Success In E-Commerce

As Shopping Habits Change, Is
Your Store Equipped To Stand Out?
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There have been many lessons — good and bad — learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not least among them is the idea gun shops need to be able to reach their customers through nontraditional routes.

Throughout the pandemic, stores across the nation faced a patchwork of regulations and restrictions that kept many of them from letting customers in the front door for a period of time. Compounding the situation was the hesitancy of some customers to even venture outside their homes.

It didn’t, however, mean customers weren’t interested in buying guns and everything that goes with them (as you’ve certainly experienced in your own storefronts) — it just changed the way many of them did their shopping. Given the range of uncertainties surrounding the virus, you have to wonder whether some of these changes will be long-lasting, if not permanent.

An Instant Shift

At Sharp Shooters in Lubbock, Texas, the impact on e-commerce sales was almost immediate after the launch of the pandemic panic.

“When it all started, we were selling stuff as fast I could pull it off the shelf. People were buying guns. People were buying ammo,” said Zane Wagner, who handles e-commerce and social media for the shop.

The store uses three online options for sales: GunBroker, Guns.com and its own point-of-sale system plugged into store inventory and several distributors. Sales through GunBroker in particular picked up as stores around the nation started running low on inventory.

“We were getting two to three emails a day about guns being sold on there. They were going pretty much anywhere it was legal to ship,” Wagner added.

There was a similar surge at Bristlecone Shooting, Training & Retail Center in Lakewood, Colo., where eager customers swamped the store. In the early days, Owner Jacquelyn Clark found herself on the phone all day, just answering inventory questions from customers. The store was slammed with emails and phone calls, making it impossible to keep up with inquiries.

“We needed to get ahead of it,” Clark recalled.

So, each day, she had her inventory manager put together a list of current in-stock firearms. This was posted on the store’s blog and referenced in social media posts. “They could see for themselves, as of noon, what we had,” she said.

“I think some of these new habits are going to stick. One of them is not leaving the house as much.”

Jacquelyn Clark, Owner Bristlecone Shooting, Training & Retail Center Lakewood, Colo.

Initially, they did this every day for a month. Then switched to updates once or twice a week.

At least for the foreseeable future, she views the situation as a sign of what’s to come: “I think some of these new habits are going to stick. One of them is not leaving the house as much.”

To respond, Clark recognizes a need to make it easier for customers to do business with the store. One of the ways to do this is to make the sales process as efficient as possible by helping customers know what’s in the store before they ever get there.

Back at Sharp Shooters, the online sales platform and inventory system was an effective customer service tool, particularly in the earlier stages of the pandemic when the shop was severely limited in the number of customers allowed inside at any time.

“There were definitely people who saw the value of shopping online and not wanting to get out,” Wagner said.

Along with doing initial browsing online, they could also place an order and drop by the store to pick it up. It cut a lot of waiting time for customers who would have otherwise had to stand in line for their turn to go inside.

Real-Time Inventory

One of the keys to successfully merging your online business with your brick-and-mortar operation is helping customers understand what it means when they see their desired gun displayed on your website. Does it mean it’s actually in the shop? Is it on back order? Or is it maybe sitting in a warehouse belonging to one of a half-dozen distributors?

This challenge is one of the reasons why Bristlecone started sending out their list of “in stock” firearms during the height of the pandemic. It’s less than ideal to have customers come to the store expecting to find a particular gun, only to learn it’s not physically there.

“That’s a customer service nightmare waiting to happen,” Clark noted. “People get annoyed if you say you have something and you don’t.”

In truth, there is debate in the industry about the need for absolute transparency when it comes to real-time inventory status. There are those who worry first about getting customers in the door — figuring the salespeople will be able to offer alternatives to what the shopper was initially looking for.

“Look for alternatives that don’t cost anything until you sell something. As you build from it, you can start doing more.”

Zane Wagner, Manager E-Commerce & Social Media Sharp Shooters Lubbock, Texas

There’s a danger in this approach, suggests Shawn Tibbitts, president of Tegrous Consulting, which works primarily with manufacturers and larger retailers.

Many gun buyers — particularly novices — aren’t going to be happy to learn a gun is unavailable or on back order. He urges stores to be upfront about what they do, or don’t, have. “You’ll get a happier customer and a happier customer experience,” he said.

With this in mind, Sharp Shooters’ website includes notes on each item, letting the customer know if it’s in stock at the retail shop, or if it’s at a warehouse. And any gun posted on GunBroker is immediately pulled from the display cases, just to avoid the possibility of selling the same gun twice.

“We just have to make sure we stay on top of it,” Wagner added.

Getting Started

Taking those first steps down the e-commerce pathway can be a daunting task, particularly if you aren’t comfortable with technology.

“It can seem like a scary thing that’s going to require a whole lot of work,” Clark said.

She suggests finding a tech-savvy staffer and putting them in charge of that segment. There’s also no reason to feel like you need to build a website from scratch. Like a lot of gun stores, she opted for a relationship with Gearfire, which offers turnkey website options.

The service allows a modest amount of customization, with the ability to tweak prices, decide what products are sold and pick which distributors to use. The shop also uses RangeWorks to sell memberships and online classes.

The hand-off from salesperson to customer may look a little different these days, but
central tenets of business remain key: Meet the customer where they are and develop
connections to stand out. An integrated, easy-to-use e-commerce site sure helps.

The advantage of building an e-commerce option is easy to see: “It’s nice to wake up in the morning to find a couple customers have spent $1,500 to $2,000 overnight. Your store isn’t even open, and you’re making money,” Clark shared.

If you aren’t ready to invest in something like Gearfire, there’s always the option of taking a slower approach by selling guns through an auction site like GunBroker, Wagner noted.

“Look for alternatives that don’t cost anything until you sell something. As you build from it, you can start doing more,” he said.

Actually, Wagner is a great example of what can be gained by finding an employee with skills in this arena. He started at the shop while studying for a degree in media strategies at nearby Texas Tech University. His background has given him the tools needed to design the store’s website, which connects to their own point-of-sale system. His experience is something other stores can learn from.

“I know it’s expensive to pay someone to go out and redesign a website, but they might be able to find students with the background to build a site,” he said. “There are a lot of young people like me who want to get involved in the gun industry.”

Be Judicious With Sales Day Promotions

After you’re outfitted with an e-commerce platform, how do you get customers to use it? Bristlecone has taken a fairly aggressive stance, building promotions throughout the year with pricing only available online. Every so often, the store will have something like a “night-owl flash sale” from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. or a “snow day” sale when crippling weather strikes. They’ll promote them through emails to customers.

There’s a danger in doing too many of these events. If customers know when to expect these sales, they may just hold off on purchases until the sale is announced.

“You do have to be careful,” Clark said. “I don’t think there’s any formula for it, but you can’t do it all the time.”
They also maintain an active social media presence through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. She tries to post at least one thing a day — taking care to do more than just post photos of things she wants to sell.

Instead, she mixes in a variety of material, including funny links offered by store employees. When she does post images, she wants them to look professional. (A few years back, she hired a professional photographer to photograph the store for a supply of stock images.)

“You have to, if you want to have a good social media feed,” she added.

A strategy at Sharp Shooters is to use email blasts with “click-to-buy” promotions for items that might generate quick interest.

“We do it when we get new stuff we think people will like,” Wagner noted. “Anything people might be looking for, especially newer guns.”

The store is also active on social media, with the goal of posting new entries a few times a week. A key, according to Wagner, is to do these things right. Sloppy posts with poor-quality images won’t do much for the store.

“You have to take the time to do it,” he stated.

How has your store’s e-commerce presence changed as a result of the pandemic? Share your insights with us so we can let other dealers know! [email protected]

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