By Tim Barker
When Steven Soucy opened his New Hampshire gun shop, one of the first things he noticed about the industry was its somewhat limited online presence. It was a marked departure from his former life as service director for an auto dealership. There, he saw just how important a website and online offerings were.
“I saw how fast it grew,” shared Soucy, who started Merrimack Firearms in 2011 in his garage. “When people want to find you, they go online and search.”
After spending a couple of years getting his business up and running (and moving into a strip mall storefront), he took the plunge and signed on with Gearfire — a company offering turnkey services for stores looking to venture online without developing their own e-commerce platform.
Even at $100 a month, it was a sizable investment in terms of the store’s annual advertising budget. The fact it has driven new customers into the store has made it worthwhile, though.
“How much is a new customer worth? Well, the next guy coming through the door could be your new $150,000 customer,” Soucy declared.
An Arizona-based company, Gearfire provides a customizable website template for gun shops and offers a network of 20 distributors, with each shop deciding how many of them to use. The service is offered for a flat monthly fee, with no contract or setup costs. The company says it has more than 2,000 customers around the nation.
It’s a number that has grown with shop owners slowly coming around to the idea of turning to the internet (long a source of rival irritation) for a potential competitive advantage.
“It’s like the old days when if a store didn’t have a Yellow Pages ad, consumers weren’t going to find them. Now, if you don’t have a webpage, consumers aren’t going to find you,” said Chad Seaverns, Gearfire’s chief operating officer.
Many shop owners remain uneasy about the idea of embracing this type of change. Yet consumers are living in a retail world dominated by companies like Amazon, with its seamless shopping experience.
“What the firearms industry has to do is catch up with consumer expectations,” Seaverns added.
For smaller brick-and-mortar shops, Gearfire offers a quick, and fairly inexpensive, entry to the online world. Larger operations, with an expanded budget and specialized personnel, may instead opt for a more unique approach to e-commerce with a customized web presence.
One of the downsides of going with a turnkey approach is tied to one of its upsides: The company offers 25 different templates, with the ability to change color schemes and logos. Still, providing every dealer with a unique look is virtually impossible if the goal is to keep prices manageable.
“With over 2,000 dealers, there’s going to be some duplication,” Seaverns acknowledged.
This was one of the driving forces in the decision by Magnum Shooting Center, in Colorado Springs, Colo., to start work on its own in-house product, which launches this year. About a year after opening in 2014, they started with a turnkey option — primarily to see if online worked for them.
It didn’t take long to see the advantages, noted Todd Lockburner, chief operating officer and one of the owners. Still, they waited a year or so before starting work on their own site, with the help of a website development firm.
“I didn’t want to get into it too quick. I didn’t want to start off with something that gave us a bad reputation or frustrated customers,” Lockburner said. “We weren’t sure what we wanted to do. It’s expensive to build a really good, quality site that ties in your inventory and accounting.”
They wanted a unique look, but they also wanted something capable of handling the store’s inventory in real time. They want customers to know whether the gun they just purchased online is really at the store — and, if not, when it will be there.
“You don’t want to annoy a customer,” Lockburner advised. “You’ll have locals who will see something online. They’ll purchase it and then want to come down and pick it up.”
But for a smaller shop, the more generic turnkey approach still offers the ability to offer customers a greatly expanded inventory.
Soucy’s New Hampshire store is plugged into a half-dozen distributors through his Gearfire site.
“It looks like I have millions and millions of dollars in inventory on my website,” he said.
Of course, large chunks of those guns and accessories are stored at warehouses owned by the distributors. Still, Soucy strives to keep the most demanded items in stock at his store.
“Obviously I can’t have everything, but people looking for the common stuff will find it here,” he noted.
“Online sales are going to give you a higher profit marginTodd Lockburner, COO & Co-Owner
at the end of the day, from a payroll perspective.”
Magnum Shooting Center
Colorado Springs, Colo.
Among the customization options on the Gearfire site is the ability to set prices and to decide what items are featured on the homepage. Perhaps more important is the feature allowing shops to add their own in-store inventory to the site. It’s a way to list unique items such as used guns, CCW classes or range memberships.
“That’s the recipe for success on Gearfire — the dealers who take the time to load their own stuff onto the site,” Seaverns said. “If they can post an ad on GunBroker, they can add a listing on Gearfire.”
Both shops have noticed advantages offered by their e-commerce sites that might not seem obvious. It’s easy to envision the idea of an online site offering a way to make sales while you and all of your employees are home with family. A website offers 24-hour sales opportunities.
“You’ll have people sitting on their couch at night looking at guns online. It’ll probably get you more impulse buying,” noted Lockburner in Colorado.
Potentially more important is the idea those sales require very little from your store in the way of labor costs. Those guns aren’t being sold by a salesman who had to spend 45 minutes with a customer, pulling a dozen different guns from the display case.
“Online sales are going to give you a higher profit margin at the end of the day, from a payroll perspective,” Lockburner said.
Then there’s the more utilitarian advantage offered on the backend of sites like Gearfire, which bring distributor inventory into a single location. Soucy uses this resource for a more streamlined system of restocking the store’s physical inventory. There’s no need to open half a dozen web browser windows to do price and availability comparisons among the various distributors.
“It makes a great tool for saving time,” Soucy added.
Words Of Advice
As you might expect, there’s more to building a successful e-commerce platform than simply putting up a website with your shop’s name on it.
Soucy has promoted his site through Facebook, Instagram and email campaigns. With his auto industry background, he knew what to expect as the store’s website slowly gained traction. Still, Soucy remembers some of the angst that came with watching traffic grow slowly.
“It’s a matter of people trying to find you,” he shared.
Tim Coker, Gearfire’s vice president of sales and operations, said one of the company’s overlooked resources is its team of e-commerce advisors — a service included with the monthly fee. It can be particularly valuable for newer owners navigating an increasingly competitive landscape.
“We have a lot of people who are hobbyists thinking they can get into the business and make a lot of money, but often they don’t understand the costs. We help them with that,” Coker said.
The company also recommends setting up a kiosk in the store — giving customers the option of online shopping while they’re in the building. Even if you have $1 million in inventory, you won’t have everything customers are looking for. A cheap laptop can give those customers quick access to what they want — instantly.
Magnum in Colorado Springs has four of those stations setup in the store, where they can be used for a range of functions, including background checks, class sign-ups and a way for customers to browse inventory. When the store doesn’t have something in stock, the kiosk becomes a special-order tool.
“You can actually pull up your own site and order something right there with the customer’s credit card,” Lockburner said. “Always make the sale, whether it’s retail, classes or memberships.”