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October 26, 2017

From the Counter: Green Top — 70 Years Strong

By Peter B. Mathiesen

“From the Counter” is the NSSF’s timely industry perspective provided by firearm retailers across the country. Our goal is to identify and highlight innovative market strategies that help retailers compete more successfully. Lessons learned are drawn from an array of regions with diverse market economies in an era of political change.

Green Top — Ashland, Virginia

Opened in 1947, this independent dealer is located in the northern suburbs of Richmond, just off I-95 above I-295. Of the facility’s 60,000 square feet, 40,000 are dedicated to retail floor space. The store sells a diverse mix of fishing, outerwear, camping gear and, most notably, firearms — there’s a stocking average of more than 3,000 new guns and an additional 1,000 used guns. In the last calendar year, this retailer turned more than 15,000 firearms, quite the way to celebrate its 70th Anniversary this October.

Green Top staffs about 130 full- and part-time employees. Open seven days a week, hours are 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. on weekdays, 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Saturdays and 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Sundays.

In the Beginning — A Horse Trading History

Weatherby rifle at Green Top
A Weatherby rifle crossing the counter at Green Top’s first location during the 1950s.

Green Top was first established as a gas station, grocery and fireworks stand. One single event changed the future for this retailer.

“One day, my uncle had a customer who couldn’t pay for his gas. The man offered him a .45 revolver in exchange for payment of the fuel. My uncle took the gun in trade and sold it by the end of the day,” said Pat Hopkins, Green Top Vice President.

While Hopkins’ uncle knew nothing about firearms, the gas station owner did know a profitable experience when he had one. In less than a year, the fireworks were replaced by an array of rifles, shotguns and handguns.

The rural retailer grew in tandem with the rapidly increasing population surrounding Richmond. In response to that growth, the store emphasized used firearms. In the 1950s and ’60s, it turned to purchasing new firearms from the hardware store wholesalers who controlled the lion’s share of the gun distribution business during that era.

Green Top continued to expand and respond to the changing landscape in the ’70s and ’80s, including becoming a wholesaler to smaller retailers in a four-state region. By the 1990s, it closed the wholesale business to focus on its growing retail store.

Mining Used-Firearm Profit Margins

Though many things have changed for Green Top over the years, used guns, the very thing it was founded on, have remained a critically integrated lynchpin in its business today. Although the new-gun business is a significant part of the sales pie, Hopkins told me the used-firearm side rings the register at a minimum of double the margin of new guns. The key to strong used-firearms sales, he says, is creating trusting relationships on both ends of the used-gun cycle.

“In my experience, it’s not just the sale of the used gun in the store. What may be more important is the acquisition of the firearm from the original seller,” Hopkins said. “We look at numerous gun collections each quarter. Frequently the sale is the result of a death in the family, with an understandably emotional seller. We are always patient, respectful and gently foster the sale.

“It is not uncommon for us to make an offer that is set to reasonable margins. If the gun is worth $1,000 at retail, we tell them the retail value even if they think it’s only $200,” he continued. “The goal is transparency while creating trust. Our used-gun manager has spent nearly a quarter of a century communicating with these kinds of customers and is highly skilled at these buys,” said Hopkins.

Turning the Corner on Traditional Long Guns

If 2017 is known for anything at this store, it’s the year that traditional hunting long guns turned the corner.

“As soon as the election was over, we quickly turned our attention to the hunting gun market,” Hopkins told me. “We sourced multiple sale items, bolt-action rifles and traditional shotguns. Then we aggressively promoted our increasing inventory,” said Hopkins.

Rebate-driven processes involved strong participation from manufacturers. SKUs were selected based on new products combined with a mix of older, regional favorites. The response has been notable. With fall 2017 in full swing during this interview, Green Top’s turns for long guns are nearing 20 percent higher than previous seasons. Notable is that the demand for long guns has nearly replaced the falling MSR category sales.

Tying Seasonality to Sales

Advertising has been a constant part of Green Top’s marketing mix. The store uses cable television, radio and digital email blasts, as well as a 28-page, four-color, direct-mail circular. Tied to seasonal sales and mailed up to five times a year, the circular targets 30,000 customers. Hopkins acknowledged the cost is high.

“We look at the circulars every year. We question if the time has come for the digital age to replace them. To date, they have proven highly effective at turning a sale,” said Hopkins.

Celebrating the 70th Anniversary

In October 2017, Green Top celebrated its 70th Anniversary by hosting the largest weekend event in the store’s history. More than 100 manufacturers’ reps created displays in a tent in the parking lot. The event drove customers into the store to make their purchases. Nearly 20,000 customers attended the event. Although Hopkins would not share the gross receipts for the weekend, he did say it was well worth the effort, which resulted in a number near seven figures.

“I never dreamed we could move that much inventory in two days,” said Hopkins.

Empowering Employees — Key to Unlocking SalesGreen Top Store

One aspect of Hopkins’ management style is the store’s unwavering commitment to its employees.

“We have over a thousand customers walk through our door on a weekday. This can be a stressful place to work and requires long hours. We believe that all the pricing, inventory and sales pale in comparison to a happy, knowledgeable employee. We want our workers to want to come to work happy every day. It’s critical that they get along with each other,” said Hopkins.

Over the years, the store’s second in command has found that a new hire’s personality must fit in. “It’s imperative that they are flexible, have excellent listening skills and are simply friendly people. If we find that we made a mistake, we release them quickly. I learned the hard way not to put off the decision,” Hopkins said. He also revealed that most of his full-time employees have been with the store well into two decades. The company offers a 401K plan and health benefits to anchor the store’s strong position in the local retail marketplace.

“We take care of our employees and, in turn, they take amazing care of our customers. Our customers always get a quick, accurate response to a question. And, most important, the customer never feels taken for granted,” he said.

Hopkins has one fast rule that speaks volumes when employees communicate with a customer: “You are not here to win an argument with a customer.”

Lessons Learned from the Counter

While changing trends require knowledge and planning, the ability to react promptly to a major market shift has been critical in today’s changing political landscape. Pointedly, this retailer brought marketing prowess and retail space to the traditional long-gun market with measurable results. It has also invested in events that, though they need to be managed carefully and executed flawlessly, have made a significant impact on the bottom line.

The second thing this store has done is to remain unafraid of sticking with what works, even when those ways seem to be old-fashioned. Green Top recognized that while digital marketing may appear to eclipse traditional communications, monitoring results across all marketing avenues and understanding their audience has been key to keeping the register humming. Experimentation should also be part of a retailer’s marketing plan as it works to remain relevant with a changing customer base.

Finally, your employees are your company’s ambassadors. They hold the master keys to unlocking a quick and profitable sale. Choose wisely, invest in your staff and you’ll find rewards. Green Top’s employees met the Gold Standard: This store received a win from Shot Business magazine’s always revealing “Undercover Shopper” column in the October 2017 issue.

You may also be interested in: Retail Loss Prevention Conference Yields Fresh Insights, New Technologies

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