September 17, 2020
From the Counter: Chimo Guns
“From the Counter” is NSSF’s 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 are drawn from an array of regions with diverse market economies. For this column, we spoke with a Chimo Guns, a small independent in Wasilla, Alaska, a town 15,000 people just an hour north of Anchorage. This is the last town in which to buy guns and ammo before heading to the interior.
Chimo Guns, Wasilla, Alaska
This retailer has been in business since 1976 and is still operated by one of its founders, Nancy Wallis, along with her son-in-law, Craig Pell. The retailer sells a combination of firearms with approximately 200 to 300 handguns, rifles and shotguns in stock. Carrying an inventory of mostly new guns, the emphasis is on traditional hunting and defensive guns. The store is open Monday through Saturday.
Logistics Up North—It’s Just Different
While every gun shop in the U.S. is struggling with inventory during this year of elections and pandemic, in Alaska, it’s business as usual. “The last six months have been crazy, but in the 49th state, not much has changed,” said Craig Pell, Chimo’s Manager/Buyer. Pell refers to inventory control, which in Alaska is a task that’s constantly being managed and adjusted. “Right now, I can get most handguns in less than a week. It takes watching a few key distributor sites and paying very close to attention to inventory lists. While handguns and modern sporting rifles (MSRs) certainly can be time-consuming to find, it’s finding ammo that tests my resolve. Simply put, we are last in the chain,” said Pell.
There’s a reason for that. Pell mentioned that, during the .22 shortage of a few years ago, it took three years before regular shipments of rimfire became available because more extensive ammo stocks have to be shipped in by barge from Seattle to Alaska. Simply put, doing business in Alaska is a different game than it is in the Lower 48.
Finding the Right Distributors and Managing Shipping Costs
Pell says that, in his home state, the primary ammo supplier is a general products distributor in Anchorage that sells everything from candy to pharmaceuticals. “These kinds of suppliers are key to our consistent delivery of ammo here in Alaska. The planning on our part requires that we usually need to advance-order 10,000 rounds per SKU. For 9mm and .223, that’s great, but would be unwelcomed for calibers like a .300 Savage,” he said.
Pell says he does have some options for popular calibers, including distributors in the Lower 48 that are still suppling his select calibers in smaller buys.
“What makes a good distributor for us? Free shipping. It’s something that’s constantly changing, but it is a deciding factor for our business,” he said. Other issues include shipping carriers and single orders for a handgun that can add nearly $50 to the end cost. “It may surprise other business owners in the Lower 48, but UPS kills us here in Alaska. It’s often double the price of FedEx. What we look for are distributors that use Priority Shipping from the USPS. It’s often half the cost of FedEx,” he said.
Chimo looks for lasting relationships with its distributors and has found that having the name of a regular contact goes a long way. “We have some relationships that are nearly two decades old. They understand our needs,” Pell said.
Pell said that even high-demand items like Ruger’s new Model 57 have been available to them because of the strong relationships with their suppliers. “In my life, I have never sold a gun that I can’t get ammo for, but these Ruger 57’s are just too attractive to my customer base,” he said, referring to the model 57’s chambering in the still rather uncommon 5.7x28mm round and the fact that the pistol boasts a generous 20-round capacity. Demonstrating that flexibility is also key to a reliable inventory, Pell is also able to secure product via his close relationship with his local rep for Winchester/Browning, a long-term relationship with Weatherby that includes stocking a complete line of rare Weatherby ammo calibers, and he’s become a full-line Filson dealer, in part because of the company’s free shipping.
Customer Needs and Unique Interests
Like many stores throughout the country, product demands have changed for Alaskans in the last decade. The store today stocks more products that turn quickly and relies less on specialty guns. Though the Weatherby brand is still important to his clientele, Pell said, “We still love Weatherby guns, but in the 1990s we would stock rare .460 and .378 classic, high-gloss Weatherby rifles and other odd varmint bolt guns. Some of them would sit on the rack for three or more years. We just don’t do that anymore, our stock has to turn more efficiently.”
While the store doesn’t stock odd calibers like it used to, Alaskans do have a high interest in African calibers and big-bore handguns. “Nearly 15 percent of all our handgun sales are for big-bore revolvers from .44 Mag. to .500 S&W Mag., and we sell huge numbers of 10mm pistols. The rifles like those in the .375 H&H and other African cartridge bores are also still popular and drive a notable amount of retail traffic,” he said.
Lessons Learned from the Counter
While there are challenges to operating a retail store in an area in which it can take two to three weeks for a box of ammo to arrive, Alaskan retailers like Chimo Guns and Craig Pell crave their independence and love their unique circumstances. Pell said that the store founders, his father and mother-in-law, came to Alaska seeking a change of pace from life in California. “They came here for the freedom of business and an honest, unencumbered life. They fit in pretty well,” said Pell.
Focusing on Must-Haves—Like many retailers, this store looks at relationships that fit the unique needs of the store and its customers. Full-line dealers are considered when feasible, and shipping costs are always under scrutiny. The right manufacturer’s rep and distributor salesperson are critical to supply chain efficiencies and the business’s success.
Fast Turns—While the store founder had a love of big-caliber rifles, the inventory is viewed more carefully four decades later with expectations that stock turns quickly; while there are always a few exceptions, inventory is expected to turn within the year. If not, SKUs are usually reduced for a quick sale.
Know Your Customer—In the 49th state, customer needs correlate to a sense of independence and fortitude. This store balances the demand for firearms that address the challenges of life in such a still-wild place with an area affinity for other guns that are as unique as the customers themselves.
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