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May 29, 2020

From the Counter: Scott’s Outdoor Sports

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 are drawn from an array of regions with diverse market economies. For this column, we focused on a large independent in Florida’s Panhandle.

Scott’s Outdoors Sports, Jay, Florida

This third-generation retailer in the center of the Florida Panhandle stocks nearly 6,000 firearms and even sells furniture! The inventory is a mix of new and used firearms, with an emphasis on traditional hunting and defensive guns and a significant inventory of used firearms. The store is open 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays from 8:00 a.m. to12:00 p.m.

The New Day

It was the second week of March 2020 when this retailer knew that, with the spread of the coronavirus, the world had started to change. There was exceptional demand for ammunition and lines that greeted the morning crew opening the store. “While we knew the rush could happen, the speed with which the traffic developed surprised us,” said Jim Brown, Senior Buyer and Purchasing Agent.

While pandemic sales overall were gaining steam and firearm retailers were deemed essential by the state of Florida, this store nonetheless found itself in a unique situation. “Most of our business comes from across the lower south, from Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana,” Brown told me, explaining that, with aggressive stay-at-home orders in the region and Louisiana law enforcement stopping people on the Alabama border to check state identification and explain that quarantine would be required if the resident left the state, traffic at Scott’s Outdoors Sports was abruptly reduced and sales started to slow. “It was a challenging circumstance. We could stay open, had plenty of product on hand, but had very few customers,” Brown said.

Gun Counter

Letting Government In

For this retailer, applying for the various COVID-19 aid packages and loans didn’t seem like something it would ever consider—and then it became clear that it needed to. “It was strange filling out the applications, but we felt it could get us through the slow period, without layoffs, and that became our goal. The terms were sound, and so it made sense for our store,” Brown said.

In mid-May, traffic started to build back up. Stay-at-home orders have relaxed in some states, and as Brown commented, “People can’t stay at home indefinitely. I mean, we’re all losing our minds, and even if a customer can’t go back to work, they can still wet a line, go squirrel hunting or just get out into the field. It’s in our DNA as outdoor people.”

Summer and Fall Forecasts

Brown has spent more than 40 years in the retail outdoor industry and feels that this year’s sales and pricing may surprise many in the industry. “We see ammunition stabilizing on the higher side, but where I think the prices will drop will be on the new guns,” he said.

Brown predicts that manufacturer rebates will notably increase. He says there are some categories of handguns, bolt and modern sporting rifles and even shotguns that have already started to drop in price if retailers pay up front to distributors. “This is where cash flow is critical,” he noted. “If you have the cash and reasonable relationships with distributors, there are great deals out there right now—today.” He sees the needs of manufactures to keep jobs moving ahead and distributors who must turn over inventory as bright spots of opportunity in the market for dealers with the cash.

Classic Advertising

For older retailers, it’s hard to think of email and Facebook as “old-school” marketing, but both are now traditional approaches. These two methods, combined with radio and good old printed fliers, are how this retailer is approaching communicating with their customers.

“We have a personal approach to our marketing that includes a regional talk radio show that has been very good to us. Our store’s owner, Michael Scott, and I host a morning hour of friendly radio, where we talk about anything that relates to the outdoors, our lives and our area. The show is broadcast throughout the Deep South, giving a sense of personal connection to our customers. We’ve done it for years,” said Brown.

Email blasts and Facebook are also part of the weekly and daily forms of communication this retailer depends on. This is where it pushes out up-to-the-minute specials via a “Savings Flyer,” which has proven to drive customers through the door with the total expectation of making a purchase.

Once in the store, Brown says that selection and customer service are in sharp focus but emphasizes that the one thing that continually delivers the sale is price. “We always have a great price on a couple of SKUs in the store, and that keeps our customers checking in with us before they buy anything anywhere else. A first look is all we ask, even in a pandemic.”

Reflecting on the trajectory of business in this unusual time, Brown says that the company strongly believes that the shooting sports industry has been a place of calm, in a time that is testing many Americans. As he put it, “I’m just not a gloom-and-doom guy and neither is our store. Scott’s Outdoors Sports continues to gain strides as the country emerges from lockdown and heads back to the field and range.”

Lessons Learned from the Counter

  1. Watching the Curve
    Whether it’s a pandemic or some other world or local disaster, most companies and retailers can count on a major change in politics and the economy about every decade. It’s impossible to know what will happen, but it is possible to stay prepared with lower debt and strong relationships with buying groups and distributors. While this retailer has options because of its size and buying power, any well-run store can benefit from low debt and a focus on that relationship building.
  2. Take What’s Offered
    There are always risks in taking part in government programs, but the Federal programs available to small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic did just what they were designed to do for this retailer. We all want our stores to be profitable and have the available resources to make smart purchases and keep employees gainfully employed, and taking advantage of these programs can be a smart move. If you qualify, be ask sure you talk to your bank and tax professionals about consider these options while they’re still available.
  3. The Fall Forecast
    This retailer uses a loss-leader to build traffic coming out of the lockdown period. It has committed to a spectrum of specially priced items that in their experience always bring customers into the store. In the end, that traffic allows for the sale of an inexpensive, low-end SKU while exposing the customer to more profitable and high-end products. Building on that by trading up and adding ancillary sales are always the goals once a customer is in the door.

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