Dealers Share Success Stories, Struggles & Opportunities
By Jade Moldae
Every issue of Shooting Industry endeavors to educate, equip and champion independent storefront dealers and range operators by taking a very direct approach — right to the industry’s front lines!
The firsthand perspectives of store owners, managers, instructors, sales staff and more combine to form a well-rounded view of trends impacting the shooting sports. In 2019 alone, 132 dealers from 37 states shared their success stories, struggles and opportunities for growth in a crowded field of rising competition. Here’s a select collection of some recurring topics featured in Shooting Industry this year.
Battling Online Sales & Transfer Fees
A development not limited to the firearms industry, online-only retailers have been the scourge of brick-and-mortar retail stores since their inception. Their impact on traditional retail is even more apparent today thanks to two factors: price-conscious shoppers and the industry’s first major prolonged sales slowdown in recent years. Not a surprise to anyone: this topic generated widespread commentary in 2019 — especially in the Letters To The Editor column.
Adam Wagner, owner of A&P Armory in Magnolia, Texas, frequently shares his perspective with readers and the need for adaptation.
“If the industry is changing and online competition is here to stay, then we need to evolve,” he said. “We’re not making the money we used to on accessories, ammo or optics. The only thing preserved for dealers is the requirement [for customers] to go to them for transfers. So why are we giving them away so cheaply?”
Wagner proposed dealers should unite and standardize transfer fees, much like the average 6% commission fee real estate agents receive.
In response to Wagner, Berry’s Sporting Goods (Griffin, Ga.) Manager Eddie Stikes agreed: “Those store owners who drop their fee to ridiculously low amounts onlydevalue their contribution to this process. If you don’t value your time, then why should your customer?”
According to Barry Laws, CEO of Openrange in Crestwood, Ky., it’s become so common for customers to look at a product in-store only to purchase it online to save on sales tax he’s labeled brick-and-mortar stores “showcases for discounters.”
“Online discounters have enjoyed the sales tax advantage to become embedded in purchasers’ minds as the go-to place to buy — cutting out brick-and-mortar retailers,” he claimed. “We’ve helped them become even more profitable by stupidly doing NICS transfers for these discounters.”
He issued a challenge to manufacturers: “Bring back a robust MAP policy so your hardworking brick-and-mortar retailers will continue to be your best advertiser and stay healthy.”
“If it wasn’t for our training business, our store would also be non-existent,” shared Jason Sphon, owner of Sphons CCW in Minerva, Ohio, in his reply to Laws’ letter. “We’ve gotten to the point where we’re seriously considering liquidating our handgun inventory and not restocking. We didn’t sign up to run a museum where people can handle merchandise, then go online to buy.”
David Rich, owner and lead instructor of Naples Gun Shop & School in Naples, Fla., had a measured response to this trend.
“I’m not saying the online shops are the devil, I’m just hoping there’s a way to keep us small brick-and-mortar gun stores from going the way of RadioShack,” he stated.
The battle against online-only retailers looks set to continue, and the conversation will certainly persist leading into next year. To help dealers curb this online influence, Shooting Industry’s early-2020 coverage will include a feature on how dealers are beating Amazon and other online-only retailers in the February issue.
What sells best in-store isn’t necessarily what sells
best online,and it’s just something you’ll learn over time.
Jim Rauscher, President
Joe’s Sporting Goods, St. Paul, Minn.”
Marketing Your Business
Insights on effective marketing strategies were a consistent thread this year.
Depending on your locale, traditional advertising (such as billboards or TV/radio spots) can be an powerful way to let potential customers know of your existence.
Ace Sporting Goods’ top local advertising strategy is a trio of billboards, including one on the main route from the Washington, Pa.-based store to Pittsburgh.
“It’s not cheap, but the number of people who mention it is huge. They’re really productive for us,” shared Ben Romanoff, owner.
Despite being limited to posting “acceptable” content, social media is an ever-present medium to connect with customers. According to Metro Shooting Supplies (Bridgetown, Mo.) General Manager John Stephenson, the store has pulled back on some of its traditional advertising strategies in favor of using email campaigns and Facebook to connect with customers.
“It’s a quick way to get the word out when something is going on,” he added.
For Black Wing Shooting Center, Google Ads have been very successful in marketing to younger customers because they seem more organic when they appear alongside search results.
“While the industry seems to be leaning toward digital display ads in an attempt to market to this demographic, we believe this type of advertising — unlike Google ads — can be counterproductive,” said Kayla Lemaster, Black Wing marketing and events coordinator.
“They’re exposed to a massive amount of digital display, which can be intrusive.”
Jim Rauscher, president of Joe’s Sporting Goods (St. Paul, Minn.), is a firm believer in digital marketing — thanks to its quantifiable capabilities.
“The analytics you receive are incredible,” he said. “And they help give us a better understanding of who our customers are and what they want.”
Word-of-mouth marketing remains a stable source of traffic for many stores.
“For us, word of mouth works far better than traditional marketing,” informed Robbie Paskiewicz, owner of Knoxville Gun Range in Tennessee. The range has found particular success with printed materials to market its weekly ladies’ night.
“Having a printed brochure a woman can share with her girlfriend, neighbor or coworker is a much better return on investment,” he added.
Ultimate Defense in St. Peters, Mo., hosts a variety of themed events at its range to generate excitement and participation from its younger customers. Managing Director Paul Bastean keyed in on how millennials and Gen Zers “spread the word” of their positive experiences.
“I always offer to take pictures for people at our events or those who just came in to shoot because I know they’ll post it,” he said. “Their friends see it, and it’s like virtual word of mouth.”
Despite investing in improving its Google search rankings, customers who fill out electronic waivers at Bristlecone Shooting, Training & Retail Center (Lakewood, Colo.) consistently rate “word of mouth” as the top answer to the question “how did you hear about us?” — a source of exasperation for Co-owner Jacquelyn Clark.
“It’s frustrating because I don’t know how to spend money to buy more word of mouth,” she noted.
Dealers who remain flexible and stay up on trends will have a better grasp of what form(s) of marketing is best suited for them.
Education Opens Doors
Stores who position themselves as educational resources in their communities create the potential for increased sales as a byproduct.
At Firearms Solutions in Duncan, Okla., Owner Keith Stewart highlighted the financial impact classes have at his store.
“There hasn’t been a concealed carry class where I don’t sell at least two or three guns,” he confirmed.
Likewise, Pro Arms Gun Shop (Live Oak, Fla.) General Manager Allen Davis reported “35 to 40% of concealed carry students end up buying guns from us” after a class. He cited having rental guns on hand as a significant contributor.
Jeremy Ball, general manager at Sharp Shooting Indoor Range & Gun Shop (Spokane, Wash.) views classes as instrumental to his store’s development.
“Education is very important in our eyes,” he said. “In this industry, an educated consumer typically spends more money.”
Maria Dockery, owner of Palm Bay, Fla.-based Femme Fatale Arms & Training, gives special attention to women in crisis. She uses classes to help them get quickly acquainted with firearms safety.
“If our next class is full, we still make room for her and we put her on the fast track to learning how to handle a firearm,” she informed.
The retail segment of our business is actually our least
valuable, behind training and range usage.
Paul Bastean, MD
St. Peters, Mo.
Having a robust e-commerce presence to support your store’s brick-and-mortar offerings is no longer a question, but a crucial element to commerce today. Dealers reported mixed results in maximizing the effectiveness of their e-commerce platform.
Bristlecone’s Clark invested in an e-commerce solution for her store mid-2018 — creating what she labeled “a brand-new revenue stream” that streamlined a previously lengthy in-store process for special orders.
“In the past, customers would fill out a ‘price and availability’ request with our retail staff if they wanted to order something we don’t normally stock,” she recalled. “Our buyer would then research the requests and call the customer back — sometimes a day or two later — and many of them would have already found their item online elsewhere. Now, our associates can easily see the price and availability of the item. The customer places the order and pays through our website on the same visit.”
An e-commerce presence will also give your store opportunities to make sales around the clock, according to Todd Lockburner, Magnum Shooting Sports co-owner and COO.
“You’ll have people sitting on their couch at night looking at guns online. It’ll probably get you more impulse buying,” he stated. “Online sales are going to give you a higher profit margin, at the end of the day, from a payroll perspective.
On the other hand, however, there are certainly nuances that separate the in-store shopping experience from the digital one.
“What sells best in-store isn’t necessarily what sells best online, and it’s just something you’ll learn over time,” Rauscher advised.
“We have so many SKUs it’s hard to get a good product mix online that includes new product, has a fresh look and is a good representation of what we have displayed in-store for our customers to see,” shared Matt Poet, marketing director for Jay’s Sporting Goods in Michigan. “Unfortunately, we can’t display everything we carry in-store online.”
Enhancing The “Experience”
The customer experience is, simply, the impression your store leaves with guests — and how it impacts their views of your establishment. With a variety of buying options today, customers hold a significant amount of power where their dollars are being spent. Dealers shared their secrets of winning business this year.
Wade Cummings, Georgia Gun Club (Buford, Ga.) general manager, noted his facility saw an uptick in summer range traffic due to the local community’s desire to participate in “a new shooting experience.” In response, Georgia Gun Club created an Outlaw League (in Cummings’ words, a “screw the rules IDPA”) and Lead & Lace, an all-women’s shooting group.
“Due to this ‘first-time’ participation, we have regular shooters and competition winners, who, three months ago, had never fired a shot— much less had an interest in the shooting sports,” he said.
With cleaning stations set up in his store, Metro Shooting Supply Owner Steven King is able to provide a service for customers who want to clean their guns.
“We have all the supplies there, in case they didn’t bring theirs. They can mess up our tables instead of going home and messing up their own,” he shared.
For customers unfamiliar with gun care, King and his staff take time to educate them — resulting in add-on profits.
“Once we show them how easy it is, they buy equipment and supplies and clean their guns,” he reported. “In this economy, you’ve got to work at selling the accessories.”
Rebecca Bartol, owner of Femme Fatale in South Bend, Ind., takes a pragmatic approach, instead of relying on a tried-and-true strategy for sales.
“It’s hard for a store our size to compete with big-box stores … on safes and even on cheaper items like plastic ammo boxes,” she acknowledged. “We’ve tried bundling, but there isn’t enough margin. People know where to find these items at a lower cost, so our best option is always to listen and advise. In our store, customer trust is our best sales tool.”
Use Knowledge To Your Advantage
Continuing Bartol’s thought above, a store can establish and maintain trust with the customer by having a knowledgable staff. Ball at Sharp Shooting Indoor Range regularly calls on his employees to be actively engaged in the shooting sports.
“Employee education is extremely important because our consumers are better educated than they have ever been. If you don’t encourage your employees to learn more about product lines — and use them — then every customer who walks in the door is going to know more than they do,” he said.
Ball also motivates employees to be active in the firearms community by taking part in competition shooting matches and participating in manufacturer dealer rewards programs.
Another way your store can showcase its prowess is to develop a specialty, running deep in select product lines. Hyatt Guns in Charlotte, N.C., has cultivated a reputation as the place to buy hard-to-find ammo in the region.
“Why is someone going to drive 100 miles to see us if we’re carrying the same things as Walmart?” asked Larry Hyatt, the store’s owner. “It’s our job to have this stuff for customers. We have to go deeper and have more experts.”
I’m not saying the online shops are the devil,
I’m just hoping there’s a way
to keep us small brick-and-mortar gun stores
from going the way of RadioShack.
David Rich, owner & lead instructor Naples Gun Shop & School, Naples, Fla.
“The retail segment of our business is actually our least valuable, behind training and range usage,” stated Ultimate Defense’s Paul Bastean earlier this year.
An observation that may have been overlooked several years ago brings a compelling point to light: are you positioning your store as an entertainment venue or educational resource in the community in addition to fulfilling the customer’s product needs? Even if your store doesn’t have an on-site range, there are still ways to expand its influence beyond your four walls.
Dealers finding success in this period of slowed sales are seeking out new opportunities to connect and serve customers beyond the inventory they have in-store. (It’s a matter of seeking out business, rather than waiting for it to come to you.)
“Right now, it seems those dealers willing to go the ‘extra step’ in deals and service are reaping the awards,” said Clay Ausley, owner of Fuquay Gun in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. “The Debbie Downer Dealer waiting on business to just increase … well, they may be waiting awhile.”