Can Free Stuff Be The Gateway To Improved Sales?

By Massad Ayoob

Amidst the combination of a glutted market and customer complacency after “our side” won a national election, most gun dealers have experienced a softening in the bottom line. How can brick-and-mortar stores boost sales? In retailing, the free sample to convince the customer “this will work for you, you want to buy this” is a strategy with a long and sometimes successful history. How does it perform at a firearms retail shop?

Recently while teaching at the Thunderbird Firearms Academy, a gun shop, indoor range and training facility in Wichita, Kan., I saw the company was experimenting with this approach. Thunderbird Owner Ryan Pennock shared details about some of the free programs and promotions his store uses to encourage new business.

Free Exotic Gun Rentals

Earlier this year, Thunderbird launched a new promotion to drive in-store business and entice new customers: “Machine Gun May,” which provided free machine gun rentals and opened the door for alternative revenue streams.

“We came up with this promotion after trying it out for a weekend,” Pennock relayed. “For this to work, a business has to have their machine gun rental pricing set up correctly. There are two components to our machine gun rentals: the gun rental and the magazines. We calculated the cost of the gun and anticipated maintenance into our gun and magazine rental prices. I would highly encourage anyone renting machine guns to do this.”

He continued, “When we rent a machine gun, we normally charge the gun rental and then the person pays for however many mags they want to shoot. Typically, we’ll allow one gun rental for two people and that makes it more affordable as well. A typical machine gun rental is $60 for an MP5 and then $20 per magazine. Most people will buy two mags bringing the cost up to $100.”

Machine Gun May enabled Thunderbird to drop the gun “rental” fee and charge only for magazines. Therefore, during the promotion, a shooter would only pay $40 for the same scenario mentioned above. It was met with considerable success, Pennock shared.

“Our machine gun promo did well for us, we saw nearly 500 shooters this year. This is great for a shooting range in a non-tourist destination. The promo yielded a 300 percent increase over normal rentals. We also started selling a shirt we designed with our M60 rental. Customers get a sticker with the rental and then can buy the shirt for $14.95. We have a generic ‘I Love Machine Guns’ shirt for sale as well,” he said.

Pennock said the initial numbers and reception have been positive. He plans to add another belt-fed machine gun to the rental fleet this year, likely an M249 SAW.

“The belt feds are popular; the venerable MP5 is still the number one rental by far. M4 and AK-47 come in second and third, respectively,” he shared.

Thunderbird Firearms Academy’s recent promotions, “Machine Gun May” and “Wichita’s Best Shot,”
were very successful in generating increased sales, traffic and new customers.

Benefits Of Free Training

Concealed Carry Handgun Licenses (CCHL) became less of a profit center for firearms professionals in Kansas when the state passed permitless carry (aka Constitutional Carry) in 2015. Unmistakably, it’s the responsibility of everyone in the firearms community to promote safe and knowledgeable use of guns. When consumers no longer perceive a need to train, free tuition becomes a great incentive to want to train.

Ryan Pennock explains: “We started offering free CCHL training in March. It has been one of the best things we did. We were putting approximately 10–15 people in a class with two classes a month when we charged for them. The cost was $100. That math says we were doing about $36,000/year in CC sales. I look at it like advertising. Now we put around 40–60 a month through the classes. We’re booked for the entire year and I don’t advertise it, so it frees up marketing money for other training.”

Thunderbird has worked to monetize the classes by offering students a sell sheet of items during the free session. In addition, the store promotes its regular paid training and membership during the course to convert free students to paid ones.

“I’m also very proud our store offers a free CC class,” Pennock said. “We do it because it’s the right thing to do!”

Hosting Low-Cost Competition

Shooting matches with low entry fees aren’t profit centers; if the sponsor is lucky, they bring in only enough money to cover the price of targets and related ancillary costs. Why, then, did Pennock choose to sponsor GSSF (GLOCK Sport Shooting Foundation) indoor league matches and also a local event?

“Overall my view of the GLOCK matches is about getting new people exposed to us and it’s working well,” he answered. “We just got started and our first one was decent. We had about 40 shooters; we’re hoping to expand it. Most were from other ranges, and we received favorable opinions about our store from them.”

The downside, according to Pennock, is most of these visiting shooters would only shoot and leave. He only noticed a very slight uptick in the daily sales for the days of the match. But Pennock sees the bigger picture: “Basically, the GLOCK shoot is advertising that doesn’t cost money.”

 Thunderbird recently hosted a “top-shot” type, homegrown event called “Wichita’s Best Shot.” It had a qualifier round, with three additional rounds; all elimination rounds are based on a head-to-head bracket style. At the time of this writing, the elimination rounds were just getting started.

“We charged people $25 for an entry and they shot the qualifier. Somewhere around 100 people ran through it and several of them shot multiple times as well. We took the top 32 to begin the elimination rounds. The first place contestant wins a Springfield Armory XD(M) OSP with a Vortex red dot on it. Along the way, swag bags and other prizes are being given as well. Overall this has done well for us in the first year. It’s all about getting new people into the store. It’s the same concept of promotion the GLOCK event provides.”

Putting It In Perspective

Is the market really so soft that it needs promotions like this? Some observers claim despite dealer complaints of lower income streams, NICS checks are trending above 2015 — not a terrible year of business for the industry by any means. Ryan Pennock sees things differently.

“The consumer is not at retail in any industry right now, evidenced by the ‘Retail Armageddon’ unfolding nationwide. Take a look at the deep manufacturer discounts and promotions going on in our industry: This is the year of the cheap gun, and we’re just getting started,” he predicted.

In Pennock’s view, the softened market will be a challenging time for both dealers and manufacturers — with a “great purge” possible.
“The dealers who find ways to market and keep their foot traffic up will be the ones who thrive. Several of my peers have said dealers need to be in survival mode this year. I agree! They need to lean down their inventories and stay nimble. Margins will have to be cut in hopes of raising volume,” Pennock concluded.

Have you found success with free promotions to increase foot traffic?
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