By Tim Barker
It was two months after the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy that Adam Bryce moved his fledgling gun shop, GunRunner Arms, from his garage to a storefront in Junction City, Ore.
It wasn’t the ideal time for a new store to get into the business. New guns and accessories were almost impossible to find; the ammo situation was even worse. But having already signed a one-year lease on the store, he stuck with it.
“The majority of the stuff we put on the shelves was from our own personal gun collections,” Bryce relayed.
His store has essentially lived its entire life in a time of chaos, with the industry bouncing from one politically charged crisis to the next.
And as we look ahead in 2019, Bryce’s experiences (and what he’s learned from them) offer a nice starting point for tips to success in the coming year.
1 BE CAUTIOUS.
One of the biggest obstacles in planning ahead is Bryce says he still doesn’t know what a “normal” year should look like. Life in the gun business has been a series of ups and downs.
“I’d love to have an average year just so I could know what the baseline is,” he revealed.
And trying to guess what’s around the corner can be dangerous — as a lot of stores discovered in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Like many of its competitors, GunRunner Arms stocked up on MSRs ahead of the election in anticipation of a market surge in the likely event of a Hillary Clinton victory.
It took nearly two years for Bryce to work through the inventory buildup.
“I’ve learned to be a little bit more cautious trying to forecast trends,” he acknowledged. “A lot of guys have gone bankrupt over the volatility in the market.”
2 BE SMART WITH INVENTORY.
At least for now, it seems unlikely we’ll be returning anytime soon to the days of the mad scramble to keep shelves stocked. Today, the problem is at the other end of the spectrum: Inventory is easy to come by. The challenge is figuring out which things are going to sell.
This is what concerns Ronnie Groom, the owner of C&G Sporting Goods in Panama City, Fla. He’s worried about making large investments in inventory that won’t pan out. And with manufacturers pushing hard to distribute new product lines, there are a lot of opportunities to make mistakes.
“There are just so many new guns and new calibers. In my experience, a lot of those new things won’t make it,” Groom contends. “So, we’re trying to be careful and frugal with our buying.”
But the longtime store owner — the shop opened more than six decades ago — has a pretty good feel for the types of products his customers will buy. And with three floors of retail space, they aren’t exactly short on display space.
Still, he said it’s all about finding the right mix: “We just need to special order some items and not stock them. Other things, we need to stock a lot of.”
It’s also critical to keep a close eye on that inventory — to know what’s selling and what’s just sitting there.
After all, a gun shop isn’t supposed to be a museum, says Tim Van Leiden, owner of The Gun Guys in Ottawa, Kansas.
Trying something new can pay rich dividends. But likewise, you need to know when it’s time to cut your losses and put the stagnant stuff on the discount table.
“You don’t want your customers to come in and see the same things sitting on shelves,” Van Leiden asserted.
3 DON’T BE AFRAID OF INNOVATION.
For Groom at C&G Sporting Goods, one of the keys to success is keeping an eye out for the next big thing: You can’t be afraid to take any chances.
A good example of this is the recent introduction of the 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge, which has quickly gained popularity among shooters across the nation. “Rifles chambered for it are our biggest-selling guns right now,” Groom shared.
What could be next?
One perhaps surprising possibility, in Groom’s estimation, is an electric bicycle making waves in the hunting segment.
The shop is carrying a line by Rambo Bikes designed for hunters. They come in camo or black, and can be enhanced with a range of accessories — including rifle and bow holders, saddle bags, solar chargers, fishing carts and kayak trailers. They can travel up to 20 miles on a single charge, meaning no more long walks to treestands, among other things. At $2,000, they aren’t cheap. But he sees potential for the hunting and fishing market.
“I think it’s going to be a big thing for the future,” Groom said. “They’re sort of like game cameras — they can change the way we do things.”
4 ATTRACT YOUNGER SHOOTERS.
When Van Leiden, in Kansas, looks ahead to this year’s market, he doesn’t see a lot of reason to expect an increase in demand. And he doesn’t see it changing in the next two years.
“A range is one of the things helping us,” he said. “If we didn’t have that, I don’t know if we’d be here or not.”
But is there a way to tap into the strength to create some new demand from millennials and other young shooters? Van Leiden is banking on it with the recent purchase of two live-fire simulators for the range.
The V23 Live Fire Simulators from Ti Outdoors effectively turn a shooting lane into a video game of sorts, by projecting static and moving images on the white paper screen. Shooters have a variety of games and targets to choose from, including the ever-popular zombies. (Moreover, Ti Outdoors recently added new games to the V23 system.)
“It’s basically like a video game with real guns,” Van Leiden shared.
And at $10,000 each, it’s no small investment. But it does offer a way to draw more revenue from the range. Shooters must use the range’s ammo in sessions costing $25 for half an hour.
“It’s a pretty big venture,” he said. “I’m hoping it will pay off.”
5 TAP INTO BURGEONING FEMALE MARKET.
There is, of course, another market out there waiting to be tapped by store owners.
Figuring out how to draw more female customers is a top goal for Parro’s Gun Shop in Waterbury, Vt.
“I think women are sick of being victims. I see this every day — women coming in to buy their first handgun,” said Owner Henry Parro.
But how do you attract female shoppers? One of the first things you must understand is you can’t just keep doing business as usual. The “boys club” atmosphere in which male customers are perfectly happy isn’t going to work with women.
Parro’s has taken several steps, including furnishing a well-maintained, clean bathroom. They have a dress code requiring management approval for any shirt with printing or logos. Nothing vulgar or sexist is allowed.
“We have to make female customers feel more comfortable and welcome in the store,” he affirmed. “We have to be polite, well-educated and patient.”
This particularly comes into play when dealing with a customer who has no experience with firearms: “Take baby steps; don’t be cocky and don’t talk down to her,” he concluded.
6 WIN WITH CUSTOMER SERVICE.
Really, customer service in general should be a focus for everyone.
In the September 2018 issue, Calibers Shooting Centers (Albuquerque, N.M.) CEO Adam Burt drove this point home to readers: “If you’re a retail store, it’s going to be customer service, customer service, customer service. If you’re a range/retail store, it’s also customer service — it all contributes to the ‘customer experience.’”
With the internet continuing to wreak havoc on brick-and-mortar stores, the ability to form relationships with customers becomes more critical every day.
“We need to have superior knowledge and strong customer service,” Parro said. “That’s what it’s going to take to get people to realize there’s more to life than the internet.”
At his store, this means making sure employees are trained — and cross-trained — to give them areas of specialization. They have someone who specializes in hunting and ballistics. Another employee is the go-to-person for everything related to handguns. And then there’s an expert on NFA items.
He also stresses to his employees the importance of being honest with customers, who are often well-educated on firearms. Long gone are the days when a skillful salesman could bluff his or her way around a sale.
“The customer probably knows more about the product, walking in the door, than you do,” he said. “And they probably spent three hours researching that gun before they even set foot in the store.”
7 RECONSIDER YOUR ONLINE PRESENCE.
As long as we’re talking about the impact of online sales on brick-and-mortar stores, it’s a good time to consider the possibility of building up your online presence.
GunRunner Arms in Oregon already offers links on its website to two of its bigger wholesalers, making it easy for customers to order guns for shipment to his store. But Bryce wants to expand this side of the business.
“Brick-and-mortar stores have been suffering for years. And it’s getting worse,” he said. “The next step moving forward is to enhance the online segment of your business.”
Already, they have an inventory system that allows them to put the store’s offerings online — in real time. The inventory is live, rather than one of the cookie-cutter front-ends used by some shops.
He sees the real-time inventory as a critical piece of the equation, along with timely shipping. Customers will only be frustrated if they order something and learn it’s backordered or that it may, or may not be, at some remote warehouse.
“If it’s ordered today, it needs to go out today,” Bryce concluded.
8 FIND WHAT WORKS TO GET NOTICED, AND PROMOTE YOUR STORE TENACIOUSLY.
Clearly, it’s a challenge to figure out the right advertising mix of social media, television, radio, direct mail and newspapers. And what works in one city might not in another.
Parro’s in Vermont has long-focused its promotional efforts on major in-store events. The largest have centered around Ruger and GLOCK, though 2019 will also feature a Smith & Wesson event.
“People look forward to my promotions,” he lends. “It’s almost like they save their money all year just to come in for them.”
The key to success, he said, is to make sure the event is truly special. Customers need to see things they wouldn’t necessarily see on any other weekend.
“A lot of dealers use promotions to get rid of dead inventory. But you can’t just do that,” Parro informed.
During the Ruger event, for example, the store brings in fresh inventory and offers it at a discount: “We will be the cheapest for Rugers in the state that weekend, hands down,” he said.
They also bring in a mobile shooting range to let customers test-fire guns before deciding on a purchase.
The events themselves aren’t necessarily big money makers. But they do a lot to build the store’s reputation and keep people coming back throughout the year.
“We may not be the cheapest on everyday inventory, but they know I’m the guy in Vermont for Ruger and GLOCK,” Parro said.
9 ACCESSORIES CAN LEAD TO OPPORTUNITIES.
Just because gun sales are soft doesn’t necessarily mean shooters aren’t interested in buying anything. GunRunner Arms in Oregon is expanding its inventory of spare parts and accessories.
“They may not want to buy a gun, but they still want to do modifications,” Bryce shared. “I see a lot of people working with what they have because they’ve already bought.”
The plan is to focus on GLOCKs, MSR-style rifles and maybe 1911s — basically the more common guns that draw a lot of interest for shooters looking to do their own modifications.
“I see a lot of people looking for MSR parts and triggers for GLOCKs,” he said.
The move into parts also has one advantage over many other types of product lines a store might consider carrying: “The nice thing about parts is you can put an example out and put the overstock somewhere else,” he informed. “I’m not using up a lot of retail space for it.”
Here’s to a new year, where these nine tips will (hopefully) help you navigate through early-year business.