Ollie Harvey heads off the beaten track to catch up with Ariat’s James Wilson
A quaint Oxfordshire village may not be the first place you look for a multi-national company. Yet in the shadows of Harwell’s St Matthews Church you will find the picturesque HQ of Ariat Europe.
“Ariat is a hidden gem,” explains James Wilson, Ariat’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “Nobody understands the scale of the business and how long it’s been around.”
Originally a US-based business founded in 1993, Ariat started adding innovative technology to equestrian boots. James adds: “Equestrian is incredibly important and at the heart of the brand, but if you look at the global business there are bigger parts to it.”
As the number one manufacturer of Western boots worldwide, Ariat are increasingly broadening their horizons and have been growing in the field sports market for several years.
“The same principles apply throughout, so its all about looking at the end users needs – the people who wear our boots need them to perform,” says James. “Whether they are a rancher in Texas or a Hunter in the UK, they are in their boots pretty much all day and they need to perform and be comfortable.”
With over 50 staff based in the Harwell HQ the challenge for James and his team is increasing awareness of the brand in new industries. “It is our biggest opportunity and our biggest challenge. It is only in the last couple of years that we are starting to see products coming to Europe with great success.
“The equestrian side is something that we know very well, and we think hunting is similar because we see a similar consumer and the demands of the products are the same.
“The consumer is really well educated about products – they know what they want from a product. They appreciate quality, and the idea of ‘buying something to last’ is the right way of doing things, rather than buying almost disposable products.
James continues: “Sales tends to be led by independent retailers, so there are benefits and challenges to that. The consumers have some cross-over as rural based consumers – whether they are shooters or riding horses they probably come from the same household. They have a close connection that we really like.
“Obviously the product needs are very different, but they have the same DNA and the same fundamentals – it has to be great quality; it has to be comfortable; it has to be durable; and keep the consumer warm, dry and in comfort all day.”
Several UK retailers have already noticed that Ariat boots lend themselves to serious country pursuits, but James remains focused on increasing visibility of the brand.
“It is very much a ‘word of mouth’ industry – so if you have a great experience with a product you tell your fellow shooters and then the network and awareness grows. We aren’t looking to open up to shooting shop in the land, we want ones who really want to partner with us.”
Ariat will look to support their retailers and have a dedicated trainer who works with businesses to ensure that they are up to speed on all of Ariat’s products, helping to inform customers of the right buying decisions. “We really invest in retailers by making sure the product stands out, making sure the store knows how it works and investing in stock.”
There will be increased investment in the marketing budget in the coming months, with James citing hunting specific titles as an important way of supporting retailers.
However he reminds us that the product itself is the best tool for attracting customers. “We aren’t coming in with a big sportswear budget and throwing millions at marketing campaigns – it is product first and then consumers build an affinity with the products and the brand,” he adds.
“Public backing is the most important thing and as I said this industry is very much ‘word of mouth’. We’re getting such great feedback on the products on social media.
“We had one post a few weeks ago where four people had been out stalking in Scotland, and the one in Ariat boots was the only one to come back with dry feet. One of his pals actually drove to one of our retailers and bought a pair on the way back!”
The European hunting market is very different to the US markets, so Ariat – through Product Director Mark Godwin and his team – work to make sure that products are fit for purpose and the environments they will be used in.
The latest boot was designed over the course of two years with the help of the NGO, and last year the Catalyst Defiant was shortlisted for the Great British Shooting Awards Apparel of the Year Award.
“The new rubber boot is actually six months late and we are delighted by that because we have been putting it through gamekeepers testing it and making sure that, when we do release it, its the best out there. Those guys drive things to destruction so it was the best possible test and from this feedback we can improve the product.
“We are understanding what a consumer wants and then applying what we know as our unique piece. It is what the end user wants mixed with Ariat’s performance benefits.”
Brand loyalties are firmly held within the shooting industry, however James believes that patience is key to successfully breaking into the market. “If you do things right then it will be successful,” he argues.
“With a traditional industry you do have to be patient – an overnight success can take five years or more before you really start to see it happening. We can already feel that we are starting to get some momentum now and the consumers talking about us, I think in the next coming season we will really start to take off.
“Within the hunting market we know we have quite a tight collection but there are also other opportunities. With the growth of womens shooting, we have got a fantastic range of country and hunting boots for women which is quite unique.
“There are no other brands out there that have got that level of quality and choice of styles. So as a retailer looking at it, this could be bringing in an incremental customer and growing their business in a different way.”
Ariat’s latest Autumn/Winter range includes the first of batch of hunting boots in female sizes following feedback from the Game Fair. However plans are already underway for 2021, as James explains: “Obviously we are very interested in what is selling in the stores today, so Spring/Summer 19 is in our mind. We have already sold Autumn/Winter 19 into the market and are about to launch Spring/Summer 20 collection.
“Mark and his team are working on the briefs for Spring/Summer 21 – there are so many seasons at play so the challenge for us is making sure we see trends early and react as fast as we possibly can.
“Sometimes we can go faster, if it’s already an existing product and it doesn’t need a ground-up development. If we see a product need we can react a little bit faster but the development process is long but that’s exciting. Because we are always looking at newness, freshness and bringing new technologies and innovation to products it keeps it very interesting.”
With the UK accounting for 55 per cent of the Ariat EMEA workload, the HQ covers all aspects of the business from sales, marketing, customer services, finance operations and products. Staff include native German, French and Dutch speakers to assist with the brands other priority markets in Germany and France.
The parent company in the US are supportive of the Ariat Europe strategy, which also covers the Middle East and Africa. “While it is a big territory we would rather work hard on the bigger markets before we expand and focus on some of the smaller ones – they will follow on,” explains James.
“We’re here for the long-term in this industry and are really excited about it. It’s a good time to get involved,” advises James. “Still, theres a huge amount of people who have never heard of us which is our biggest opportunity and certainly a good one.”