Get your finger on the pulse of the shooting sports industry

Retailers can learn to make customers' hearts skip a beat in 2018. Improve sales — and profits — by understanding what worked in 2017.
Get your finger on the pulse of the shooting sports industry

Even with AR sales stabilized, multi-platform compatibility has kept accessories in high demand. (Photo: Kevin Reese)

January 2017, some 60,000 people stopped in their tracks. The SHOT Show floor was quiet as the incoming president swore an oath. The historic election was, to many, a significant win for our Second Amendment; however, the shooting and hunting industry has also seen an array of benefits and fallout as a result. Let’s be honest, while America elected a pro-2A president, it certainly has come at a cost to retailers and the industry as a whole. Of course, the 2A juice is certainly worth the squeeze.

For many gun manufacturers, especially AR and AK makers, the previous eight years could be equated to the Roaring ’20s. Semi-auto modern sporting rifle production was at an all-time high and even producers of periphery MSR products experienced amazing new heights of sales growth. Unfortunately, what goes up, often must come down and since the election, semi-auto MSR sales, especially ARs, have stabilized.

Of course, the recent trend has created a buyer’s market and seems to slowly strengthen those businesses now through changes truly resonating with consumers and focused on value. In other words, lower cost and better performance. At the same time, like a phoenix, consistent sales, even upticks, have also risen from the ashes of what amounted to slowed sales through the first half of 2017 and are showing the positive signs of industry resiliency. Now, with 2017 in our rearview mirror, let’s take a look at what worked.

ARs: Strength In Diversity

Considered a political hinge pin for years now, the recent election did much to secure continued consumer access to AR platform rifles, but also served to suppress record growth in both manufacturing and sales.

With recent political activity and rulings in courts from coast to coast, concealed carry licensing and handgun purchases have been strong, especially in striker-fired models.

With the political landscape shifting, embracing demand-driven change has been a source of salvation for these semi-auto modern sporting rifles. And what changes have been most widely embraced by consumers? Value, diversity and innovation — rather than the traditional “vanilla” choices ruling the AR roost at all price points.

While premium sub-MOA performance and employment of precision machined components have increased, pricing has dropped. Premium ARs once costing consumers upward of $3,000 can now be easily found at half the cost from producers competing in what has pivoted 180 degrees from a seller’s to a buyer’s market. In such a market, consumers dictate demand unlike pre-election or worse, during rumors of a ban on these rifles, where pricing spiked to premium price points for even entry-level rifles.

More than simply premium performance and components as they relate to value, increased cartridge options have also stabilized and even increased sales over the year. Hunting and long-range precision shooting with AR-platform rifles have become more popular than ever, resulting in increased demand for something besides 5.56 or .223. Sales of larger bore AR-15 and AR-10 rifles are on the rise with hunters and distance shooters chasing down rifles chambered in .308, .458 SOCOM, 6.5 Grendel, 6.5 Creedmoor and other historically harder-to-find calibers.

The demand generally comes from two overlapping markets — precision shooters and hunters; more specifically, predator and hog hunters, especially since hunting regulations for such prey are more relaxed and, in the case of North America’s feral hog population, distribution is increasingly widespread. As an example, feral hogs are now reported in 39 states and four Canadian provinces; thus, the industry has seen exponential growth in hog hunting and consumption of products best suited for those pursuits.

Innovative platforms have also spurred interest. From external locking barrel-nut systems that allow consumers to change calibers without changing lowers to folding AR frames, manufacturers are beginning to think outside the box.

Throughout 2017, even finishes have taken a front seat with customers. Manufacturer options such as billet receivers, satin color themes, Cerakote finishes and soft-coats now resonate with consumers, especially at affordable price points because they speak to many customers’ desire to be different, a little off-center from standard-issue look—even customized. To that end, accessory sales have also stayed strong.

With precision shooting and long-range hunting on the rise, bolt-action rifle and chassis manufacturers have stepped up their quality and performance. MSR looks to satisfy consumer whims. (Photo: Kevin Reese)

Tactical Chassis And Bolt Guns On Target

Interestingly, while AR sales seemed to slow early on, tactical chassis designed for aggressive bolt-gun builds, followed quickly by an increase in complete production rifles of the same progressive, performance-focused style, have been on the rise. While tactical-style precision, bolt-action rifles made quite a showing last year, more robust cartridge options and design innovations are more present than ever, due in part to increased interests in recreational precision shooting, long-range predator hunting and competitive shooting like F-Class, PRS and MLS events.

While precision shooting frontrunners deliver world class chassis to consumers bent on building their dream rifles (or resurrecting dusty bolt-guns locked away in a safe), a number of top-shelf manufacturers offer complete rifle systems. While some were not necessarily new in 2017, most offer increased caliber options and folding stocks.

Even better where your customers are concerned, from chassis and components to production rifles, world-class precision performance also continues to become more affordable. While precision tactical chassis can be found from around the $600 range, production rifles also no longer necessarily break banks.

Customizing With AR Accessories

While AR sales had stabilized and even perhaps faced some uncertainty through early 2017, AR accessory production and sales have continued to thrive, primarily because of DIY projects, customization of currently owned rifles and compatibility with tactical-style bolt-guns. In fact, many bolt-action rifles include rail systems specifically designed to accept AR-type accessories.

Now as 2018 kicks off, I expect to see heavy doses of customizing accessories, from suppressors and muzzle brakes to light and laser devices, bipods, riflescopes and sights continuing to catch the wandering eyes of your hard-working customers. Billet receivers and aggressive yet fully-functional rail systems in an array of anodized colored, Cerakote and soft-touch finishes including camouflage patterns, also are sure to get enthusiasts thinking about the limitless potential every MSR now has, both on your shelves and already in their homes.

Aftermarket stocks have also taken their rightful places in AR and bolt-action rifle customization. From multi-position sniper stocks to down and dirty fixed and A4 buttstocks, the only limits to a customer’s customization options seems to be budget and imagination. Either way, they are sure to come in and see “what could be.”

Focus On Optics Continues To Rise

Sure, iron sights are cool, but they seemed scarce throughout the 2017 SHOT Show. This year is sure to deepen the chasm between MSRs and open sights while optic leaders wow us with precise optical devices and more affordable price points.

As an example, in the precision shooting world, high-powered first-focal-plane (FFP) scopes used by world class marksmen have generally hovered around the $2,500+ mark with some costing consumers double. Conversely, affordable optics in the same class of performance and magnification (worthy of high-stakes PRS competition, etc.), have also been unveiled recently coming in at roughly $1,000 less.

This year, expect to see true optic value with premium performing FFP optics at even lower pricing. Along with those precision scopes, I expect to see a wealth of other second-focal-plane riflescopes, prism and reflex sights, and red dots at seriously low price points without compromising quality and holding fast to lifetime warranties.

Lighter optics, perhaps with carbon fiber bodies, also are sure to bolster consumer demand, and I expect to see those types of offerings increase. Doing so is sure to put smiles on the faces of shooting enthusiasts since rifles often are heavy enough on their own.

As a final demonstrative note of where optics are in the industry, simply consider the wealth of new producers entering the industry. As was the case with AR producers, it seems every time I looked up at SHOT, a new optic provider was standing up. That kind of competitiveness is a goldmine for dealers and customers alike.

More affordable thermal and night vision optics have been great news for retailers, and horrible news for feral hogs and other problematic predators! (Photo: Kevin Reese)

Thermal And Night Vision Exposed

Interest in thermal and night vision optics has surged, seemingly with America’s feral hog population. Hog and predator hunting, especially after sundown, has increased significantly. Seventeen states now permit some form of night hunting with thermal and night vision optics.

While hunting certainly accounts for some of the increased interest in thermal and night vision, the long list of non-hunting applications for electro-optics also has increased demand. Today, thermal and night vision devices are used routinely by wildlife agencies, ranchers and boaters, as well as law enforcement and other first-responder services.

As examples, thermal imagers are often used for personal defense in identifying trespassers and intruders, search and rescue operations, law enforcement surveillance, fugitive recovery, identifying water vessels running without lights and overboard passengers, and troubleshooting. Uses for thermal and night vision optics seem to be unending and one of the first places many go to find electro-optic devices are shooting retailers.

One last major benefit to both dealers and consumers is price. Night vision beginning at about $500 to $600 range to others costing less than $5,500 complete with 640 core sensors, built-in video, Wi-Fi, picture-in-picture and heat detection ranges pushing a mile. There has never been a better time to offer thermal and night vision optics. Interest in these devices doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.

Protecting What You Love

The recently launched “Protect What You Love” is a call-to-action campaign designed to rightfully commit people to take responsibility for the defense of what is most important to them — their families.

Safe storage is an important issue! Vaults offer multi-purpose security from guns to documents to heirloom jewelry. (Photo: Kevin Reese)

Timing is perfect since the country has experienced an impassioned divide, often with violent consequences, including rioting, looting and other twisted acts. As a result, protecting what you love seems more important than ever and people are heading to your stores for solutions.

Last year saw an overwhelming array of great concealed carry handguns unveiled and demonstrates that personal defense handgun sales are strong and interest continues to increase, especially in light of continued efforts related to national concealed carry reciprocity.

As they relate to carrying firearms, holsters are also important inventory items and there is sure to be no shortage of producers throughout 2018. Consider offering training and concealed holsters, including IWB, OWB, pocket, shoulder and ankle variants, as well as concealed carry apparel and purses.

Along with handguns, or as an alternative to them for some customers, offering EDC knives, pepper spray and stun guns, is sure to bring people through your door with personal defense on their minds.

A Parting Shot

When it comes to selling, I think of marketing — they are surely closely related. The purpose of marketing is to satisfy the demand of a target market. We can agree this reads an awful lot like what retailers hope and expect to accomplish through selling, right?

Consider the pulse you’ve taken on your sales, as well as the pulse and direction you believe the industry is heading and consider how this information may help you achieve record sales in your business through 2018.


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