Game On!

Gear Up For Fall Hunting Season

By Ashley McGee

According to the most recent National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation — a survey conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service every five years — the 11.5 million hunters in the United States had a total expenditure of $25.6 billion in 2016. With fall hunting season fast approaching, it’s time for dealers to start planning marketing strategies to bag their fair share of that market.

The foundation of these strategies should be based on the fact every hunter doesn’t fall into the same market segment. The hunting community can be broken down into smaller niche groups, including gender, geographic location, income, purpose, etc.

For example, I hunt primarily to provide food for my family. Bagging big game isn’t a priority for me like it is for a trophy hunter. Additionally, I use either a gun or a compound bow. Others may prefer a muzzleloader, recurve bow or even trapping. In order to be successful this fall hunting season, your strategies need to depend on which hunting niche(s) your business best serves.

For Ace Sporting Goods in Washington, Pa., the most popular fall game species is whitetail deer. Though the season doesn’t start until mid- to late September, Ace began ordering inventory at the beginning of the year in preparation. “We will assess our inventory in September and fill in where we see fit,” said Ben Romanoff, general manager.

When deciding what to stock in the retailer’s 6,500-square-foot showroom, Romanoff said the goal is to carry products from a variety of manufacturers at various price points while focusing on popular calibers. Citing less-than-favorable weather conditions the last few years, he anticipates a flat selling season compared to last year. However, he said the Ruger American and Savage Axis series remain strong sellers, as well as Vortex optics.

Like many independently owned brick-and-mortar stores, the biggest challenge Ace Sporting Goods faces is maintaining price integrity with competition from internet sales.

“With the recent changes in political philosophies of some of the big-box stores, we hope to see some pickup for the fall season,” Romanoff lends.

The third-generation, family-run store also looks forward to their upcoming 70th anniversary. “We’re very pleased our store has been able to serve Western Pennsylvania sportsmen for this length of time,” he shared. “We’re planning a fall promotion with all of our major manufacturers to celebrate.”

Browning X-Bolt Hell’s Canyon Speed

Kimber Mountain Ascent

Small-Game Boost

Fall isn’t only for big-game hunters, but also for small game like dove and pheasants. Richard Sprague, owner of Sprague’s Sports in Yuma, Ariz., said his store caters to a variety of different hunters, but dove season (which opens Sept. 1) is much anticipated by both residents and destination hunters alike. He estimates at the opening of dove season about 80 percent of hunters are from out of town, while the remainder of the year local residents maintain the majority. Naturally, this has an effect on how he runs his business.

Sprague doesn’t wait until the fall season to begin marketing to his potential customers. To capture the largest portion of his target market segment possible and maintain top-of-mind awareness, he plans larger promotions as much as a year in advance, with smaller month-to-month promotions mixed in.

“It’s important to advertise regularly,” Sprague said. “For our market we find a combination of print, radio and social media work well. We also do some television advertisements during the holidays if we have extra manufacturer co-op funds available.” (Manufacturer co-op funds make up about 20 percent of Sprague’s overall annual marketing budget.)

Like Ace Sporting Goods, Sprague begins making purchasing decisions in January and February. “We start seeing the new products at SHOT Show and other distributor shows,” he relayed. “We make some decisions there, but most final buys are done at buy-group shows.”

There are currently established dove seasons in 42 states with participation and harvest numbers matching waterfowl hunting. However, the amount of gear required for dove hunting pales in comparison to that of other game species. Aside from a hunting license and migratory bird permit, the only other necessities are a shotgun, plenty of ammunition, eye-and-ear protection and a map of the area with recommendations of where to go. Dealers should be prepared to match both new and experienced hunters with the correct shotgun and other relevant accessories.

Carrying products from a cross-section of manufacturers at various price points
is an important goal for family-owned Ace Sporting Goods in Washington, Pa. With
the recent stance taken by some big-box retailers, Ben Romanoff hopes to see a
pickup this fall.

SIG SAUER 6.5 Creedmoor HT

Finding The Right Fit

To ensure they’re stocking the right inventory, Sprague makes buying decisions based on three criteria: (1) product attributes/features, (2) personal conviction of its role in their marketplace and (3) customer demand. “If we start getting multiple special orders for something we don’t carry, then pretty soon it will be come a standard stocking item,” he said.

While it ultimately boils down to personal preference, wingshooters tend to prefer semi-automatic shotguns over pump-action — with 12- and 20-gauge being the most popular. When it comes to ammunition, higher-quality shells are the way to go. They come with a higher price tag, but also tend to fly and pattern better due to harder and more consistently round lead pellets. Winchester AA, Remington STS and Federal Top Gun are all excellent heavy dove loads.

Sprague’s customers also hunt mule deer, antelope and elk. For the upcoming fall big-game season, he anticipates the 6.5mm Creedmoor will continue to be the most popular caliber due to its inherit accuracy, new improvements in bullet design, lower recoil and increased interest in long-range shooting.

The bottom line is there are significant differences influencing the needs and buying behaviors of hunters based on the species they pursue, as well as state and regional regulations. Dealers must possess a keen understanding of their local market to find success with hunting season sales.

“Our industry is not unlike many others. It is strongly driven by new products and exceptional pricing on tried-and-true standards,” Sprague said. “The same product categories will remain popular this fall, but consumers will seek product offerings featuring improved performance and sharper price points.”

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