Dealers Pinpoint Effective Strategies
By Jade Moldae
Richard Sprague, president of Sprague’s Sports, has experienced the cyclical nature of
the industry for over three decades. In today’s “new normal,” Sprague encourages other
dealers to focus on the basic principles of their business.
Every storefront dealer has a story. Whether it’s a hobbyist-turned-sole-proprietor, husband and wife team or an expansive multimillion-dollar enterprise, each dealer quoted in Shooting Industry brings a unique perspective — informing other dealers on trends they’ve observed in their store, the creative strategies they’ve employed to increase revenue and the steps they’ve taken to maximize the impact of their brick-and-mortar location.
In 2017, 82 dealers from 34 states provided personal accounts of how to operate a successful storefront in today’s competitive environment. These firsthand reports have been a hallmark in Shooting Industry for over 60 years, and we’d like to take the opportunity to revisit key business-building insights from a year of profound change in the industry.
A Return To Normalization
After eight years of rampant sales, the industry experienced a softened business climate in 2017. The results of the 2016 election season — with President Trump’s surprising victory, coupled with the Republicans’ continued majority in Congress — significantly reduced the fear among consumers of increased anti-gun restrictions, which had served as a primary driver of sales.
For dealers who had only operated in the boisterous sales environment of the past eight years, 2017 presented some unique challenges. Paul Bastean, managing director of Ultimate Defense Firing Range & Training Center (St. Peters, Mo.) affirmed the “need-to-buy-now” mentality has evaporated among his customers.
“I think it’s a return to normalization. People aren’t scared. There’s no sense of urgency,” noted Bastean, who opened his store in 2010. “A lot of times, they just need a reason. With Trump in office, people have lost that mental justification. They see no reason why they can’t wait until later.”
Experienced dealers, who have observed the cyclical nature of the shooting industry, emphasized a return to the core values of business.
“It’s not going to be fear-infused interest. Everyone will need to earn their piece of the pie by being good business people,” said Richard Sprague, longtime owner of Sprague’s Sports in Yuma, Ariz. “It’s going to be back to the basics.”
This lack of fear-infused interest has presented an opportunity for dealers to spend more time with customers.
“There’s no panic right now, and customers have kind of cooled their jets. We’re back to normal business. Compared to the last several years we’re slow, so we get to talk to customers a little longer. It’s nice, especially for new enthusiasts; I spend a little more time now with customers because I can,” informed Joe Dominguez, manager of the Stockade in Westminster, Calif.
In another positive: Enthusiasts are able to make discretionary (rather than compulsory) purchases.
“Customers aren’t making any rash purchases. They’re buying guns they’ve always wanted to own,” observed John Stephenson, general manager of Metro Shooting Supplies in Bridgeton, Mo.
Marketing Your Business
Like never before, a storefront dealer’s ability to market his or her business outside of a brick-and-mortar location represents a crucial part to achieving success.
Todd Lockburner, co-owner and COO of Magnum Shooting Center (Colorado Springs, Colo.), warned against reducing marketing expenditures during a slow-down.
“Business owners tend to reduce marketing spent in this type of environment, but we have increased ours at Magnum Shooting Center. The changes and increased MarCom has paid off with reduced cost of goods and increased margin dollars that gave us a double-digit percentage increase on the bottom line over last year’s first quarter.”
Dealers should seek out several marketing avenues as they look to increase awareness among consumers. Matthew Tyler, VP of development at SafeSide Tactical in Roanoke, Va., shared his store takes a multifaceted approach to marketing.
“The best way to market any business is to market in as many ways possible,” he said. “We have over a dozen billboards at any time, TV commercials on our local station, newspaper ads and campaign during special events — using direct mail coupons. An easy-to-navigate website, coupled with a responsive and constantly updated social media page, and even a phonebook listing for the folks with time and money who grew up without Google all play an important part.”
Ryan Pennock, owner of the Thunderbird Firearms Academy (Wichita, Kan.), advised proactive dealers will be the ones who prosper in this normalized environment.
“The dealers who find ways to market and keep their foot traffic up will be the ones who thrive. Several of my peers have said dealers need to be in survival mode this year. I agree! They need to lean down their inventories and stay nimble. Margins will have to be cut in hopes of raising volume,” he added.
Several dealers have recognized the importance of social media and are now actively attempting to harness its capabilities by hiring personnel to focus on it — a job, quite frankly, that didn’t exist 10 years ago.
“Now that we have a guy who keeps his eye on [social media] full time, we’re seeing the use of it step up,” Stephenson said.
Ultimate Defense has become very active on Facebook and Instragram, encouraging customers to post photos from the range. “We get a tremendous amount of new clients that way,” Bastean shared.
Beyond getting a customer’s attention through marketing, Tyler emphasized dealers should work to ensure repeat visits.
“The most important thing about marketing to remember is: You can always buy a customer’s first trip, but the second one you have to earn!” he stated.
Robert Buckley, co-owner of Arms-R-Us, offers a range of price points at his store.
Customer Retention Hints
Throughout 2017, numerous dealers provided successful strategies in earning repeat business. Some insights are intuitive (like the adage: “Treat your customers the way you’d want to be treated as a customer.”), while others have developed a creative approach to ensure customers feel welcome.
Clay Ausley, owner of Fuquay Gun & Gold (Fuquay-Varina, N.C.) established quality customer service as a key principle at his store to secure long-term patrons.
“We strive every year, and even every day, to be the best store to offer all three of the following: price, customer service and selection — with a major emphasis on customer service,” he confirmed. “Who wouldn’t want to shop where they’re appreciated? At the end of the day if our clients are happy and well taken care of, they’ll remain our clients for many years to come.”
How a prospective buyer is treated will have a significant impact on whether or not they make a return visit.
“Customers want answers, and they want a better understanding of what they’re buying. We don’t sell guns; guns sell themselves. It’s how you take care of the customer that matters,” shared Marna Tracy, owner of Tampa Tactical Supply in Riverview, Fla.
“Not every engagement with a customer results in a sale, but if you treat them well and with respect, most of the time they will return to work with your sales team,” said Todd Vance, owner of Vance Outdoors in Columbus, Ohio.
In a creative measure, Marlon Knapp of Knapp Weaponry in Wichita, Kan., shared there is no exterior door handle at his store. “We have to walk over and let customers in,” he said. This is meant as more than a security measure, it’s part of the store’s broader effort to make sure every visitor feels welcome and receives a greeting. “The biggest complaint customers have is being ignored,” Knapp added.
Creating a welcoming culture starts with hiring good-quality employees, says Jay Woodbury, owner of Jay’s Guns in Crestview, Fla.
“I try to hire younger folks who have an open mind and are more customer-service friendly,” he said. “Nowadays there are so many options with online sales and other new brick-and-mortar stores, customers don’t have to put up with poor customer service. If you don’t treat them respectfully, they’re going to go somewhere else.”
Tom Deets, owner of SharpShooters USA in Roswell, Ga., provided a similar insight.
“It’s important to have a diverse team of employees of different ages, genders and ethnicities in order to attract new shooters,” he shared. “The atmosphere is upbeat and we encourage interaction and socializing with our customers.”
Another way successful retailers provide service is to identify and meet an unfulfilled need in their customer base.
“For the smaller shops, they need to be known as the place to go, by offering a specific rifle setup or bowhunting equipment — specialization separates you from the competition,” said Josh DoByns, shooting sports buyer at the Kittery Trading Post in Kittery, Maine. “They need to be the shop people know they can go to because Bass Pro, Cabela’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Field & Stream are all showing up everywhere. If you can’t compete with them in price, you better beat them in service and knowledge.”
John Stephenson, GM of Metro Shooting Sports Supplies, observed a shift in consumer buying
habits at his store in 2017 — with impulsive purchases becoming less common.
Capitalize On Your In-Store Advantage
Despite the considerable challenge facing brick-and-mortar stores today, our industry is unique in FFL dealers remain an integral part of the firearm-buying process. Whether it’s an in-store purchase or transfer, dealers have an ability to interact with customers and earn additional business. Furthermore, as DoByns and others noted, independent dealers can make a personal, knowledgeable impression unmatched by big-box or online retailers.
“One of the biggest benefits of buying from a brick-and-mortar store is customers can get advice and actually try the product before buying. This is especially true for higher-ticket items,” informed Jim Wisner, sales manager of Firearm Training and Shooting Supplies (East Peoria, Ill.).
Sprague shared proficiency in new technologies, such as high-end optics, represents an advantage for dealers.
“It’s the technology out there; you’ve got to understand it, and have the guts to stock it and the expertise to explain it,” he said.
Nigel Rogers, owner of the Self Defense Superstore, opened a brick-and-mortar location specifically to create a forum of education among his customers.
“People just don’t know the breadth and depth of products available,” he said. “The only way that’s going to be achieved is in a storefront.”
John Ritz, owner of East Orange Shooting Sports (Winter Park, Fla.), maintained his store’s personal touch has increased sales in concealed carry accessories.
“Take the gun out of the case and over to the wall of holsters, show [customers] the fit. Show them why this holster is $15, this one is $45 and this one is $100,” Ritz said. “It makes all the difference in the world, and boosts sales.”
A diverse staff will foster a welcoming environment for visitors. Stores with women instructors — like Davidson’s Guns in Henderson, Nev. — have reported an uptick in women interested in concealed carry and personal defense. Pictured: Paul Davidson, owner, and Jaclyn Scott, instructor.
Open Layouts Garner Sales
Shooting Industry contributing dealers uncovered another advantage your store can secure over the competition: an inviting layout. If done well, a store’s layout encourages customers to not only visit, but to spend quality time there. Many retailers have adopted the “Apple Store concept” (with light colors, bright lights, open layouts and accessible products for customers) with considerable success.
“Our facility is clean, bright and designed to feel more like a higher-end sporting goods store as opposed to a ‘gun shop,’” Deets said. “We want our store to be a destination location.”
Crossroads Shooting Sports (Des Moines, Iowa) General Manager Tom Hudson shared a surprising reason why his store decided to break the mold when it came to its design.
“We designed the store without the 50-year-old shooter in mind,” he stated. “It’s not that we don’t love our older shooters, but we know a darkly lit, cluttered store with bars on the windows is simply not inviting to millennials and Gen Xers.”
Founded in 2015, Bristlecone Shooting, Training & Retail Center (Lakewood, Colo.) endeavored to facilitate a warm environment for customers. The store has enjoyed considerable success, and was recently recognized as an NSSF 5-Star Range.
“Our goal was to open an upscale, family-friendly place where folks from all different walks of life could find something they loved, whether it was classes, the range, expertise of staff or the right retail mix,” said Co-Owner Jacquelyn Clark. “We wanted a welcoming place, especially for women.”
Vance asserted dealers should be judicious in using signage in their store.
“The amount of signage is tricky — too much and it looks crowded on clothing racks or covers up too much inventory that may be displayed on shelves or endcaps,” he advised. “For us, the best placement seems to be right with the merchandise we’re trying to promote.”
For dealers looking to grow the varmint hunting side of their business, Ronnie Groom, long-time
owner of C&G Sporting Goods, recommends talking to local varmint hunters to stay on top of the
Get Creative With Events
Another way to drive revenue is hosting in-store events, such as “industry days” or local competitions.
Arnzen Arms, located in Eden Prairie, Minn., hosts an event every other month to bolster in-store traffic. Owners Dan and Kate Arnzen shared they promote these events through a variety of means — including radio, an email list and social media — and they often involve a featured manufacturer. These promotions often bring in hundreds of extra customers.
“We plan on the events being a fun thing, and the sales are usually pretty good,” Dan Arnzen said.
Bryan Hurst, shooting sports buyer at the Kittery Trading Post, confirmed similar results.
“We’ve had great success through special promotional events — things like Ruger Weekend or SIG Promo Weekend — using direct mailings. We’re able to go back and research people who had purchased firearms from us before and add them to our targeted direct mailing list,” Hurst shared. “It’s costly, but works very well for us.”
At GAT Guns in Dundee, Ill., General Manager Randy Potter said his store always profits when the store hosts these events.
“In one of these promotions, we’ll typically sell 250 to 300 guns over the weekend. There are other dealers who move considerably more. I’ve heard of one dealer who hosts a week-long event of this type, and sells thousands of guns over four or five days,” he relayed.
Free events remain another creative way to drive local interest and revenue. Earlier this year, Thunderbird Firearms Academy ran a “Machine Gun May” promotion to great effect.
“The promo yielded a 300 percent increase over normal rentals,” Pennock informed. Thunderbird also routinely offers free training and low-cost competition opportunities, which further encourages visits.
Dealers have also shared in Shooting Industry how fundraisers and community-oriented events continue to bring in new customers and foster a sense of goodwill in their local areas.
What Will 2018 Bring?
As the 2018 New Business Year approaches, Shooting Industry will continue to showcase the business acumen and successful programs from brick-and-mortar dealers across the country. If your store has a story to share or would like to participate in a future article, contact us at email@example.com