Crossing The Digital Threshold

By Tim Barker

After 18 years in the business, John Ritz decided it was time to jump into the world of online sales.

For years, retail shops like East Orange Shooting Sports (EOSS) in Oviedo, Fla., watched online dealers — often operating with low overhead and no sales tax — siphon away handgun sales. Things have only gotten worse in recent years, with big-box gun stores like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops entering (and significantly influencing) the online fray. In 2016, Brownells introduced online sales, followed more recently by MidwayUSA.

So, this summer EOSS launched its own online site. Many shops do this by contracting with a third party to manage sales using remote inventory. But Ritz wanted a more personal touch on his site, preferring to avoid the cookie-cutter approach — where the only thing that looks different from one site to the next is the store logo.

The EOSS site offers real-time inventory. If a customer sees a product listed, it means it’s in the store and ready to be purchased. In some ways it’s a marketing tool rather than a sales tool.

“We’re doing it more to provide a convenience for our local customers,” Ritz said. “They can surf the inventory online.”

Given the intense online competition, he’s hoping to avoid losing sales to customers who may not realize his prices are competitive with what they’ll find at those larger retailers. And instead of having to make a trip down to the shop, they can browse his offerings from home.

EOSS also occasionally turns to auction sites like GunBroker.com — generally when they have used guns, particularly rare models with high demand. Those guns tend to sell better when exposed to a wider audience than just the local customer base. But with the more common stuff there’s too much competition to justify the move. “On a new GLOCK 19, what’s the point?” he claimed.

It’s All About Relationships

Jess Hancock, owner of The Wichita Gun Club in Kansas, has long seen the value of tapping into the online market — those sales represent about 45 percent of his business. He opened the shop in 2012 with a handful of Wilson Combat 1911s and a small space leased from a friend. Today, he has a 3,700-square-foot shop.

“We have a good online reputation,” Hancock shared. “And we work hard to keep it up.”

The store is active on social media — with some 5,000 Facebook followers. They use GunBroker, Instagram and have joined a wide range of gun groups on Facebook.

Hancock is also active on specialty forums, giving him exposure to potential buyers of his high-end inventory. Even there, it’s still about building and maintaining relationships. He’ll offer special prices and waive credit card fees for those buyers.

“When it’s on, it’s on. I can sell guns in like 20 minutes there,” he said. “We always give them deals.”

This strategy has, in part, helped his store find its niche in the high-end 1911 market. Of course, the shop carries brands like GLOCK, CZ-USA, SIG SAUER, Taurus and Walther, but they specialize in custom and semi-custom 1911s from companies like Wilson Combat, Guncrafter Industries, Nighthawk Custom and Ed Brown.

“I had a lot of people tell me the model wouldn’t work — the focus on high-end stuff. But we sell a lot of guns. A lot of expensive guns,” Hancock reported, who also owns nearby Lynbrooke Sporting Clays.

While many of his sales are made through the online operation, Hancock sees a strong demand locally, even for his pricier inventory. It’s enough to justify the addition of a special viewing room — where a customer can sit in a comfortable chair to look over the custom offerings.

And they aren’t afraid to take chances. Consider the case of the GLOCK 19X, which they sent off for a range of upgrades, including stippling, trigger work, milled slide for an optic and a threaded barrel.

“It’s kind of weird to take an $800 gun and turn it into a $2,100 gun. But it sold literally the day we got it, and we could have sold four more of them,” he stated.

Of course this isn’t a market everyone is going to jump into, particularly when it’s a choice between stocking one custom handgun or a half dozen GLOCK 19s. Inventory management becomes considerably more complicated when you’re ordering guns a year or more before you expect to need them.

One of the keys is working with sales reps who understand the financial constraints for a smaller shop with limited resources.

“They know I don’t want five or six guns to come out at the same time,” he said. “You have to be strategic about when you take them.”

The same thing could be said for determining the right inventory mix, in general. As well as knowing what works for your customers.

Carry Guns For The “Fourth Guy”

Back in Florida, EOSS Guns has tried the higher-end 1911s in the past without much success.

“They want to see them,” Ritz shared. “They want to put their hands on an STI, and then they’ll buy the $600 Springfield.”

Roughly two-thirds of his handgun sales fall in the $300 to $600 range. So, he tries to offer a wide range of choices within this range, rather than just carrying deep inventory of a few of the more popular models. But he’s still careful about what he carries.

“There are some lines we just don’t stock,” he said. “If I wouldn’t feel comfortable having it in my own holster, I wouldn’t sell it to anyone else.”

Models with high failure rates and those of manufacturers with reputations for bad customer service tend to be left out.

Some of the more popular handguns right now are the SIG P365 and Ruger LCP, which he carries in multiple versions. During a recent grand opening (the store just changed locations), he worked with Springfield Armory to develop a promotion resulting in strong sales of the XD-S and XD-E.

In the end, though, he opined the key is to listen to what customers are asking about, “If I have three customers come in and ask for something, I make sure I have it for the fourth guy.”

(Above) Standing behind the handgun counter, EOSS Owner John Ritz maintains a healthy inventory of pistols and revolvers. The counter is the perfect place to advertise promotions — such as Springfield’s Gear Up: Concealed Carry XD promotion that ran earlier this year. (Below) Promotions and products are also readily displayed on EOSS’ modern website.

Treat Customers As Guests

Both shops are proponents of maintaining clean, well-lit stores staffed by employees responsible for making customers feel welcome as soon as they step through the front door.

“You’re a guest here,” said Hancock, back in Kansas. “My employees aren’t condescending. It’s a big part of our success.”

He figures most people — particularly those new to guns — are going to be a little apprehensive when they walk into a gun shop. To help his employees understand where he wants to be, Hancock added an unusual wrinkle to his training program: He sends them out to several competitors in town with instructions to stick around their stores for half an hour or so to observe the way customers are treated.

“I tell them to do the opposite, and they’ll be ok,” he contended.

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