Finding A Niche

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Candis Hill welcomes customers at Black Fang.
The Hills’ store has sporting guns in stock, but focuses on self-defense armament.

In a world full of competitors, how does a business establish itself? Sometimes, the key is to offer the customer something different. To find a niche, have something the competition doesn’t have, something that distinguishes your shop from the others. This niche can take many forms.

One important element to the success of a niche gun shop is a large customer base. By definition, the specialist firm somewhat limits its clientele to those with special interests or needs. This demands a larger population to draw from if the business is going to attract enough clientele to succeed.

Let’s look at some examples.

Black Fang Firearms Studio

Larry Hills, Jr. and his lovely wife, Candis, opened their gun shop/art studio in a strip mall in Slidell, La., on September 17, 2022, and have been busy ever since. It has two unusual elements that draw customers. It’s the first gun shop I’ve seen that labels itself a studio, and the appellation is correct. Among his many talents, Larry is a lifelong artist and his paintings are on display and for sale, just like the guns — and ammo and accessories.

Moreover, the shop is Black-owned and a living contradiction to the canard “gun culture” is the exclusive province of aging white males.

Now 47, Larry told Shooting Industry, “I started shooting with a Crosman air rifle my grandfather gave me when I was 7 years old. We lived on a bayou, and we shot tin cans and such. When I was 10, the single-shot, .22 rifle my grandfather gave my dad as a boy was passed on to me, and I shot my first rabbit with it. By then I already knew I was going to be a ‘gun guy.’”

His education and proclivity to art took Larry into a career in design and engineering. He still works as such in the aeronautics industry, with an evening shift job that allows him to be in Black Fang Studio from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. His wife and his dad manage the shop the rest of the time.

The main driver of sales is personal-defense guns for home defense and lawful concealed carry alike. The family business even encompasses training: Candis’ cousin, a Louisiana State Certified firearms instructor, is available for training customers. Inventory goes heavily toward defensive firearms.

“Our fastest-moving firearms are the GLOCKs and the Smith & Wesson Shields. The new Shield Plus is selling particularly well. We sell a lot of 9mms, of course, but not everyone has bought into that trend. We still move quite a few larger-caliber pistols. The GLOCK 30 is our fastest-selling .45,” Hills informed.

Let’s look at demographics. Black Fang is located in Slidell, with a population of just under 29,000. However, it is part and parcel of the New Orleans metroplex, expanding the potential customer base to slightly over 1.25 million people.

Larry also points out, “Black-owned gun shops are uncommon, and we’re the only one in the area.” 

Know thy demographics! Search engines tell us the city of New Orleans itself breaks down as 59% Black and 33% white, while the whole metroplex is 24% Black and 60% white, and Slidell itself is 75% white and 17% Black.

Black pride is evident in the very name of the business. 

“We certainly have a lot of Black customers who appreciate doing business with someone who looks like them,” Hills stated. “I named the place ‘Black Fang’ because it represents the fact I’m a Black man, and we focus on personal and family defense armament. That said, though, the majority of our customers are white. I’m not pushing the Black-owned business element because we’re not catering to just one demographic. People are people, and here it’s all about defending yourself and your family, first and foremost.”

For the owners, Black Fang crosses the color lines and emphasizes the family element. The shop is active on social media and YouTube: You can find an example at youtube.com/shorts/2k6tf8xGZtg. They also are having good luck with commercials on local TV, drawing customers even from Mississippi, a couple of hours away.

“People are people, and here it’s all about defending yourself and your family, first and foremost.”

Larry Hills, Jr. 
Black Fang Firearms Studio • Slidell, La.

 

Smoke N’ Gun

When you ask gun shop owners how they got started in the business, the most common refrain is, “Well, I always loved guns and shooting, so …”

Almost every successful writer will tell you, “Write what you know.” Almost every successful entrepreneur will advise, “Sell something you know.” We know our hobbies. Nature takes its course. And if you enjoy a fine stick of tobacco as much as you enjoy guns and shooting, well, you might just end up with a business called Smoke N’ Gun.

Oakmont, Pa., is a quaint little town with the kind of architecture that would make you think a time machine had brought you back to mid-20th century America. Its population is approximately 6,300, but it’s a suburb of Pittsburgh — expanding the potential customer base significantly.

I was driving through Oakmont to teach a class in the Pittsburgh area when I saw this shop on a downtown corner and had to stop. The clever name and logo were the outer shell of an absolutely unique combination gun shop and cigar bar. The fragrance grabs you as you come through the front door, and you immediately find yourself in the smoking section amongst amiable customers partaking of the wares.

The rear of the establishment resembles a gun shop of old: fine firearms long and short are on display. You can certainly find top-quality hunting and target arms, but the main inventory is defensively oriented. 

Customers can find the latest polymer pistol and high-end AR-15, or choose to defend themselves old-school with a vintage, high-condition Colt Python or Diamondback.

The atmosphere is a curious blend of laid back — the crowd peacefully relaxing in the smoking section, the owner who insists “Just call me Gooch” — and a gun counter so busy they have time to answer customer questions on the phone, but they don’t have time to chat.

Learning points? “Do something you love” is one takeaway, but you’ve probably already done that or you wouldn’t be reading this magazine, so let’s move on. “Find a niche” is important. 

Both of the shops profiled here have something different to offer, and it has been a key to their success. As we’ve already discussed, if you have something important to what might be a limited demographic, have a large customer base to draw from to compensate for it. 

And the big lesson? “Offer the customer something they can’t find anywhere else around.” 


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