Sales Surge As Personal
Protection Concerns Mount
By Greg Staunton
Handguns continue to move to the forefront of the firearms market, with several factors driving this growth: namely, politics and personal protection, with an eye toward possible terror threats. Even in states with tougher gun laws, reports indicate a dramatic increase in new handgun purchases and concealed-carry permit applications — many from first-time gun owners.
Todd Vance, president and owner of Vance Outdoors, and head of retail operations for Vance’s three firearms/outdoor stores in the Columbus, Ohio, region, has been tracking these trends. He gives SI readers his take on how the handgun market is doing and where it may be headed.
“There was a big surge at the end of 2015, centered around Black Friday sales because a lot of inventory was sitting out there. Then, after Black Friday, we had the shooting in (San Bernardino) California, which was labeled a terrorist attack. That scared people, and sales just skyrocketed again. This time around, the bulk of the sales were in handguns. Then ammo followed suit, in centerfire and 9mm,” Vance said.
As 2016 dawned, Vance says dealers began to see handgun demand outstripping supply.
“What the industry saw — and nobody was prepared for this — was a lack of available inventory from the manufacturers to the dealers. Inventory had been cleaned out,” he said.
Vance saw the Dec.–Jan. sales surge as a quick spike, which leveled out as inventory began to flow back in during February.
“It was a good spike; it helped a lot of people in the industry,” he noted.
Left: RUGER 22/45 Lite OD Green
Right: BROWNING 1911-22 Compact Supressor Ready
Interestingly, Vance says a 15-year-long pistol trend is now reversing itself.
“We are seeing a huge swing, maybe as much as 70–80 percent, out of .40-caliber guns (back) into 9mm. It started on the law enforcement side, but we’re seeing it play heavily on the commercial side right now, too. The FBI did some testing and said the new 9mm defense-style loads — there’s been some from Hornady and other companies — were easier to train with and to shoot,” Vance said.
Naturally, this trend is also creating a .40/9mm ammo imbalance in the market.
“I believe it’s going to put a little bit of strain on delivery of 9mm from the manufacturers until they can get their runs balanced out. And they’ll correct it,” Vance added.
“The uptick we’re seeing in 9mm handguns revolves around multiple platforms and manufacturers. Smith & Wesson’s SHIELD is very popular right now. The P938s from SIG are also very popular, and Ruger’s LC9 also. GLOCK 43s are a big deal right now. Anything for concealed carry sells well. I’d say those take a large segment of most dealers’ sales,” Vance observed.
In addition to mid-size 9mm models, Vance says .380 is still a popular caliber in pistols.
“With Ruger lowering the basic retail cost of their LCP, they’re going to pick up a lot of sales in that market. Of course, Smith & Wesson has their BODYGUARD .380s, and those are a big deal,” he pointed out.
The .380s have their own devotees who like having a smaller backup pistol or a convenient sidearm to carry on its own.
“I use a .380 in the summertime because it’s easier to hide in a pair of shorts with a T-shirt on. It’s a little harder to shoot than those mid-size 9s, but having it is a whole lot better than not having it,” Vance said.
He says J-Frame revolvers from Smith & Wesson and Ruger are also selling well.
“Those three categories (.380 and 9mm pistols and J-Frames) are driving a large percentage of the handgun business right now because it’s geared around personal protection,” Vance said.
Kimber surprised a lot of folks with its introduction of the K6s revolver, which debuted at this year’s SHOT Show. Vance says he liked the way it looked and felt when he handled it there.
“It’s not inexpensive. If you like revolvers, you’ll like it. It’s a little different and probably not for a first-time revolver owner. I imagine somebody buying it would already own something like a Smith & Wesson J-Frame or a Ruger LCR, and they’d like to upgrade,” he said.
Kimber also has a new Micro 9 pistol coming out, possibly in mid-second quarter, and Vance predicts it will be well received.
“They’ll sell far more of those than they will of their K6s revolver, and their revolver is nice,” he said.
The ever-popular 1911 platform is still doing well, and Vance says 9mm calibers continue to be added by a variety of manufacturers. Many consumers prefer either the 9mm or .45 ACP 1911s for home-defense handguns.
Smith & Wesson’s Victory .22 LR pistol, introduced at this year’s SHOT Show, is creating a good buzz. Its easy-to-change-out 5.5-inch barrel, fiber-optic sights and other features are a hit with target and competitive shooters.
Left: SIG SAUER P938 Blackwood
Right: SPRINGFIELD ARMORY EMP4
Left: KIMBER Micro 9
Right: WALTHER PPS M2
Tailored Marketing Strategies
Vance says his handgun market in the metropolitan Columbus area (with a population of 2 million-plus) is about as diverse as one could imagine. Knowing how to treat customers, regardless of their experience level, is as vital for success as knowing what the next, hot handgun is likely to be, and his sales staff knows this.
“We have a tremendous amount of repeat business, and we have a lot of competition in town. We have a lot of loyal customers,” Vance said.
The recent shift toward concealed carry and home defense for newer consumers brings more younger folks and women into firearms stores these days. Some only want that contingency handgun, but others will move on to recreational shooting.
“We are seeing a lot more women purchasing self-defense firearms. If they get some training and become acclimated to the industry, a lot of them find shooting is fun,” Vance said.
Vance Outdoors holds various handgun classes at one of its retail store ranges. Vance says they see more and more women coming in for defensive handgun training at whatever level they feel comfortable starting.
“It’s not as intimidating as they thought, once they get proper training and get around other women who are shooting. We have a Ladies Night every Tuesday, and they get a lane rental for free. It’s amazing how many women come and bring their significant others,” Vance said.
The growing number of women in the shooting industry drives more innovation in products geared to their specific needs. One example:
creative options for carrying concealed. Women entrepreneurs are creating a variety of body wraps, which allow those of the fairer sex to “holster” their handguns snugly and out of sight when their clothing or circumstances won’t allow for a more conventional holster or carry method, such as a purse.
“You’re going to see more of it as they become frustrated with what’s available. I don’t blame them. We’re going to see a continual revolution of the market with women helping women,” Vance said.
To get a closer look at 2016 new products, Todd Vance attended the Nation’s Best
Sports Spring Semi-Annual Market Show in Ft. Worth, Texas, in February. While there,
Smith & Wesson’s SW22 Victory Target Pistol caught his attention.
Vance Outdoors mails a monthly flyer to advertise prices, classes and other
special offers to over 500,000 local residents 11 months out of the year.
Vance complements this effort with e-blasts to a targeted audience, where
additional items and announcements are featured.
Advertising That Works
Depending on the locale and demographics of any given market, independent dealers have to test the waters with advertising and media outreach to consumers.
“We don’t do a lot of radio or TV. Not that we won’t in the future, but a lot of our time is tied up with print and social media,” Vance said. “We did do a live radio show for about six months.”
Vance Outdoors has a weekly print ad in the local newspaper (Columbus Dispatch) 52 weeks a year.
“We also have a monthly flyer, an insert, 11 months out of the year. Those are typically six or eight pages, heavily geared to firearms. There’s a full page of handguns,” Vance added. “We circulate anywhere from a half-million to 900,000 of those monthly. It’s a model that seems to work very well for us, and we’ve been doing it for a long time,” he added.
Vance says his stores also have good success with their email blasts.
“We look at the e-blasts a lot because they get directly to our consumers, and we can refine and target it as we need to. They have 12 items, one manufacturer’s item. We keep things fresh and offer different items which may not be in our ads,” he noted.
Vance Outdoors’ Facebook page is frequently updated with a variety of both informative and entertaining items.
“We’re constantly trying to improve our social media, and we have people dedicated to it,” Vance said.
Whether riding the personal-protection wave or continuing to capitalize on the growing interest nationwide in recreational/target handgun shooting, firearms dealers can expect a year of opportunities.