage your browsing by "bookmarking" your finds. For example, say you're sampling vendors for a wall-mounted blanket rack. As you locate product choices in catalogues, place sticky notes to mark the pages.

Compare the models you find by size, description, and photo or drawing. (In other products, you'd also weigh selections by brand name and color.) Price might or might not be a factor, as you'll also consider the seller's reputation, response to your past requests, and geographic location.

Local saddleries often complain about the big mail order firms that woo consumers with attractive prices. You might save money ordering certain items, yet you should realize that your home town retailer often can offer comparable or even better deals on site.

Consumer Guidelines

To purchase wisely from home or in your home town, study the market. Know what models are available. Read the tack catalogues to acquaint yourself with goods in various categories, and ask your horse-
owning friends what gear they prefer.

No single store can stock every variation of every product, and your local retailers vary in the product lines they carry. A firm's lines depend on its specialty, which can reflect the owner's riding style. Ideally, a well-stocked business will offer a range of prices within each product type. This shows that the owner recognizes levels of horsemanship. A shop that offers only the most inexpensive lines can reflect that the firm caters to popular demand.

Your local retailer also should aim to serve the surrounding equestrian community with goods tailored to sales trends. If you live in a neighborhood of ropers, you expect the shop to stock Western saddle racks rather than brass-plated models sized for jumping

Compare models for materials, construction, fit, and style. Brand names might or might not indicate quality products, as materials and construction vary even within brands. A large retail firm might label goods with its own name--the store's personnel should know which national firm distributes certain items.

Often an item comparable to a famous-name one will prove a better buy, when you compare its materials and craftsmanship. Don't let the concept of expert endorsement convince you to buy a certain model, or a product you don't even need.

Learn the buzzwords among materials for stable gear. In certain products, you might have to weigh metals against plastics, so know the differences between steel and aluminum, and vinyl and polypropylene.

You'll encounter a range of synthetic materials. For example, blankets can be acrylic, nylon, or polyester. Fleece is often acrylic fleece rather than genuine wool from sheep. A haynet can be of cotton rope or nylon cord.

Wherever you shop, evaluate your retailer's commitment to customer service. To remain in business, a local shop must please its customers by answering questions about every product, offering advice, and displaying a well-stocked inventory. The store's employees should know the products they stock and respond to your needs by pointing out features of comparable items.

Over the phone, you can ascertain the service attitude of an out-of-town supplier. In a brief conversation, you can tell if the representative wants to do business with you.

Say you're shopping for a replacement halter, and your horse has a small head. You suspect he's an in-between size--too large for "cob," but not quite full-size. When you examine halters at a shop, you might bring one that fits and compare its size to prospective purchases. Over the phone, you'd ask the salesperson for measurements of particular models you've chosen from the catalogue. A helpful representative will take the time to answer your inquiries and assist you in making the right purchase.

Whether you buy locally or through mail order, you'll get an idea of the retailer's attitude. You should sense whether the firm primarily is interested in quick sales, or in providing service to develop long-term customers.

Price usually reflects quality. When you pay less, you get less. For example, feel different leather halters at the tack shop. A smooth edge and pliable quality mean a higher price than straps that feel rough and wrinkle when you bend the leather. The quality (costlier) model should feature solid brass buckles.

Compare the actual cost of purchases. You might examine clippers locally, then discover a lower price in a catalogue. Add the sales tax you'd pay, then add the shipping cost to the catalogue's price. If you have to pay by the pound, those charges can make a big difference.

Maybe you'd pay a few dollars more at the shop, but you'd have the appliance immediately and receive assistance in its use, along with service after the sale. If a problem arises, you simply return to the shop. That initial convenience of mail order can rebound if you need to return an unsatisfactory purchase. You'll have to pay shipping costs to return the item to the retailer for exchange or credit, and you might not get reimbursed for this extra bother.

With a local business, you know its success by its continued presence. An out-of-town firm might have a less-desirable reputation. Deal with the major names, and try out a first-timer with a smaller order.

Buy by credit card, and check the delivery options. Most sellers rely on United Parcel Service, and they usually offer Federal Express for overnight service.

Maximize your purchasing power by planning ahead. If you drive a distance to a shop, carry a list of all supplies you're seeking. A list will help you gather everything in one trip, without forgetting an important item.

For mail order, save money by calculating the shipping costs. Most vendors include a scale of costs on the order form, and you can order a number of items within a certain fee. Total your prospective purchases, and see how many items you can buy without moving up to the next highest cost. Mail order equine catalogues usually charge an average $6.00 fee for a $50 order. Most sellers offer overnight delivery, at an inflated rate. Avoid paying these high prices by planning ahead.

With mail order, you'll benefit by phoning your order. You can verify that prices haven't fluctuated and that each item is in stock for immediate shipping. If the seller puts you on back order because he or she has to receive a product from the distributor, you'll have to wait even longer until it shows up on your doorstep. Some items will never be available, although the seller continues to include them in catalogues!

Should you feel guilty about patronizing mail order firms, rather than supporting local merchants? At either site, your business does support jobs for sales people, order clerks, accountants, and business owners. Think about your buying style. If you tallied your horse-keeping budget over a year, you probably discover that most of your money goes to local sellers, especially the shop that's a 10-minute drive from the barn. Armchair shopping can be deceiving, because you rack up "aggravation time." You can spend hours researching, calling vendors, waiting for assistance, and then finding out the item's on back order!

Compare goods and prices with the competition, especially when you're considering a firm that claims it offers discount pricing. Realize that in the long run, service after the sale can be more important than a lower initial price.

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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