By Tim Barker
A gun store’s success in today’s market may have little to do with guns. Oh, certainly you need to carry guns to be a gun store. To stay afloat — and even prosper — in a softer market, you need to do more to attract customers than simply put guns on shelves.
To be clear, there’s no magic checklist of amenities or services to guarantee double-digit sales growth each year. But there is a general course you can chart, one that draws inspiration from modern retail operations.
“It’s so hard to attract customers these days. If you don’t have something special, they’ll just move on down the road,” shared Mike Rust, general manager of H&H Shooting Sports in Oklahoma City.
Keeping this in mind, Shooting Industryspoke to owners and managers of several gun shops around the country who have been pushing the boundaries in this arena. During those conversations, several themes and ideas emerged.
This may seem an unlikely place to start for a gun store (or even this article), but it’s the sort of amenity that can say a lot — good or bad — to your customers and their companions. At H&H, the men and women’s restrooms are one of the first things you see when you walk into the store. They’re right up front. Clearly marked. Inside, they’re modern and clean.
“You can do the research and see it’s one of the hardest-hit areas of stores when it comes to reviews,” Rust noted. “People do get a sense of how the rest of the store is run by the condition of the restroom.”
So, they stopped having their own employees maintain the bathrooms. “We wanted to make sure they were taken care of, so we outsourced it. It was either that or hire an in-house cleaning person, and it just didn’t make sense,” Rust explained.
You don’t have to have separate restrooms to make it work. The important thing is keeping them clean and inviting, said Henry Parro, owner of Parro’s Gun Shop in Waterbury, Vt.
“I don’t want it to be your stereotypical dirty male bathroom with girlie posters. We get compliments on our bathroom almost weekly,” Parro relayed, who plans to have his and hers restrooms at his next location.
“When you can bring customers into a retail
experience like most of the places they shop,
they’ll be more comfortable.”
JASON GENTZ Manager Arnzen Arms, Eden Prairie, Minn.
If you call Arnzen Arms in Eden Prairie, Minn., you’ll be greeted by a welcome message touting the shop as “Minnesota’s well-lit, friendly gun store” — clearly a place that takes pride in its lights.
Manager Jason Gentz said it was a point of emphasis when they opened the store seven years ago. It was part of their effort to make the store inviting to newer customers and people who might be anxious about shopping at a gun store.
“When you can bring customers into a retail experience like most of the places they shop, they’ll be more comfortable,” Gentz advised.
At first, they tried fluorescent lighting but he grew frustrated with the difficulty of finding bulbs with a uniform color. So a few years ago they switched to LED lighting — something that will save money down the road, but also offers a uniform look. “It displays the products so much better,” he said.
3. CUSTOMER SERVICE
However, as Gentz points out, it doesn’t do much good to have an attractive store if the employees aren’t friendly. “It has to be the whole shopping experience,” he added.
A big piece of that is making sure employees understand today’s customers are often highly educated regarding the guns and other gear they may be considering. Many have done extensive research online before walking in the door.
“You have to listen to the customers, because they may know more than you. And always give an honest answer,” Gentz suggests.
In Oklahoma City, Rust said H&H strives to get employees to buy into the idea of building relationships with customers.
“I want every customer who walks in to feel like they’ve made a friend,” he said. “I’ve preached to our employees the job is so much easier when you make friends with the customers.”
Along those lines, you need to keep little things in mind. Consider what happens when a customer on the range is doing something against the rules. If an employee steps onto the range to discuss it they’re forced to shout to be heard over the sounds of the other shooters. For the customer, it just feels like they’re being yelled at. So, employees are taught to bring the customer off the range to allow for a quieter, less stressful, conversation.
“The salesperson is face-to-face and
shoulder-to-shoulder with the customer. We
feel like you can see the firearms better. It’s just
a more relaxed way of selling guns.”
MIKE RUST, General Manager, H&H Shooting Sports, Oklahoma City
4. OPEN DISPLAYS
Each of these stores has taken a decidedly customer-friendly approach to displaying firearms. Back in Oklahoma City, H&H has long since done away with firearms sales counters. Instead, they display handguns in A-frame racks and long guns in free-standing circular racks. Customers can’t touch them without grabbing a salesperson, but they can push their noses against the glass without needing to speak to anyone.
“The salesperson is face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder with the customer,” Rust said. “We feel like you can see the firearms better. It’s just a more relaxed way of selling guns.”
At Arnzen Arms, the latest renovation reconfigured the store by moving the points of sale to the outer edges to make a more welcome shopping area in the center of the store. Guns are out in the open, allowing shoppers more freedom in browsing.
“People are less apt to look when there’s someone standing there watching,” Gentz shared. “We don’t want them to feel like we’re breathing down their necks.”
Parro’s in Vermont also had racks made for its long guns to allow customers to handle them without assistance. When he opens his next store, he plans to do something similar with handguns. Part of it is motivated by the desire to make things more comfortable for customers, but there’s also a potential benefit in terms of lowering labor costs: “You don’t need someone to stand there and show someone every gun,” he noted.
5. DRESS CODE
These stores differ a bit in terms of how they handle employee dress codes. Only H&H requires its employees to wear shirts with store logos. It doesn’t mean, however, the other stores don’t pay attention to what their employees are wearing. The general strategy might best be described as: Don’t look like a slob and don’t wear anything that could offend customers.
“If it’s firearms related, it has to be something anyone could accept,” Gentz acknowledged. “We want to be inclusive and to have all walks of life feel welcome in our store.”
Given the current state of political affairs in this country, each of these stores keeps its employees’ attire clear of political statements. It would be easy to make a mistake and think of your customer base as being overwhelmingly Republican, Rust argued.
“A large portion of our customers are card-carrying Democrats,” he said. “The easiest way to lose them is to start becoming political.”
The story is the same at Parro’s: “It’s just unspoken you don’t wear political stuff. Even political signs we don’t do,” Parro stated. “If someone walked in and saw a bunch of Trump hats, maybe they’d turn around and leave.”
6. FINDING A NICHE
In an increasingly competitive marketplace, it also pays to find ways to make your store stand out — offering something nobody else is. Of course, this can be a tricky thing — as something that works for a gun store in rural Idaho might not do anything for a shop in urban Atlanta.
Arnzen Arms has spent several years creating a name for itself carrying high-end handguns and hunting rifles. Gentz has led the effort with bolt-action hunting rifles, building the store’s reputation through his connection with local hunting clubs and shows.
“Bolt-action rifle was one of our worst performing categories for a long time, but we stepped into unique higher-end rifles you don’t see anywhere else. Now, we stock more high-end rifles than we do production models,” he said. “It’s based on having the stuff almost no one else has and knowing how to sell it.”
At H&H, the store sets itself apart from competitors through its archery department (they have the “best-lit indoor archery range in the central United States”) and a robust reloading department. Though the latter has been a bit soft now that ammunition is plentiful again.
The store also has its own restaurant. The 4U Café started as a small bistro-style affair, but has since expanded to include a grill and fryers. It’s not uncommon, Rust said, to have a couple-dozen guests there eating lunch.
For Parro’s, it’s all about used guns — specifically law enforcement trade-ins. His shop does a lot of business with police departments in the region and takes a number of guns in trade. They are, in many ways, a marketing tool.
“My last trip to Boston, I came back with more than 200 guns,” he informed. “I mark them up a little bit and blow them out. I don’t make a ton of money on those guns, but it gets people in the store.”