Tough Times Don't Last

Tough People Do

Somewhere over the past few months, a meme I saw online summed up 2020 about as perfectly as you can. It was titled, “If 2020 Was A Math Problem.” It then said: “If you’re going down a river at 2 mph and your canoe loses a wheel, how much pancake mix would you need to re-shingle your roof?”

That’s 2020 in a nutshell: No logic, no rhyme, no reason.

From canceled school, to canceled work, to a near cancellation of pretty much everything else, change and adaptation have been required from everyone. And patience has often been in short supply. (If only I could bottle and sell patience!)

Whirlwind To Dust Storms

In the earliest days of the shutdowns, many wondered if they’d be able to find food. Others ran to the stores to get toilet paper. Still others ran to the store to buy a gun, ostensibly to protect their family — and maybe their toilet paper — from the unknown. From the moment the shutdowns began, the U.S. shooting sports industry has been a whirlwind.

With the whirlwind came a dust storm of challenges for the industry’s distributor core. From staffing to shipping logistics and everything in between, life changed dramatically, and rapidly.

“Luckily, we were considered an ‘essential’ business,” said Stefanie Zanders, CEO at Zanders Sporting Goods in Sparta, Ill. “However, we were still left grappling with how to maintain operations and keep our employees safe. The business demand increased exponentially, and we continued to lose more and more employees who either decided they needed to be at home or were required to quarantine.”

We’ve seen plenty of spikes in sales over the years, but nothing has come close to this.”

Brent Taylor, general manager Orion Wholesale Jeffersonville, Ind.

Zanders said their labor pool evaporated almost overnight, despite the fact many other industries were actually laying people off. The extra assistance the government was giving those who’d lost their jobs, coupled with an inability to actually recruit and interview people in person, made finding staff members difficult. Childcare and educational concerns for employees only exacerbated the problems. There have been plenty of long days, extra shifts and even some folks adding new skill sets to help out in critical areas of operation.

Brent Taylor, general manager at Orion Wholesale in Jeffersonville, Ind., shared the impact on staffing was immediate.

“During the peak of COVID-19 it made it tough, because the government recommended quarantine. It scared a lot of people into not wanting to get out of the house and work,” he said. “We’ve seen plenty of spikes in sales over the years, but nothing has come close to this.”

“This Year Wins The Day”

The rush on firearms and ammunition, as tracked by the NASGW’s SCOPE industry data and business analytics program, shows activity not even the most optimistic of forecasters could have predicted. February and March had very dramatic, staggering jumps in sales activity … which stayed steady for weeks on end. Finally in late spring, just when sales appeared to be coming out of the stratosphere, the civil unrest began and the lines on the charts went back up again and stayed there throughout the summer.

“2020 has been unprecedented in a multitude of ways — as with most companies I suspect. I’ve been in this industry for over 20 years and have seen the ebbs and flows as a result of politics, social unrest and disturbances, but this year wins the day,” Zanders acknowledged. “In March, we hit the most orders we have ever had in our system — within one week from that point we multiplied that number by four and we have not been able to get below that number yet. It’s pretty historical to say the least.”

Add in the fact there’s always extra seasonal demand in the fall, and of course the extra demand created around the election due to the very overt threats of gun control being made by certain candidates, and you have the “fixins” for something massive in 2020.

“We hustle hard,” relayed Taylor. “It’s our duty as a distributor to supply our dealers with products they need, and right now they need product more than ever.”

Zig & Zag

It wasn’t just employment issues distributors needed to work through in this massive rush, it also meant the normal day-to-day operations of distributors needed to both zig and zag. Business travel ceased, manufacturer representatives and other customers weren’t allowed into buildings and pretty much all communication moved to electronic formats.

“We canceled all travel,” noted Taylor. It certainly must’ve been a tough choice for a business model that relies heavily on in-person meetings and networking.

To make matters worse, the National Association of Sporting Goods Wholesalers (NASGW) was forced to cancel its Expo and Annual Meeting held each October. The board of directors was effectively left with no choice. With all the corporate travel bans, state travel and quarantine restrictions, and at the time the decision was made the growing number of cases across the country, it became clear in-person networking at the Expo just wasn’t going to happen in 2020.

“We are taking it one day at a time,” reported Zanders. “We’re maintaining communication with our manufacturers through phone, email and video conferencing. Our close relationships with our suppliers over the years pays off greatly. Patience and understanding go a long way, but keeping in constant contact and stressing the importance of supply in this market is key.”

Lessons Learned

The situation also called for some good old-fashioned, down-home ingenuity. “Many people laughed,” shared Taylor, “but we set up a tent to add extra shipping lines/stations in our parking lot. We set the tent up next to a giant roll-up door and had product flowing into the tent where it was packed and shipped. This may seem crazy, but it allowed us to increase our output by about 30% daily.”

Among the headaches and heartaches of this past year, some important lessons were learned — and a new resolve also emerged.

I’ve been in this industry for over 20 years and have seen the ebbs and flows as a result of politics, social unrest and disturbances, but this year wins the day.”

Sstefanie Zanders, CEO Zanders Sporting Goods Sparta, Ill.

“We are going to survive 2020 and then some,” Zanders said. “We have many long-term employees who have seen it all with us. We are going to seize this opportunity and continue to drive forward collectively. It’s what successful families do!”

“This year has been one for the books,” Taylor added. “COVID has made me grateful for the support of our manufacturers, vendors, our dealers, logistic partners and our entire Orion Team. It’s been tough, but tough times don’t last, tough people do!”

Where To?

Will anyone argue if I declare 2020 a historic year? Probably not. When companies close their books, this will be the largest yearly sales of guns, ammunition, optics and accessories this industry has ever seen. There are literally millions of new gun owners in America today. This has been a challenge particularly for distributors to accommodate, but it’s also now a huge opportunity in many ways.

So where do we go from here? Both Zanders and Taylor expect the next six to 12 months will likely be more of the same. The industry should anticipate strong sales trends to continue. In addition, shortages will be a reality because even if sales do begin to soften, it’s going to take a long time for distributors and dealers to get back to normal inventory levels.

It may not match the fervor we’ve seen in 2020, but hold on to your seats, 2021 is shaping up to be another interesting year.

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