by Tim Barker
Ask any gun-store owner about top-selling handguns and you’ll get an answer that varies only slightly from coast to coast. They’ll all talk about the elite tier of “must-haves” drawing customers into their shops — typically subcompact 9mms.
This doesn’t mean you have to limit your inventory to the most popular models offered by GLOCK, SIG SAUER and Smith & Wesson. Reaching further down the list of popular handguns — and even venturing into some of the lesser-known brands — can offer new customers a reason to come in, and older customers a reason to keep looking around.
At Metro Shooting Supplies in Bridgeton, Mo., customers are interested in the typical top sellers, including the GLOCK 19, 43, S&W M&P 2.0, Springfield XD-E and SIG P365.
“Concealable 9mm handguns still seem to be the go-to for most people,” said John Stephenson, general manager.
While these more popular options may handle the needs of most of the shop’s customers, Metro does set aside inventory space for handguns lacking widespread appeal, for a variety of reasons.
They stock a half-dozen or so single-action revolvers by Uberti and Cimarron Firearms. “There’s a pretty good interest in those. You’re able to own and shoot a piece of American history,” he offered. “I’m not going to say we sell a lot, but we do sell a couple a month.”
There’s also the BERSA Thunder in .380, which customers often mistakenly refer to as the James Bond gun. “It’s a good price point and it’s a good little gun,” Stephenson acknowledged.
At Bristlecone Shooting, Training & Retail Center, in Lakewood, Colo., most of the shop’s handgun inventory is built around the more popular brands. Owner Jacquelyn Clark confirmed they do set aside display space for manufacturers like Walther, H&K, CZ and Beretta.
“We don’t sell a whole lot of those; people don’t come in asking for them,” she said.
Still, there’s something to be said for being able to offer options for those customers who aren’t after the most common guns. As an example, she mentioned the shop has a CZ-USA 75 Tactical Sport sitting in a display case. It’s not the typical thing you’ll find in many stores, but she feels like it needs to be there since they’ve been working on developing a competitive shooting customer base by offering two USPSA matches a month on the range.
“Since we do have competitions here, it’s important to have at least a moderate selection of CZs,” Clark asserted. “It’s going to sit there for a while, but it’ll probably go to a competition shooter.”
Revolvers Carry Weight
Both shops have seen a fair amount of success with revolvers. For Bristlecone, it’s primarily through the S&W 686, Governor and the Taurus Judge. During the summer months, they have customers looking for big-bore revolvers to take to Alaska and other remote locales.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Heritage Rough Rider in .22 cal. They sell a couple of those a month, usually to people interested in the nostalgia of a single-action pistol that might also be easy for the kids to shoot.
“It’s basically a novelty item regular plinkers might look at as something fun to have at the range,” she stated.
At Metro Shooting, top sellers include the 686, various J-Frames and the Ruger SP101 and GP100. “There’s still an element out there who just really trusts the revolver and its reliability,” Stephenson shared.
They also carry some of Smith & Wesson’s pricier Performance Center models. Those may not sell as fast as the less-expensive models, but they give customers something to dream about.
“People will come in and look at them three or four times,” he said. “Finally, they’ll come back and say, ‘I’ve got to have it.’”
A diverse mix of cutting-edge and iconic, baseline and sophisticated, for plinking and self-defense will help your store stand out — giving customers “one more” reason to come in for a visit.
The High-End Market
For Metro Shooting, guns like the Performance Center models fall into a category of offerings aimed at the upper end of their customer base.
“We cater to all types of customers, but we do have a lot of customers who like the high-end stuff,” Stephenson noted.
Of course, when you start talking about high-end guns — particularly with 1911s — you can get into some astronomical prices, especially in the eyes of customers who typically buy GLOCKs and similar fare. With this in mind, Metro prefers to limit in-stock inventory to handguns under $3,000.
“For us, we want to carry something not too far out of reach for the average guy,” he relayed.
They’ve had good luck with Kimber, including the company’s custom shop offerings. (The store carries 15 or so models in the shop, ranging in price from $1,200 to $2,500.)
“People are really gravitating toward the high-end models. They have all the bells and whistles on them,” Stephenson explained.
The decision to invest in pricier inventory doesn’t work for everyone, however. Bristlecone hasn’t had much success in this arena — other than around the Christmas holiday when people might be in the mood to spend a bit more.
“We really don’t have the customer base for the higher-end guns,” Clark contended. “They sit around on our shelves for months.”
Selling New SKUs
As new guns roll off manufacturers’ assembly lines, shop owners are faced with decisions (some easier than others) on which of those new offerings to add to display cases. For Clark, one of the first steps with any promising new model is to get one into the range’s rental pool as quickly as possible.
“People want to come in and look at these guns. They want to dry-fire it. But really, they want to shoot it,” she said. “They want to see it, touch it and try it.”
Such was the case with Mossberg’s MC1sc — the company’s first new handgun in 100 years. The gun has proven popular as a rental, but not so popular in sales. They’ve sold only a handful so far.
It’s the sort of thing reinforcing their strategy of limiting their purchases of new firearms.
“With some stuff, it’s just a crapshoot,” Clark admitted. “We don’t go very deep. We don’t order 10. We order two or three, so we don’t get stuck with a lot of inventory.”
Of course, the challenge with any new offering is figuring out how much of the initial customer interest will translate into sales.
“Whenever these new guns come out they get a lot of press. If it’s on the front cover of a magazine, we’ll get calls as soon as it hits the newsstand,” said Stephenson at Metro Shooting.
The results can be very different with each of these ventures. The SIG P365, for example, has had a stellar reception by customers. On the other hand, his shop has also witnessed tepid sales of the Mossberg. One of the problems is the gun is looking for room in an incredibly competitive market.
“You look at a Mossberg pistol next to a Smith & Wesson Shield, and it’s difficult,” he remarked.
Getting The Word Out
In recent years, Metro has pulled back on some of its traditional advertising strategies. “We used to do a lot of radio stuff, but right now we’re not doing a lot of advertising,” he shared.
Instead, they’re relying on their prominent location on a busy street and social media efforts. Those largely center around email campaigns and Facebook, where they’ll post notices of monthly sales, as well as an assortment of gun-related articles and links aimed at connecting with customers.
“It’s a quick way to get the word out when something is going on,” Stephenson added.
Bristlecone, which opened in 2015, has been exploring a range of marketing options, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and, to a lesser degree, YouTube. The goal is post something at least twice a day.
“There’s no shortage of content to share,” Clark offered. “Maybe it’s a class. Or something we’ve carried before now back in stock, or someone shooting something interesting on the range.”
The primary focus is on improving the store’s prominence in Google rankings. Clark said they’ve been using an electronic waiver program allowing them to ask customers how they heard about the range. The top answer is always “word of mouth.”
There’s not much you can do with it, though, Clark advised: “It’s frustrating because I don’t know how to spend money to buy more word of mouth.”
Number two on the list is generally “internet search.” So, Bristlecone’s team is invested in improving the store’s SEO (Search Engine Optimization) ranking — with the current strategy built around “back linking” their website to various blogs and sites to build up the site’s authority in the eyes of Google. They’re trying to emphasize the store’s classes and its retail offerings.
They also have regular radio ads, usually on two FM stations, and they’ve tried billboards and bus shelters — though they’re a little tougher to track in terms of return on investment.
Clark is a fan of billboards, but not the 12-month contracts. So, they have a remnant relationship with a local billboard provider. They get cheaper space on billboards when those sites are between contracts. “They do work, but radio is a little bit more flexible,” she said.
What categories outside of concealable 9mms have emerged as surprise sellers at your store? Let us know! firstname.lastname@example.org.