In 1867, James Robinson opened a small saddlery next to the North Western Railway Station in Wallgate, Wigan. While horses still provided much of the power of the industrial North West, leisure riding would be an activity only for the most privileged and affluent people for many years to come. This picture, from 1930 by noted Wigan artist Harry Walder shows the approach to the station. The black sign on the building on the left says ‘Robinsons Saddlery’ and you can clearly see harnesses hanging on the shop front. The owner of the horse and cart may be a customer or simply there to carry goods from a recently-arrived train. Either way, it serves to illustrate that working horses were a greater source of a saddler’s income than leisure riders in those days.
By the 1960’s, Robinsons was owned by Jim Robinson, the grandson of the man who had founded the company had been in saddlery all his working life. His saddlery had moved next door to a small, cheaply-built building overlooking the car park at Wigan North Western Station. In 1970, ‘Old Jimmy’ (who by all accounts was something of an old rogue) was looking to retire. With no fourth generation to pass the company to, Robinsons Saddlery was sold to Jim Bentham, a local riding instructor whose livelihood had been threatened by a broken leg.
In the 1970’s, thanks in part to the exploits of Harvey Smith and HRH Princess Anne, riding experienced a boom. With so many new participants in equestrianism, many leather products were becoming seen as old and dull. Advances like coloured synthetic items became embraced by Robinsons and our customers. Our pioneering of brighter, more reasonably priced, fashionable items enabled us to grow quickly. As our reputation grew, so the Robinsons Saddlery show stand could be seen at showgrounds all over the country from the smallest club show to the biggest at Badminton and Wembley. This picture was taken at ‘Arena North’, a major showjumping venue near Chorley, Lancashire around 1979.
By the early 1980’s, Robinsons had outgrown our old shop in Wallgate, Wigan. It was clear that the store did not match the potential of Robinsons. In 1982, an expansion of the company enabled Robinsons to move to its current store site at Warrington Road, Ashton-in-Makerfield, “Two furlongs from Haydock Racecourse”. The vast new showroom space allowed new products to be included, such as feeds, gifts and stable equipment. As the product range expanded and as saddlery became a smaller proportion of the products on offer, Robinsons Saddlery became Robinsons Country Leisure.
With a much larger store and a new philosophy of selling, the early years at the new store still included visits to showgrounds as far afield as Edinburgh, Anglesey and Peterborough, helping to spread our reputation far and wide. Increasingly, a number of customers wanted to deal with us more often than once or twice a year. At first, Mail Order started life as a series of one-off orders to a small group of satisfied customers. By 1985, these orders had escalated and Robinsons entered the world of home shopping with a series of small two colour leaflets, designed specifically for visitors to take home with them and use long after the show had finished. By 1987, our first full-size catalogue had been launched.
We quickly realised that if we were asking customers to embrace a different way of shopping, we needed to offer different, innovative products too. We soon developed a wide network of international contacts and were often the first to introduce new products and ideas to UK riders.
Of course, the thing with innovation is that not everything succeeds but without that approach, we wouldn’t have been responsible for introducing names like Wintec and Rambo to our customers. Similarly, no-one else was offering high-visibility or Christmas-themed products for horses and riders until we did.
By the early 90’s, the popularity of catalogue shopping had required us to move our Mail Order departments to a new site in Haydock and totally computerise our operation. As our buying power increased, we became able to provide our own products made to our own specifications. In 1995 at the inaugural Your Horse Awards, Robinsons won the category for ‘Best Mail Order Company’, an accolade which was repeated every year for the next eight years that it was awarded. In 1997, we were delighted to welcome Milton, the world’s most famous showjumper to open our redeveloped feedstore. By the late 90’s, we had outgrown our Haydock site. It was decided that it was once again time to seek a new home for our Mail Order operation.
In December 1998, we found the right property a few miles away in Rainford. Six months later, in June 1999, the company moved into its new headquarters, giving us the capacity to begin to develop our online activities. Since 1995, we’d had a variety of websites that simply displayed information but in 1998, we’d launched our first website that you could browse and buy from. By Spring 2001, it was the website that took our millionth mail order – another first in the UK equestrian industry!
2002 was to be another positive year in the development of Robinsons. A new logo was in use and both Mail Order and Retail sales were increasing healthily. Then, on September 19th, disaster struck. That evening, a fire utterly destroyed our store – which was still open at the time. Thankfully, all the staff and customers were safely evacuated but nothing could be done to save the building or its contents. Now, more than ever before, Robinsons had to rely on our Mail Order reputation. While we continued to sell feed at two sites in the area, it would take a year of rebuilding before our store returned to the Warrington Road site.
As a result of the fire, the construction and eventual reopening of our new 20,000 square foot Megastore took up much of our time in 2003. When the big day finally arrived, over 2,500 people came along to visit, making it one of our busiest ever days! The new Megastore at the same site is much larger, better designed and retains all the most popular aspects of the old store, like the Nosebag Café. We were keen to ensure that everything we had learned about retailing in the last 30 years was incorporated into the design of the new Superstore. In later years, we added the Rider Boutique and reintroduced a small feedstore to the site.
In Summer 2005, we finally outgrew our Rainford base and moved to a much larger warehouse in Bryn, with brand new admin facilities. We had already had a major website upgrade in 2004, which allowed us to keep pace with the huge growth in online ordering that was happening in every area of retailing. In addition to 70,000 square feet of warehouse space, this is where our Contact Centre and all our administrative departments are based.
In September 2008, we decided to expand our retail operation and opened our second store, at Cannock, Staffordshire. At 10,000 square feet, it was much smaller than our Ashton store and yet still one of the largest equestrian stores in the country. It quickly became a popular destination for midlands riders and gave us the experience we needed to continue to look for more stores, further afield from our North West heartland. After its first full year of trading, the Cannock Superstore was awarded the ‘Best Large Retail Store’ award at the British Equestrian Trade Association’s annual awards.
In March 2010, we opened our third store, another 20,000 square foot Megastore at Basingstoke, Hampshire. Complete with its own Nose Bag café and 2,000 square foot Bargain Zone upstairs, it has successfully introduced the concept of equestrian superstore shopping to a different part of the country. Customers can choose to conduct mail order returns at all our stores, removing the need to send back any items they wish to return.
In 2011, together with another update our website, we have recently added another store – and a different concept – to our list of shops. At 4,000 square feet, this smaller store at Pugh’s Garden Village at Radyr, near Cardiff allows us to evaluate the potential of a different kind of store, which could form the basis of more Robinsons stores in the future.
It is here that the future of Robinsons lies, building on the heritage of over 140 years of choice, service and innovation and making these principles available day and night to our customers everywhere. Just imagine what James Robinson, that Victorian saddler from Lancashire, would say if he knew that the company who bears his name is known and trusted by thousands of riders all over the world!