Marketing Fun To A Younger Generation
By Greg Staunton
While personal and home defense are still motivating factors driving firearm sales these days, those who become shooters-for-life know recreational shooting is a contagious pastime. It’s fun, and it’s highly social. Those factors especially play well to younger customers, who are the future of the industry.
The NSSF’s 2014 report “Sport Shooting Participation in the U.S.” estimates the number of target/sport shooters in 2014 jumped more than 25 percent from 2012. A number of those were younger shooters, including women. More than a quarter of all those who did not shoot in 2014 expressed a strong interest in still doing so.
Now’s the time for the industry to focus on bringing back those new, younger shooters who fell away during the big firearms boom of several years ago. Why did they leave?
“I don’t think the industry fully realizes the massive impact the lack of .22 ammo had. Around 2012, manufacturers began making fantastic new .22 handguns, long rifles and carbines. New shooters got interested in the sport, bought their guns and then we started running out of ammo. So we lost them. You just can’t start a new shooter off with a 9mm. If the first shot scares them, they’re gone. We’re still trying to draw the new shooter from two years ago back to the range to fulfill what they never really got to do.”
This is the perspective of John Monson, owner of the chain of five stores that makes up Bill’s Gun Shop and Range in the tri-state region of Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. The first store opened in 2003, and the most recent, on the Minnesota-North Dakota line, just last month. Four of the shops include NSSF Five-Star indoor ranges.
Monson is staking his 15-year firearms business reputation on a new strategy to make recreational shooting irresistible for Millennial-aged shooters.
“We’re going to focus on the entertainment of shooting. We’re re-branding ourselves, and we’re going to advertise this new brand in a way we’ve never advertised before. We’re no longer going to push self-defense. It’s going to be ‘Moonlight Bowling,’ ‘Demon Busters’ and ‘Call of Duty’ — which is our competition.”
A major goal of progressive retailers is expanding diversity in their
customer base. With the majority of non-traditional shooters expressing
an interest in joining the shooting sports, now is the time for your store
to welcome them in and cultivate the future of recreational shooting.
Making The Transition
Monson says his initial focus at Bill’s Gun Shop and Range was defensive and tactical training.
“Conceal and carry was huge. Then we went tactical and advanced tactical. We trained with every kind of course you can imagine,” Monson said.
After a while, Monson says his business just “burned out” on its tactical focus.
“We scaled it back down to our mainstay classes — the basic, intermediate, concealed carry in a one-on-one training environment. So, we’ve been out there in the forefront, trying new things. We’ve always been about education,” he added.
Eventually, Monson became determined to win back the new shooters he’d lost by appealing to their love of shooting or military-type video games. In a sense, it weaves a “tactical” kind of element back into the mix, but in a fun way.
“We’re going to have a ‘Call of Duty’ night. We’ll mock it up so it’s fun, even letting shooters aim for the same levels the game has. We get those people here all the time. They shoot the (H&K) MP5 and say, ‘Wow! This is just like Call of Duty.’ And I say, ‘No, that’s the real thing.’”
Monson spent time deliberating over how to get these young “shooting” enthusiasts off their video games and into the real world.
“Shooting at the range is way more fun than video games, which people don’t realize. We want to make it even more fun for those already shooting. We’re going to push competition and just having a good time. Dealers aren’t doing enough of this now. We’re going to tell shooters to come to the range and have fun blowing up stuff,” Monson said.
Millennials are likely to have discretionary income to spend on firearms and accessories. Those at the younger end of the spectrum (growing numbers of whom still live at home with their parents), use their own money for fun, while older Millennials earn enough to have substantial buying power.
Monson is not alone in seeing the need to market the fun, social or family elements of recreational shooting to grow the sport. A quick survey of other dealers and ranges around the country finds more of them promoting Family Nights, Ladies Nights, 3-Gun matches and fun-themed events such as Zombie Warrior competitions. They also draw in the larger community, raising funds for cancer research and other causes.
Bill’s Gun Shop and Range offers a few competitive leagues for centerfire, rimfire and IDPA-style shooting. They partner with several area sporting clays ranges, exchanging clientele, as well.
John Monson says his chain of five stores is changing its approach to
attracting recreational shooters in 2016. Instead of pushing personal-defense,
he’s focusing on the “entertainment of shooting.”
Adjust And Keep Adjusting
Monson says a number of independent dealers who jumped on the bandwagon during the firearms boom with new shops and ranges are behind the marketing curve, still focusing heavily on self-defense and tactical training.
“This newer competition has all come in with the idea they’re the best at training, and it’s already kind of burned out. I have to create today’s and tomorrow’s concept to stay a step ahead of the competition,” Monson said.
Coming up with a concept or program is one thing. Advertising and sustaining it is another.
“We try to test the market with some different advertising to see what works best. Then I write a marketing program around it and get behind it 100 percent and splash the market. And when I feel the market is used up, I go and sample the market again. It changes constantly. You have to be careful not to jump in with both feet. Every dealer, regardless of size, has to ask himself what’s working,” Monson advised.
Monson says he and his staff at all the Bill’s Gun Shop and Range locations have to know how to communicate with different kinds of customers, and they utilize appropriate media outlets when advertising.
“I treat my Millennial customers differently than I treat my Baby Boomers. It’s a different style of marketing. We have a diverse staff. We have a fantastic customer base of women. We’ve turned our Ladies Night into more of a Date Night. We advertise in Engaged magazine. It’s a great market,” Monson said.
Monson advises dealers to “crawl out of their shells and market to everybody.”
“I market to groups that others don’t. We want everybody to come to our ranges, have fun and behave themselves. This is an opportunity to unite people,” he added.
Monson does his best to keep all his stores and ranges stocked with .22 ammo for their regular recreational shooting customers, while waiting for the industry to catch up the supply to the demand. But rather than sitting around waiting — and his schedule is quite demanding with his stores open seven days a week — he serves on several proactive committees and buying groups to provide manufacturers with critical feedback. They need to understand the impact of product placement, Monson says.
“This is just the education of the industry growing. I think it’s going to take a year or two to recover. We need to get the right people the right product at the right time. I have a bit more buying power because I have five stores, but it’s tough for the independent dealers,” Monson said.
Bill’s Gun Shop uses its website to publicize upcoming events and promotions,
such as weekly Ladies Nights and a monthly giveaway, to encourage a wider range
of customers to visit one of its five locations.
Research shows incentives such as discount coupons or a first-time shooter
event will help drive participation at your store (see “Focus: Recreational“).
Trends To Watch
Hunting remains a dedicated recreational shooting activity for more seasoned shooters, predominantly. According to the NSSF’s “Sport Shooting” report, hunters who also target-shoot make up 41 percent of the shooting population, while target-shooters who don’t hunt comprise 44 percent of shooters.
“The video game generation is probably not going to transition into hunting. Hunting lands are diminishing these days anyway. When I was a kid, we just went and knocked on a farmer’s door and got permission to hunt. Nowadays, you don’t see that,” Monson observed.
Handguns and traditional rifles are the preferred firearms on the range, and the choices are practically limitless. Modern Sporting Rifles (MSRs) have tapered off somewhat, though they have their own dedicated market. A decent part of the market is dedicated to sporting clays, trap or skeet. Interestingly, there’s a growing youth market for trap and skeet among high schools.
Minnesota’s High School Athletic Association says trap shooting will become the number one high school sport in the state by next year, overtaking football. This year, over 8,600 students participated on 243 trap and 25 skeet teams in state high schools.
“My son’s high school opened a trap league last year, and 40–50 kids came out for trap. It’s a small school, too. This is great for the shooting industry,” Monson said.
Monson sees no particular hot sellers in firearms or accessories for recreational shooting right now.
Dealers, what are your plans to promote recreational shooting at your store? We want to hear from you, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.