Keys To Success In 2018

Dealers Make Predictions For New Business Year

By Jade Moldae

At Bristlecone Shooting, Training & Retail Center, Owner Jacquelyn Clark says the key to her store’s success will
be the ability to bring value to every sale. Free range passes, discounts on training and other incentives represent
simple ways your store can enhance the value experienced among your customers.

“It’s funny how much can change in a single day.” These words appeared in an article last year in Shooting Industry — alluding to the profound change the industry experienced almost overnight following President Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton. Since then, dealers, distributors and manufacturers (even consumers) have grappled with the “new normal” of fear being removed as a primary driver of sales in the consumer market. With the launch of the 2018 New Business Year, we spoke to a panel of dealers on how they’ll approach this market, the segments primed for growth and the challenges they’re expecting to face this year.

“Last year was a bit of a reality check,” said Jacquelyn Clark, owner of Bristlecone Shooting, Training & Retail Center in Lakewood, Colo. “Gone are the days of inflated political sales; 2017 was a more realistic picture of the long-term trajectory for the firearms industry. Firearms retailers need to step up their game to be successful.”

In a welcome development, dealers have reported consumer interest in other categories — like lever-action rifles and revolvers, for instance — has increased. This has been the case at Shot Spot (Carrollton, Ga.) according to President John Paulk, Jr.

“We at Shot Spot are encountering the ‘normal’ for gun sales with an emphasis on traditional firearms and added emphasis on concealed-carry handguns. With availability of product not being an issue, we’ll keep a more streamlined comprehensive inventory — allowing us to provide our customers with a great product selection before buying,” he noted.

Bren Brown, co-owner and president of Frontier Justice (Lee’s Summit, Mo.) saw last year’s shift as part of a broader leveling of the market. The company remains bullish about the future, however, as it opened its second location in Kansas City, Kan., in November.

“The market had been riddled with volatility based on world acts of terror, political banter and elections — and general fear-induced buying from the consumer. When Trump took office, it felt like the entire market of firearms enthusiasts took a deep sigh of relief and sat back in their chairs to attend to other things,” she said. “The 2017 business year was probably the first year of a leveling in the firearms market for some time.”

Ben Romanoff, general manager of Ace Sporting Goods in Washington, Pa., shared sales in 2017 “pretty much mirrored” those from 2015.

“We were down, as expected, from the election year of 2016. Unfortunately, our industry seems to be incident-driven. Looking to 2018, we’re focusing on inventory levels by lessening quantities of individual SKUs we stock. We feel product will be more readily available than before,” he observed.

Other stores reported close-to-2016 levels during the 2017 business year.

“We are very, very fortunate our 2017 was pretty much flat with 2016, but I think we’re one of the few who can say that,” said Clay Ausley, owner of Fuquay Gun & Gold (Fuquay-Varina, N.C.). “We’ve stepped up our advertising and event schedule, nearly double that of 2016. So even though sales are flat, profits are down slightly due to added expense of extra advertising. I expect more of the same for 2018. Sales and profits will not suffer much for those who are willing to push to get them.”

Hillary Dube, owner of HNR Gunworks, has enjoyed early success by catering to the
needs of her store’s surrounding market.

Areas Poised For Growth

While 2017 was a tough year for many in the industry, the customer base is considerably larger and more diverse than it was several years ago — and there are still untapped areas of the market.

Jared Sloane, Shoot Smart operations director, remains on the lookout for the next source of innovation to drive interest among consumers. Shoot Smart is a three-store chain, operating in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see self-defense continue to grow, but I don’t expect a surge in any segment of the industry over the next year. Maybe a surge in business closures or mergers,” he observed. “We need good industry leadership — someone like a Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos, big visionaries to drive competition and creativity.”

The concealed-carry segment looks set to continue as a major source of revenue for many dealers.

“We expect training in general is poised for growth, as well as concealed-carry product lines,” Clark informed. “We’ve seen steady growth in our training area and there doesn’t seem to be any slowdown in sight. The challenge will be growing the more advanced training we and other facilities offer — we need to persuade customers that training is a progression and to get them to see the value in the more expensive and more advanced classes.”

“Concealed carry will continue to grow with the increase in foreign and domestic tragic incidents,” Ausley added.

Paulk predicts there will be continued growth among women customers — especially as word gets out that gun stores are friendly and welcoming places to visit.

“The largest untapped market is female shooters, who we are finding in every segment. As a new concept, we’ve tailored our store to welcome women to a place of comfort in the surroundings,” he said.

To that end, Paulk shared his range frequently holds non-traditional events. In the week of this interview, Shot Spot hosted a jewelry trunk show and floral arrangement class. These events brought in a combined 140 women, with just over half being first-time visitors. The range scheduled another floral event for the spring and 60 spots were filled in under 48 hours, Paulk informed.

“Once a woman is comfortable in her surroundings and she see others who are shooting, taking classes or just having lunch in our café they come more often. We become a destination and with that, repeat business,” he added.

Hillary Dube, owner of HNR Gunworks in Inverness, Fla., opened her store in mid-2017. Just a few months into this venture, Dube’s establishment has experienced a noticeable increase in women customers as well. She thinks this is a sign of things to come.

“We’ve seen a rise in women interested in classes and carrying — as well as hunting and target shooting,” she said. “I’m glad to have almost 50/50 male/female classes; we’ll continue to watch this trend and cater to the women shooter!”

The outlook isn’t completely optimistic, as Romanoff observes the industry has reached a saturation point of sorts.

“We don’t feel any existing segment of our industry will reflect growth. We expect the self-defense market to remain constant as a level of saturation is approaching,” he stated.

“Flat sales” is a primary concern for Ausley, who doesn’t think there will be a significant change in sales dollars.

“This is the new normal, and it will take ambition and drive to stay successful … two things that weren’t necessary in the past few years,” he asserted.

Shot Spot’s state-of-the-art range (complemented by exceptional customer service) will play a key
role in attracting repeat business in 2018.

The Biggest Challenge Today

There are a number of challenges facing brick-and-mortar dealers, and some from 2017 are set to extend into the 2018 New Business Year. Today’s environment, where fear-induced buying has been greatly diminished, represents one key area of concern for our panel of dealers.

“Political urgency has driven the market in the most recent years. Now, without this factor, there has been an abundance of product in the pipelines. Manufacturers will have to curtail production and monitor how and at what price their products are sold,” Romanoff observed.

“It’ll be a challenge as manufacturers adjust their mindset that they have to stabilize pricing. It’s not about the number of units but quality, service and delivery where both the retailer and the manufacturer are making a profit. Many of the manufacturers have continued to build product without orders, which has led to the dumping of product with price cuts,” Paulk said.

The adage “out of sight, out of mind,” represents a significant obstacle facing dealers today — especially with consumers who were driven by the fear of political restrictions to make their next purchase.

“I think as an industry, we need a ‘Got Milk?’ awareness campaign. We need to get a positive, inclusive, nation-wide conversation going. People act on what’s in their minds — so if we’re not in their heads, they won’t see us as an option,” Sloane noted.

Clark anticipates the biggest problem for dealers will be finding ways to sustain and grow in this new retail environment.

“Successful facilities will need to find ways to develop new revenue streams and elevate the industry against the perception issue that worsens with every gun violence tragedy,” she said.

In an era where instant gratification is commonplace for consumers, dealers have to stock the right inventory to keep them engaged.

“The biggest challenge of this industry is retaining a stable customer base. We live in the days of Amazon Prime, where everything is second-day shipping for the lowest price for free and offered by 100 retailers. Keeping customers and attracting them to purchase in-store will be a challenge this year,” Dube predicted.

Bottom Line?

We asked our panel to give us the “bottom line” for what it would take to succeed in 2018.

“As a business, we’re going to continue to invest in developing our people, build our brand and be as creative as possible in our own market. We have to stay fresh,” Sloane said.

“Managing inventory, intelligent buying, monitoring expenses and keeping a pulse on the market will be key for a successful 2018,” Romanoff added.

Setting the standard in quality customer service was also at the forefront of several dealers’ minds.

“Every sale needs to be handled like it’s the last, and the customer service must be exceptional,” Paulk stated. “Add-on sales will make the retailer successful! Having a range gives the retailer something no other retailer has — a ‘test drive’ of various firearms. This alone accounts for 48 percent of our firearms sales, as well as happier customers.”

“We rely on our customer service to set us apart from the rest. Our employees care about the customer and their needs!” Ausley informed.

“To be successful in 2018, small businesses in the firearms industry will need to offer service that is reliable, honest and out of the box. Businesses should strive to be the best and offer the best; we plan to continue to earn our customers’ business,” Dube said.

Brown advises dealers should focus on the “customer experience.”

“Fear is fleeting, but fun is forever,” she stated. “Our stance is the ‘experience’ we have to offer in-store for the entire public and the fun of recreational shooting as a sport, not just self-defense.”

Clark relayed her store has invested in a more formalized sales training for their entire staff, which will help ensure they’re focused on meeting the needs of customers and providing knowledgeable recommendations.

“Specific changes we’re making to ensure success in 2018 and beyond, have everything to do with adding value for our customers in every single area of our business — as well as working to create a ‘sales culture,’” she lends. “Giving customers more perceived value with their experience and purchases to keep them in our store versus online is key.”

For example, Clark shared Bristlecone offers free range passes and discounts with new firearms purchases and discounted first private training sessions. Additionally, the store has enhanced member benefits to boost value and retention.

In a similar vein, Sloane identified a couple value-added services his store plans to explore this year.

“We’re zeroing in on costs and business segments that grow beyond lane rentals — like gunsmithing and training. We’re also looking at ways to become more flexible and nimble with retail,” Sloane said.

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