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June 16, 2020

From the Counter—Sporting Systems, Vancouver, Washington

By Peter B. Mathiesen

“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, in an era of political change. We recently talked with a couple-owned independent retailer in Vancouver Washington, just across the Columbia river from the Portland metro area. While the Pandemic has driven many in the industry to deal with special retailing circumstances, this store has made adjustments but stays the course with its strategic plan.

Sporting Systems, Vancouver, Washington

This retailer recently relocated from a converted turn-of-the-century residential home to a retail store with 2,700 square feet of retail space, room to improve shipping and receiving chores and vastly better parking space. Founded in 2015, Sporting Systems stocks 2,000 firearms in a wide variety of styles, from high-grade 1911s and custom-order bolt rifles to vintage hunting guns. Staffed with eight employees, the store is managed by Dan and Hiedi Mitchell.

Morphing a Hobby

Dan Mitchell loves guns. A passionate mechanical engineer, his gun-buying habit was notable and, by his own admission, he could not pass up a beautifully made firearm.

“I was a great customer, loved anything with a good story and a unique design. While our mechanical engineering firm was doing well, it allowed me to take a hobby—well, maybe obsession—and turn it into the store I always wanted to shop at,” he told me.

This store had to be welcoming, and it had to offer an environment and products the local buying public didn’t have access to. “One motivation was that there were a few okay shops in town, as well as big box stores. But none of them made you feel welcomed past ringing up your credit card, and their staffs’ expertise was limited. In short, I really didn’t want to shop in my own town,” he said.

Dan and his wife, Hiedi, originally took over an older home in a commercial area of Vancouver and focused on the idea of designing a retail environment where a customer felt at home and wouldn’t want to leave. “Every part of the store had a purpose, while making sure efficiencies were taken into consideration. Even the distances a staff person had to walk to do something or wait on a customer were taken into consideration,” he said. The Mitchells made the most of custom cabinetry and steel work, with the help of talented friends. The woodwork in the original store was burnt pine with a mechanical feel that incorporated lots of exposed steel. The couple’s new store reflects the same environment but with more efficient use of space that accommodates more inventory.

The Good Stuff

One absolute with Sporting Systems is keeping an inventory of products that are hard to get and not readily available. The Mitchells order anything for a customer, and all employees make it clear to the client that if they don’t have it, particularly mass-produced firearms, they can get it fast. Sporting Systems also performs transfers, charging $50 for each, but they’re not the heart and soul of this FFL.

Shooting Systems Counter

“The fine guns are contiguous. A customer may think about a mid-priced, mass-produced gun, and they may even purchase it. However, when they become exposed to the craftmanship in a fine firearm, their focus will often change. We want to be a part of that. We want to draw a customer into a special gun that will mean something to them for the rest of their lives.

“This isn’t an overnight sale,” he emphasized, underscoring the effort he takes to convert occasional customers into loyal clients and true firearms enthusiasts before adding “We have enough unique inventory there’s always a buyer who seeks what we have,” he said.

Helping the Shooting Industry Shine Through Community

The Mitchells made it clear that, from the start, supporting the firearms industry and its position in their community was of greater importance than, say, sponsoring a baseball team. “We sponsor shoots, have regular events at ranges and sponsor competitive shooters including a 15-year-old girl. We raise money for law enforcement and help with numerous veteran causes. It’s our community, and we want to care for it,” said Hiedi Mitchel.

Sporting Systems Social Media

The company communicates its events through its Facebook page with great success and manages to keep their near monthly events filled to capacity. Hiedi manages the events, in addition to retail displays and much of the store’s daily floor operations.

Still, it’s not always easy. Washington State, like many West Coast states, is under fire from a host of pending restrictive state firearms legislation. The Mitchells are active in communicating and organizing the local firearms-owning community, and they have spent extensive time meeting with Washington State legislators, offering technical guidance. At the grassroots level, the retail store staff have been collecting signatures to fight those restrictions and providing depositions and testimony in state hearings. Those efforts are communicated through the store’s Facebook site, further involving their community.

“We see our rights being infringed and our store’s future being threatened. With the states like California, where firearms laws change as frequently as every month, we don’t want that to happen here, and we’ll make sure our legislators know where we stand,” he said.

Lessons Learned from the Counter

Like many retailers, this store is a mix of passion for the firearms business and a retailer with a deep understanding of the commitment it takes to service its customers while fostering community programs. The company’s steady growth is a remarkable testament to marketing knowledge and community commitment. Customers love that there are always two dogs to great them and a great cup of coffee ready to go.

  • The Lure of Fine Product — Product inventory is meticulously managed by this retailer, one that sets a standard for specialty buyers and fosters higher-priced purchases over time with more mainstream clients. Whether it’s an $8,000 rifle, a $4,000 1911 or even a $300 Ruger handgun, this retailer sees higher profits in harder-to-obtain firearms, while efficiently getting any customer what they need when they walk in the door.
  • Connecting with Community Needs — This retailer understands how to reach its community and believes it’s their responsibility to respond to help others. With a steady stream of fundraisers and constant education of Washington State’s legislators and the public, this shop is committed to the families and individuals who sustain this retail store. One of the benefits of a strong community presence? Mitchell says they’ve never spent a dollar in traditional advertising.
  • Customer Love — It never fails that when a store loves its customers, that business gets a lot of love in return through stronger sales and strong walk-in numbers. This store is welcoming from the moment a customer passes through the door until the time they leave. Sporting Systems has committed to having more counter help than its competitors, so, in most cases, customers don’t have to wait. Customers get one-on-one service for as long as they need, and sales numbers reflect the relationships that are built through this strategy. This is a place where customers’ needs always come first.

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