Research In A Time Of Plenty


The run on firearms and related accessories shows no signs of abating, but as
previous surges have taught us: they do end. Businesses that plan ahead during
this “time of plenty” will be a step ahead of the competition.

Times are good. Sales of firearms and things that go on, in and around them have enjoyed a sustained period of strength. Repeat customers, as well as millions of first-time gun buyers, have gone to retailers in droves. In such times of plenty it’s easy to become content and feel like everything you do will turn to gold. And why shouldn’t you feel this way? You’ve heard the rumors about “billions” of dollars’ worth of backorders that will take years to fill. It’s like every day is Christmas and the gifts just keep coming.

Speaking of Christmas gifts, about 25 years ago I got one of those small desk calendars stuffed in my stocking. You know the ones; you could buy them at pop-up kiosks at every mall in America each holiday season. This particular calendar showcased daily messages meant to inspire and get you through the day. I don’t remember 364 of the notes, but one has stood with me over the years and has become part of my business philosophy. It’s a simple statement, a mere seven words, but abiding by it has kept me from getting too content, even during times of plenty. It read, “Anticipate the Alternatives, and Prepare for Anything.”

“Listening to our customers (qualitative research) and staying in touch with consumer sentiment is imperative. Understanding our customers future purchase intentions has been a key to our longevity.”

— Richard Sprague, Sprague’s Sports President

We needn’t go too far back in time to give this quote some relevance. Those of you who were in the industry in 2013 will recall it was another time of plenty. Sales of firearms, ammunition and accessories were strong, repeat customers and first-time gun buyers were going to retailers in droves and there were rumors of backorders that would keep the industry going for years. It seemed like everything folks did turned to gold… then came 2014 and a double-digit sale declines. Even more recently, the same situation played out with record sales being recorded in 2016… then came 2017 and double-digit sale declines.

Folks who didn’t anticipate and prepare in 2013 and 2016 certainly felt some pain in subsequent years. The good news is we can learn from the past and be more prepared in 2021 for what may be coming in 2022.

I served as the director of research and market development for NSSF from 2009–2020 so what I will propose next should not come as a surprise. The best way to “anticipate the alternatives and prepare for anything” is to conduct research to keep you abreast of current market conditions and better understand your customers.

Where To Start?

The first step is to identify what internal research your organization has. This can be anything from antidotal staff knowledge to full-scale custom research reports. Next step is to merge your internal knowledge with what’s available outside your organization.

The NSSF is a great place to start as they have a substantial knowledge library which includes dozens of detailed reports on a variety of topics from consumer segmentation to participation in hunting and shooting sports. They also have historical trend data on industry indicators such as background checks, firearm production, import/export data and statistics on excise tax collections for handguns, long guns and ammunition.

After taking stock of available research, you’ll need to conduct a gap analysis to identify your specific insight needs. If you don’t already know, it is critical to understand what your current customers purchase motivations are, as well as identifying who your ‘promoters’ are so you can work with them to grow your customer base through peer marketing. Conducting a short survey of your current customer database is an easy way to get started and low-cost survey software such as SurveyMonkey and Alchemer are ideal for small projects.

“Like any market, the outdoor segment is prone to ups and downs and it’s important to keep a constant pulse on our customers and the overall market.”

— Chuck Wahr, Trijicon Global VP of Sales & Marketing

Topics & Opportunities To Consider

It’s no secret concealed carry and personal protection are heavy motivational drivers for many recent purchases so the topic of safety, not only for one’s self, but for those near to them is certainly something that should be looked at. Additionally, many existing gun owners, as well as millions of first-time gun owners have a heavy interest in nature, the environment and conservation so cause marketing with these topics in mind is always a good idea.

The concept of continual research isn’t new and many in the industry understand the importance of obtaining insights year-round. As Chuck Wahr, Global VP of sales and marketing at Trijicon notes, “There’s no doubt Trijicon wouldn’t be in the position it’s in today without conducting market analysis. Like any market, the outdoor segment is prone to ups and downs and it’s important to keep a constant pulse on our customers and the overall market.”

Retailers and ranges on the front lines are the first to see shifts in the market but subtle moves can go unnoticed if not tracked. Richard Sprague, owner of Spragues Sports in Yuma, Arizona observed, “It’s important not to lose touch of reality, and the reality is sales will slow down at some point. Listening to our customers (qualitative research) and staying in touch with consumer sentiment is imperative. Understanding our customers future purchase intentions has been a key to our longevity.”

Don’t Go it Alone

I’d be remiss, and somewhat negligent, if I didn’t provide you with this word of caution; if you don’t have staff on hand familiar with, not only conducting research but, more importantly, analyzing and acting on the data, then you are going to waste valuable resources conducting research.

If you find yourself in this situation, there are plenty of research providers with experience in the outdoor market that can assist you. Firms such as: Hanover Research, YPulse, Responsive Management, DJ Case & Associates, Sports Marketing Surveys, Marketplace Insight, InfoManiacs and Southwick Associates are all proven industry partners.

Conducting research or selecting a partner can be a daunting task so feel free to reach out to discuss your options and you’ll be anticipating alternatives and prepared for anything in no time.


Jim Curcuruto is a consultant for the outdoor, hunting and firearm industry. He can be reached at [email protected].