With news headlines reporting such things as “diluted earnings” from Ruger, Vista stock “downgraded to hold” and Dick’s Sporting Goods’ stock price “plunging on poor sales,” it’s understandable for retailers to approach 2018 with some trepidation. Things have changed.
Among all that apparent doom and gloom, though, there are bright spots for those retailers who take initiative and accept that, in the yin and yang of retailing, when customers don’t simply buy, you have to get out and sell. You’ll need more than inventory and a pulse to make the cash register ring.
Over the summer of 2017, I had the opportunity to visit with several diverse firearms retailers to see for myself some of the ongoing success stories happening right now. Though they ranged from pawn shops to chain stores, there was one common theme — they all found unique ways to attract customers, and then not only connect with them, but also delight them with staff who really knew the products and how they would solve customers’ problems.
Bryan Gillette owns Action Pawn in Bozeman, Montana. In addition to his regular pawnbroker business, Gillette owns the Bozeman and Livingston gun shows where he has a waiting list for sellers who want tables. He is even thinking about acquiring a third show to meet demand. “On the whole, I don’t think it’s that bad,” Gillette says of the current gun market. Though he admits he “can’t give an AR-15 away” right now, that situation changes when it’s accessorized to meet the specific needs of those in his area. “Short ARs set up for 3-gun are selling,” he says.
Another thing that is selling in his area are concealed carry guns for women — a market that Gillette calls “big.” Many women come to his gun shows by themselves, and Gillette makes sure there are vendors who carry women-specific products. Though he gets some complaints about “trinkets” for sale, Gillette points out that it’s also good to have vendors with candles and such, so non-shooting wives who come with their husbands have something to look at, which keeps them happy and at the show longer.
Tanner Rowberry is the Sporting Goods Manager for Murdoch’s — a ranch and home supply chain with stores in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming. According to Rowberry, customers had been asking Murdoch’s to carry guns and ammunition, so about four years ago, Murdoch’s brought in Rowberry, carved out space among the horse feed and barbed wire and now carries a broad mix of guns — a category that accounts for up to 20 percent of sales in one store.
“Reloading is a big market,” Rowberry tells me as we peer down long aisles neatly stocked top to bottom and end to end with every kind of component imaginable. “Long-range shooters is a big and growing section,” he adds.
Rowberry keeps between 800 and 900 guns in inventory at one store, saying that some items are seasonal while others are political. That said, he’s finding his customers are much more educated buyers and sees them taking their time to consider their choices since gun politics seem to have settled for the short term.
Time is money, so one thing Murdoch’s does to increase gun sales is host an annual shooting expo at a local range where people can come and actually try guns. “It works for us because we can sit down with someone and get to know them and what they want,” explains Rowberry of the three-year-old event. “It’s putting product in customers’ hands,” he adds, and that is where they “build trust.” Customer turnout for the expo is in the high hundreds to low thousands and a staff-only shoot before the expo familiarizes everyone with the products.
While visiting Rowberry, I met Corey and Trish McCauley, who were the grand prize winners at the recent expo. True to Rowberry’s observation that his customers are more educated, the McCauleys are seasoned shooters and handloaders. “We shoot a lot is why we came,” Trish tells me.
Schnee’s is best known for its boots, but its retail store in Bozeman, MT, boasts an elegant gun library. There, Devin Ferda brings in a lot of customers for his gunsmithing services. According to this Colorado School of Trades graduate, his shop is full service, but the biggest problem he sees is “poor maintenance and not cleaning,” which presents an opportunity to educate his customers and sell them supplies. He also brings in business by doing R&R on the guns for the local police department.
At the Selway Armory, Assistant Manager Chris Mazur tells me that they just opened a new location. There are two other brick-and-mortar stores, and the company uses the internet as a virtual storefront where they move a lot of volume. Store employees “are all serious sport shooters in the area,” Mazur says, which puts them in a position to know what guns and accessories people in their area are using and want.
“AR accessories are one of our biggest sellers,” says Mazur gesturing to a wall of everything from triggers and furniture to internal parts and sights. “Features are all over the map on AR preference,” he explains when asked about what to stock and how their interaction with the local shooting community guides a lot of buying decisions. The result is that the shooting community sees the Armory as specializing in unique and unusual AR inventory that’s instantly available.
The Armory is also a SIG “store within a store” with more than 1,000 SIG items that turn quarterly. “This is the only place that has one of these,” a customer tells me of the new P320 he had just purchased.
Over at the Shedhorn Sports in Ennis, MT, owner Rob Gallentine isn’t as keen on new gun internet sales because of MAP pricing. Instead, Gallentine essentially gets an extra month’s worth of sales each year by hosting his own three-day outdoors expo where 3,000 customers from across the country come to get information and make purchases.
For the expo, soft goods are moved out into the parking lot under tents to make room for more guns, ammunition and optics inside the store. But the Shedhorn Expo is more than just a tent sale; it’s become a destination event with 130 manufacturers represented by 45 company reps expertly explaining the benefits of their products to Gallentine’s customers. “It’s the best promotion I have in my territory,” explains Troy Pruitt from Crimson Trace as he puts up signage for show specials.
Gallentine bulks up his inventory about 15 percent in preparation, adds between 15 and 35 temporary employees, and starts advertising ticklers about three weeks out. “You don’t want to advertise too much too far out and kill your daily sales,” he cautions. Another tip Gallentine offers to help space out traffic and prevent too-long lines at the cash register is to advertise special prices available on different days, meaning Friday’s super sale items are different from Saturday’s and Saturday’s are different from Sunday’s.
Asked what he sees for 2018, Gallentine was pretty optimistic — he’s seen the ebb and flow of the gun industry before. “It will come back,” he says telling me that right now top end optics and $1,500 to $2,500 guns are selling well.
Rather than attract customers by the masses, Bill Wood of RW Outdoors, which just recently opened in Sheridan, MT, is taking a more individual approach. Wood started shooting competitively on the U.S. airgun team, transitioned to long-range and has leveraged that skill to specialize in selling high-end, long-range guns and teaching private long-range shooting classes. Though his original business plan called for 65 percent of his sales to be fly fishing gear, the classes have worked out so well that guns account for 90 percent of his business.
“If he can ring a bell at 1,000 yards, he’s going to buy it,” Wood says of his students who quickly become customers. To make things easy, Wood puts together long-range packages with gun, scope, case, etc. — packages he calls “big purchases.”
Though the classes account for 25 to 30 percent of his gun sales, “the money is in the used stuff,” he says. His three tips on used guns are 1) know what they’re worth, 2) be up front with the customer, 3) don’t take in junk. Wood will not take in a used gun worth less than $500, though he does say you have to have a couple of Ruger 10/22s in the rack.
Even though Wood calls himself “a small store in the middle of nowhere,” he advises to not overlook Class 3 products. Even though is store is remote, he sells at least two Class 3 items a week.
The takeaway from all this as 2018 rolls on is that there are plenty of sales to be made for those dealers who put in the effort. Sports expos, private classes and specialty items are just some of the things motivated retailers are doing to capture that business.