09/15/2011 10:41AM

Keeneland September: How consignors make buying process easier

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LEXINGTON, Ky. − At the Keeneland September yearling sale, some consignments are almost as famous for their hospitality as they are for the horses they’ve sold. Free coffee, gourmet cookies, and doughnuts are there to tempt weary shoppers who spend hours on their feet sifting through the auction’s 4,319 yearlings. But some of those delectable spreads, which can keep buyers and their agents hanging around for a while where yearlings are showing, are more than friendly customer service for potential bidders. They are also part of a larger, and sometimes impressively complex, marketing strategy to promote consignors’ yearlings.

Matching yearlings with buyers at the massive Keeneland September sale isn’t always easy. Declining foal crops have reduced supply, but the recession also has taken some buyers out of the market, and those who remain can be highly selective. Consignors say making their yearlings stand out from a crowd of several thousand is vital, and they use everything from traditional advertising to detailed buyer databases to help them attract bidders for their horses.

“We can segment out the people who buy New York-breds, Pennsylvania-breds, whatever the case may be, and market directly to them with information like dates, times, and photos of the horses we’re selling that might suit their particular order,” said Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Sales Agency. “We can also do a lot of segmentation by price range that people buy in and highlight some horses that we think tend to be right in their wheelhouse for what they like to buy. If a guy has a track record of buying colts in the $50,000 to $150,000 range, if you send him something saying you’ve picked out this group of horses we think will fall in your price range, it’s kind of like going to Blockbuster and having them say, ‘If you liked When Harry Met Sally, you’ll probably like these.’ It’s intuitive marketing. That’s also knowledge you can put to use when someone comes to the barn and asks what you have.”

Smaller consignors also keep track of their previous buyers and stay abreast of racing news that applies to their consignments, though they do it on a smaller scale than a large outfit such as Taylor Made. Select Sales, a consignment agency for two years, got a publicity bump earlier this month when they sent out a press release about one of their Keeneland November weanlings, a Henrythenavigator half-sister to Zenyatta. But Select Sales general manager Andrew Cary said word of mouth and successful sale graduates are their company’s most important advertising. The agency does maintain an active Facebook presence and use texts and emails to remind trainers of consignment yearlings that might interest them. And Cary said networking with owners and trainers at other horse sales also can prime interest in a Select Sale yearling.

“It’s a constant process, learning what your customers want: who trains what, who likes particular sires,” Cary said.
Technology can provide valuable tools, too, Taylor said. Taylor Made hired ThoroStride, an online video company, to post videos of sale yearlings on the Internet.

“It makes life easier for a bloodstock agent that has an overseas client that isn’t on the grounds,” Taylor said. “That agent can send a link to the client, and that can make a difference if the agent likes two horses, and one of them has a video online.”

But many consignors and their clients have trimmed their marketing budgets, said Denali Stud owner Craig Bandoroff.

“The problem is, everything costs money, right?” he said. “And in a market where it’s really tough to make money, you’re reluctant to spend $100 here and $100 there, because it adds up.”

Bandoroff said he advertises selectively “to remind people of the caliber of horses that come out of our consignments.” But he believes the best marketing happens face to face at a sale.

“I’m still kind of old-fashioned,” he said. “I think the way you’re going to sell yearlings is right here when people come and make up their mind. I can’t talk someone into a horse or convince someone to like a horse. They’ll be the judge if a particular horse is one that they want.”

Other old-fashioned concepts − word of mouth, results, and customer service − are still important, too.

“We’re starting to build a good reputation, and we’ve had some good graduates on the track this year,” said Cary, pointing to Schuylerville Stakes third Force de la Nature (a $70,000 September yearling in 2010), among others. “Word of mouth is everything. We might do an ad if we have a yearling with a big update that’s not in the catalog. For us, our philosophy is about giving a really positive first impression when they see a horse in our consignment. That’s where a lot of buyers determine whether they’re going to buy your horse, is on that first impression. It’s a yearlong approach that involves prepping them well and in the right sale catalog, and if you can make a buyer’s time at your consignment as enjoyable as possible while they’re trying to get their work done, I think that can only help.”

And few things are as enjoyable as being reminded of your success, Taylor said.

“Danny Dion bought a nice Grade 2 winner from us named Bear Now, and we had a big picture of Danny leading her into the winner’s circle, and he had the greatest smile ever, ear to ear,” he said, recalling a sale. “I remember Danny was standing there with a Taylor Made cookie in his hand, looking at this poster, with another big grin on his face. He stood there for about two minutes, totally in the moment. It was awesome.”

Even as Dion celebrated that happy memory with a previous Taylor Made purchase, of course, the consignment’s handlers were walking by with new prospects who might also provide an exciting future.

“When a person is in a positive emotional state when they’re shopping − I don’t care whether it’s horses, cars, clothes, or jewelry − they are going to perceive the product they’re looking at differently than if they’re in a negative emotional state,” Taylor said.

The celebratory win pictures are great, but some techniques are more subtle. For example, Taylor said he reminds the grooms to keep applying pine oil and disinfectant to the shedrow, so that the Taylor Made barn area smells noticeably clean as buyers walk in. And, of course, there’s always that free cup of joe and oatmeal cookie.
“It’s more than just the cookie,” Taylor said, “but the cookie doesn’t hurt.”