Randy Lamontagne: Little box stores with big ideas
The following is an edited transcript of Luther Andal's interview with Randy Lamontagne, general manager of Cowtown, a retail chain aquired by Alltech.
Luther: Alltech is in the animal feed business, crop business, beverage business, and now, Western wear business. Yes, that’s right: When Alltech acquired Masterfeeds in Canada in 2016, a small retail chain called Cowtown was included. Here to tell us his story, and the Cowtown story, is general manager Randy Lamontagne. Welcome.
Randy: Thank you.
Luther: Tell us more about Cowtown.
Randy: I’d start by saying Cowtown is about a 20,000-square-foot retail store in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. We sell Western wear, tack, saddlery, animal health, feed supplies, and pet food and pet supplies.
Luther: That’s quite a bit of diversity there. What is the history?
Randy: In about 1994, a fellow named Ray Haykel built a feed mill in Regina and started tacking on an office. He decided as he was building the office — he was in construction — to expand it a little bit and put in a pet food retail store. Sometime during construction, which I suppose lasted maybe six months or so, he was down in Texas and ran into a big Western wear store. He called home and said, “You know what? Halt the construction. I want to build up a second level and put a Western wear store on top.” He was an entrepreneur with some big dreams, and he just kept dreaming bigger and building as he went. That’s how it started.
Luther: Some people may know Cowtown as a Western wear retailer. But, as you’ve pointed out, it didn’t start that way — it’s more diverse than that. Can you give us an idea of products and how they’re used?
Randy: I think the biggest thing that makes us successful is the diversity. We’ve got quite a lot of consumables, and when you consider the pet food and the feed for livestock — I use the term “consumables” because it’s something that people need on a frequent basis — and that helps drive Western wear sales. Consumables help drive sales of all the other products that we carry. You might see a typical Western wear customer once every two to three months, for example. But, if they’re buying pet food or feed from you, you can increase the repetition. You increase the frequency of visits to your store, and maybe you’re seeing that same customer two to three times per month instead of once every two to three months. By having that consumable, you also expose them to your clothing lines and some of your other soft-good lines on a more frequent basis. They’ll buy because they see something they like — not so much because they need it, but because they’re buying based on emotion. They may see something they like or see a staff member wearing something they like.
Luther: Tell us a little bit about your background — I know it’s an interesting story because of where you came from and how you came to be general manager at Cowtown.
Randy: It’s a very long story, and I won’t go through it all, but I grew up on a family farm in southeastern Saskatchewan. We had land spread out over two separate areas. We farmed grain, cattle, pigs, chickens and horses. We’re a mixed farming operation.
In the mid-`70s, we bought a service station in our small town — a community of 600 people — right between our two farm areas. We started operating that service station, and my dad decided that we could get more customer traffic if we built onto it. So, we built a grocery store, and then a sporting goods and guns and ammo store was added. Later, we added farm-ag belts and bearings. We just kept building and expanding with opportunities and needs.
So, I kind of grew up in retail. I also worked oil rigs after high school. At one point, I owned a bar and restaurant and a hotel. I’ve sold cars. I took an engineering class and got my power engineering tickets. Just when I was starting a new job in the power engineering career, I happen to meet Ray Haykel in an auto body shop and — like the old “The Godfather” quote, “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse” — he got me to manage his Western wear store. That was about 21 years ago. I started that, and I found my niche. I really found that what I enjoy is just dealing with people. I find this industry to be down-to-earth. I have a lot of fun with the customers, the staff, everybody. It’s been a great experience.
Luther: Let’s bring it back to Cowtown. What’s the breakdown of sales look like with all these different groups?
Randy: I would say about 35 percent of the business is on the pet side, about 30 percent is on the Western wear side and the rest is animal health and feed.
Luther: Do you tailor the products that you offer in each store based on the location and the community that they’re serving?
Randy: Absolutely. You have to get to know your customer and get to know the area you’re in. Any time we start a new store in a new area, we do a little homework, a little research. But then you’re constantly changing and you’re constantly evolving. Your customer, to a certain degree, dictates that. I always ask our staff to keep a notepad by the till. If a customer asks you for something — whether you have it or not is immaterial at that time — write it down. Offer the service or advice. If you don’t have the product that they’re looking for, recommend another option, even if it’s for a competitor. Recommend where they can get it, because you’re still helping that customer. You’re still providing them a service, even if it’s just an answer for where they can get it and even if it’s not from you at the time.
As you make those customer notes on a daily basis, you’ll start to see trends. I’ll pull those notepads from the till every once in a while and check through them myself. When I start seeing the same thing written down two to three times, I think, okay, here’s an opportunity — here’s something our customers are asking for.
Luther: It sounds like customer service is a big aspect of Cowtown.
Randy: Absolutely. You know what? It’s almost cliché: Everybody says, “Customer service. The customer is number one. The customer is first.” But unless you really believe it and are passionate about it, it’s meaningless. You really have to focus on it. I think in these days, with competition being so fierce for everyone’s hard-earned dollar, shopping to me is almost a form of entertainment.
There are two types of shoppers: There’s the guy that needs something. He knows exactly what he needs. He just wants to get in your store, get his product and get out with no hassle. For the other type of customer, shopping becomes a form of entertainment. They’re looking around, and they’re taking their time. That’s not me. I’m not that guy. I’m more the guy who wants to get in and out and get what I want. But you have to provide an experience for customers.
I’ve always said if you can put a smile on somebody’s face, they’ll remember you. If you can accomplish that, then you get that customer talking about you — talking to his friends and neighbors and recommending you.
Luther: It’s becoming increasingly difficult for small businesses to compete against big-box stores. You’ve highlighted the customer service and entertainment aspects. Are those key strategies in competing against the big-box stores? How does Cowtown do it?
Randy: In a sense, they are key strategies. You use the term “big-box,” and I like to think outside that box — get outside the box and do things that are creative. I use the term “shock and awe.” I like to look for things that create a little shock and awe. There’s an area in the brain called Broca’s area. It’s about the size of your thumbnail, and it’s kind of the gatekeeper to what makes sense to you or what you’re going to pay attention to or listen to.
I use radio ads heavily. That’s 90 percent of my advertising campaign. It’s intrusive if it’s done right. If you have creative ads that are catchy, and there’s something about the ad that makes you pay attention, that’s shocking the Broca. You can use that in radio ads. You can use that in displays. You can use that all kinds of ways.
For example, a customer asked me one day if I could deliver some product to him. He had bought some Hi-Hog gates — panels for a horse penning he was making. I said, “Sure, I can deliver them. Where do you live?”
He said, “Well, if you’re in west Regina and driving down Highway 11, once you see Exit C, turn right and pull into my lane.” I wasn’t sure where Exit C was. He said, “You live out that way, don’t you?” I did — I lived in Regina Beach at that time. He said, “Well, you’re passing Exit C twice a day, then. There’s a sign: Exit C.”
I drove by that sign every day for probably seven or eight years and never realized there was an Exit C. There’s also an Exit A and an Exit B, but I never paid any attention because I really didn’t care. I had no interest in that. But if I’d seen a deer out in the field, I would take notice of that, and I could tell you where I had seen that deer two days later. That’s shocking the Broca. That deer was not supposed to be there. He’s not there every day.
Luther: In terms of bringing that home to maybe a Cowtown ad — I’m not going to ask you to sing a jingle or anything like that — how do you apply that to a Cowtown ad to make it stand out if it’s a radio ad, for instance?
Randy: The biggest thing is that our ad campaign is based on a long-term branding campaign, which is how I like to brand or advertise our products. We don’t advertise sale prices so much — the “our manager is going away” sale or the “Boxing Day” sale — all those phony sales, because that becomes background noise on your radio. It’s no different than the commercial on television when, while you’re watching something you’re interested in, a commercial comes on that doesn’t pique your interest. That’s usually the time you’re taking a washroom break or getting up to grab another beverage, and you just don’t pay attention to it. Radio is no different.
A commercial becomes background noise if it’s like everybody else’s. So, in our campaign, we actually use our mascot — our spokesperson. It’s a cow. It’s a male. I guess it’s a bull, but his name is actually Cow. He has his own personality, and then there’s a “straight-and-narrow man” that has his own personality. If you’re familiar with hockey in Canada, you know the Don Cherry and Ron MacLean duo, who has one guy who is “out there” and another guy who is more on the straight-and-narrow keeping him in check.
We just have fun with their commercials — we make people laugh and put a smile on their faces, but all the time you’re branding your business. I always use the example of, if I wanted to put a saddle on sale, I could put an ad in the newspaper and say my saddles are $100 off today. The only guy who is going to see that is the guy who’s actually in the market for a saddle that day. So, I can spend $1,000 on a newspaper ad to try and sell a saddle, but if I’m the customer and I’m flipping through the newspaper, I’ll only stop and look at that ad if I’m interested now. If I’m not interested in it today, I flip right over that page.
Radio is planting the seed on a consistent daily basis with their messages. Consistency is very important — you’re planting the seed for the future so that when that rancher wakes up one morning and decides today is the day to get a new saddle, he says, “I have to go to Cowtown.” That seed has been planted so many times that when he decides he needs a saddle, or a pair of boots, or a pair of jeans, whatever products that we sell, his first thought should be: I have to stop at Cowtown.
Luther: So, it sounds to me like what you’re saying with your ads is that you’re entertaining rather than informing.
Randy: Yes. Actually, both. I guess you’re informing by entertaining, if that makes sense.
Luther: What advice would you give to smaller businesses that are more localized retailers and they’re attempting to compete with the big-box stores out there?
Randy: To me, passion is the key. If you’re not passionate about the business, get out of it. Don’t fool yourself. You also need a proper business plan. You need to be committed going into it. We have a bit of a unique store. When people are around it, people come and see our store and they get involved a little bit. There’s a draw and a little bit of a love of the industry. We’ll have people actually come to us and say, “Hey, I’d like to do a Cowtown franchise” or “I’d like to start a store.”
Okay. What’s making them think that? They’ll say, “Well, I see you guys selling lots of stuff at these trade shows.” Or, “I come into your store, and it’s busy, and everybody is happy and things are fun, and you have Western wear.” And, “I know people that have horses. We have friends who have horses, and we’d like to start a store.”
Well, that’s not a real business plan, you know? It’s not that easy. You have to live it, breathe it, eat it, sleep it and think it nonstop. You have those people who are passionate about it in that way.
Luther: How is Cowtown responding to the move to digital for many retailers out there? Customers are online, shopping from mobile devices, researching through mobile devices. How is Cowtown responding to that, or do you see your customers moving to digital, or are they still preferring that in-store experience that you offer?
Randy: I think there’s probably some of both (preference for digital and in-store experiences) going on in the industry, and there’s room for both. I think customers are getting more savvy as far as researching products online, but I feel like they still want the experience of coming into the store and dealing with a person — not a website or someone on the phone. They like the personal contact.
If you’re coming in to buy a saddle or a pair of boots, you want to make sure they fit. Yes, you can order them over the internet, but there’s a good chance that they’re not going fit properly when you get them and then you’re going to send them back. Or, you can come into our store and get personal attention and have someone fit a boot to your foot properly.
So, I think there’s room for both (digital and in-store experiences) in our industry. We’re starting to use Facebook, Twitter and our website for more interaction with the customer. It still boils down to interaction with the customer. Ultimately, we hope that (digital) leads the customer to visit our store because that’s where we can make the biggest impression: one-on-one with the customer.
Luther: How many locations is Cowtown in currently?
Randy: We’re in seven right now. We’ve been growing in the last few years. We started with the one store in Regina when Masterfeeds bought us in 2001. We weren’t part of the core business for Masterfeeds. They were a 75-year-old feed company at the time of the acquisition. I don’t think it was originally in the plans for Masterfeeds to have a retail store. So, we needed to prove ourselves, and they gave us that opportunity and that chance. When I first came to Cowtown, I remember looking at that business, and to me, it was like seeing opportunity in blinking Vegas lights. That’s how I see this business — there was so much opportunity to grow this. We got a couple years under our belts with Masterfeeds, and they gave us that chance to grow, and now we’re seven stores and growing. Now with Alltech behind us, I see huge opportunity for growth again.
Luther: Well, speaking of growth, what other things do you think the future holds for Cowtown? Is it just growth? Is it different products? Is it digital?
Randy: Yeah. I suppose all of the above. I really do see opportunities for everything there.
Just in our own area, we have plans for stores in other markets where we think we can really serve the markets we know well. Overseas, I think there’s huge opportunity for growth in stores. We’ve sold overseas for a number of years now. We’ve sold to people in Australia, for example. And usually, it starts with, again, that personal contact. You get some young guys visiting from Australia on the rodeo circuit. At some point, they get to our store and they buy jeans or boots. When they get home, they start telling people in Australia about us, about our store. Then we get calls and we end up shipping stuff to Australia. Again, it was from that original personal contact — making that first impression with the customer. So, I think there’s opportunity to grow overseas, possibly down here in the States and definitely back home in Canada. The website will, of course, become a bigger tool. Digital media is going to become bigger for us in the future. This is my first kick at a podcast. I’ve heard about them but never knew what one was until today.
Luther: Well, welcome to the podcast.
Randy: There you go. Yeah!
Luther: What’s something that you wish customers knew about Cowtown?
Randy: I just hope to instill in every customer who comes in the door that we’re passionate about our business and we’re passionate about our customers. We look to make relationships with our customers — relational sales versus transactional sales. There’s always going be that transactional sale for the customer who comes in and just buys a pair of jeans because they happen to be there. But long-term relationships are what keep customers coming back and what keeps customers coming to your store rather than the next store.
If I look at our pet food category — that’s one that everybody is in. You can buy pet food from a big-box pet store, from a grocery store, service station, Walmart, Costco or Canadian Tire. Everybody is in that market, yet it’s our fastest-growing sector of the business at Cowtown. I firmly believe it’s because we go the extra mile, we pay attention to our customers and we try to get to know our customers to the point of getting to know their dogs or their cats. When that customer walks in and he’s got Sparky on a leash and you acknowledge the dog and give the dog a treat, it’s like picking their kid up and giving them a hug. That pet is part of the family, and it really becomes personal.
Luther: Randy Lamontagne is the general manager of Cowtown, a retailer with seven locations in southern Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta, Canada.