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October 23, 2018

From the Counter: Cal Customs Guns

By Peter B. Mathiesen

“From the Counter” is the NSSF timely industry perspective from firearm retailers across the country. Our goal is to identify and highlight innovative market strategies helping retailers compete more successfully. Lessons learned will be drawn from an array of regions with diverse market economies in an era of political change. This month we focused on a small, family-owned independent retailer in Southern California, 60 miles north of San Diego.

Cal Customs Guns, LLC, Fallbrook, California

Sitting just a mile from the southeast entrance to Camp Pendleton, this retailer has been serving southern California for 40 years. With 1,500 square feet, the retail space is a half-block from the town’s main street, Mission Road. This step-down, below-street-level store keeps more than 300 firearms in stock, with an additional display of more than 60 Winchester Model 94 commemoratives.

The firearms inventory is a mix of 1911s and other popular handguns, along with a few MSRs. There’s an emphasis on military rifles, as well as lever-action hunting and distance bolt rifles. The shop keeps its two owners and a part-time Saturday employee busy servicing a wide range of customers, from military personnel and ranchers to the local populace seeking self-defense firearms.

From the Marines to a Custom Gun Shop

In 1971, this store emerged as a simple, 400-square-foot, one-room custom gun shop in what was then a small town in the heart of SoCal’s Avocado Belt. Gunnery Sergeant David Wallace Ransberger, “Gunny,” an armorer and competitive marksman, had just retired from 23 years in the U.S. Marines. He opened a tiny sales space just off Main Street, now Mission Street, in the town of Fallbrook. His goal was to create a retail establishment that serviced the special needs of firearm enthusiasts shooting military-style M1 Grands, 1911s and other historic firearms. A Korean and Vietnam veteran, Ransberger also wanted to bring his knowledge as a trained military gunsmith, along with his passion for distance shooting, to the small town where he enjoyed living.

Cals Custom Gun Shop - The Wounded Marine Fund

Ransberger simply loved his customers, and he was dedicated to seeing his store become a fixture in the community. Investing all his profits back into new inventory, it was nearly five years before he took a salary out of the store.

His next move was to expand the shop. After trading space with the local Farmers Insurance agent next door, he enlarged the store to 1,600 square feet.

Conquering a Disaster of Mythical Proportions

It would seem fairly unlikely for a retailer that sits on a steep hill in a drought-stricken part of California — so dry that in late 2018 it hadn’t had rained in a full year — to have to fight a flood. Yet, in 1978, the area was barraged by one of the worst continual rainstorms on record. As a river ran down the street, Cal Customs Guns began to take in water.

Devastation of the flood

“My dad called home asking for my mom, Dottie, to come and help. As my mother was driving in during the torrent, one of the building’s outside walls actually caved in. A four-foot wall of water rushed into the store,” said Kristy Berain, one of the store’s current co-owners.

The water violently turned over display cases and covered everything in mud. “I was only four years old when this happened, but I remember it so vividly,” she said. “But while the disaster was horrible, what I really remember most was how everyone in town showed up to help. I mean everyone. Marines from the base would come by for a few hours before and after their shifts, local police and firemen came in while they were on duty, and then they came back when they were off-duty,” said Berain.

Ransberger meticulously salvaged every item in the store, including each round of ammunition. He and a barrage of friends — who were all customers — thoroughly cleaned, dried and oiled every single SKU in the store. Remarkably, not much was thrown away.

“People worked day and night until the process was finished. Then the store held a massive ‘Everything Must Go’ sale. The entire inventory was sold at just a few dollars over wholesale, and the funds were used to restock the store,” Berain said. “My dad’s detailed cleaning of each item made everyone feel they were getting a brand-new item at cost,” she added. “Many customers bought gear they didn’t even need, because they wanted the store continue.”

Investing in the Community by Giving Back

The experience with the flood, along with many other stories and lessons from her father, have stayed with Berain. Today, she co-owns and manages the store’s day-to-day operations with her mother, Dottie.

Growing up in a close-knit community keeps this retailer actively engaged in fundraising efforts. The store selects a local cause, frequently the police department or wounded Marines, and raises money for about six months. “There is always a raffle. In addition to our store’s contribution, several of our manufacturers supply product,” Berain said. “We want to give back. We care about our community. We look out after them because they have always looked out for us,” she said.

Cals Custom Gun Shop

Finding Profits in Used Guns and Staying Lean

There’s no question this store feels connected to its community and knows what its customers want. When it comes to generating profits, the used gun aisle and the accessory sections frequently deliver.

According to Berain, used firearms pull an average of $200 per SKU, compared to less than $100 per SKU for new inventory, even less when it comes to new handguns.

“While we are always on the lookout for the perfect used gun, we are limited to a list the state of California deems acceptable for resale. It’s something we are used to, but it can be quite limiting,” she said.

Berain commented that competing in an age of internet sales and big box stores is real.

“We need to stay lean and profitable to survive. But we know our customers, and they know us. In fact, they are our best friends,” said Berain.

Lessons Learned From the Counter

By preserving customer loyalty, engaging with the local community during a crisis, and responding to connect with and meet community needs, Cal Customs Guns has formulated a mix of sound stewardship practices to improve the bottom line.

Our industry sees examples every day of the importance of sincere customer interaction. At Cal Customs Guns, regular customers know that service in this shop is a priority because they’ve experienced it. New customers are amazed by the service commitment of these two women. This dedication ranges from ensuring a customer’s order arrives overnight to staying open late to help a client.

The store’s experience during the 1978 flood serves as a reminder to other FFLs that flooding is rarely covered on most insurance policies. This retailer understands misfortune strikes in every community, and remembering all the help it received, views it as its personal responsibility to help others.

al Customs Guns Family

Taken together, and beginning with its founder, building and maintaining strong community ties has been ingrained in this family’s and this shop’s legacy. The owners feel sincerely connected to their customers and their families. At Cal Customs Guns, they’ve found that good stewardship is a strong foundation for a thriving community-centric business model.

Note: “Gunny” passed away on Valentine’s Day in 2016. During this interview, Kristy and Dottie shared that they feel closest to David when they are in the store, surrounded by the life he cherished and his collection of Commemorative Model 94 Winchesters.

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