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December 19, 2018

From the Counter: Fin & Feather — Iowa City, Iowa


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. For this month, we’ll focus on an independent retailer in the heart of the Midwest in an Iowa college town.

Fin & Feather, Inc. — Iowa City, Iowa

Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018, this southeastern Iowa retailer rests 90 miles from Missouri’s northern state line and 50 miles from the Mississippi River and the Illinois state line. The shop boasts a diverse mix of hunting, fishing, camping and archery products. The gun department keeps five full-time employees, including a gunsmith, and up to 12 part-time employees busy. The firearm inventory typically hovers at over 700 guns, with a mix that includes handguns, shotguns, bolt rifles and a few MSRs.

While concealed carry and home defense are sizable segments, this retailer’s unique niche is with hunting firearms and accessories. This shop serves a broad range of customers from out-of-state hunters to local farmers, urban college students and staff seeking self-defense tools. The store is open seven days a week, Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Sundays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Fin & Feather - FFL Retailer

A Business Founded on Customer Focus

Newlyweds Roger and Linda Mildenstein established their family business in 1967. Customer-centric from the beginning, the Fin & Feather name came from a customer contest. Located downtown, the storefront opened with four employees.

Linda initially took charge of the bookkeeping, while Roger capitalized on his background in customer service from his days working at a grocery.

In 1998, the store relocated to the south side of Iowa City. The shop’s expansion allowed it to meet growing customer needs, with Fin & Feather now offering a wider selection of products, adding an archery range and improving parking options. Camping gear and technical soft goods joined the product mix, and eventually watercraft and bicycles made their way into the store.

Going With the Flow

If you visited the store during the ’70s, ’80s or mid-’90s, you’d have partaken in pancake breakfasts in the parking lot at the opening of pheasant season. It would have been elbow to elbow with upland hunters jamming the lot in a sea of out-of-state license plates.

Fin & Feather - The Great Outdoors

“They tell me that the store would stock over 100 shotguns just for the first week. They included Browning A-5s and over/unders to Wingmasters and Ithaca Model 37s,” said Clint Hartsock, Buyer and Hunting Department Manager. “Cases of shells would fly out of the door. Every out-of-state bird hunter would have a favorite country road ditch to hunt,” said Hartsock.

“Sadly, the state is no longer the upland mecca it once was. Until land practices change, big game will be the priority,” he said

Whitetail were always important to the region. Rack deer came of age in the ’90s and they have remained the hunting staple for most Iowa hunters.

“It started with the introduction of muzzleloading, which extended the season and range for our traditional shotgun hunters. More recently, last year’s addition of high-powered handgun calibers is now seducing an entirely new collection of deer hunters to purchase,” said Hartsock. Leading the sales list and making strides for this retailer are .45-70, .44 Mag. and the .450 Bushmaster.

Customer Service That Wins the Day

During this company’s nascent stage, service was an absolute priority. This core value hasn’t changed during its 50 years. However, the 2016 pre-election boom reinforced that priority.

“Things were getting pretty crazy during the ammo shortages and the elections. Our customers kept talking about visiting the area big-box stores,” he said. “Then they came in telling stories about taking a number and waiting 45 minutes to an hour to buy a gun. When they asked a question, the salesperson would say, ‘If you don’t want it, the next guy will take it.’ Our customers hated it, so much so they came in and told us about the experience—and we listened,” he said.

Living through that experience reinforced the high-service standard Fin & Feather pledged to meet.

“We may be busy, but everyone gets greeted and asked what they’re looking for. Even when we are with a customer, we check in when someone looks lost. It only takes a second to say, ‘The .22 shells are over in the corner,’ or ‘I’ll be with you in five minutes,’ to meet the wants and needs of our customers. We have a large stable of part-timers on hand, always,” Hartsock, added.

Fin $ Feather Handgun Counter

Leveraging the Handgun Advantage — And a Security Solution Found at SHOT

Today, like many dealers, handguns surpass or equal the gross sales numbers for other products in the store. With that kind of demand, this retailer emphasized that security and display are important parts of the retail mix. Years ago, the shop was broken into at night. Since then, handguns were secured every evening.

“It’s time consuming. There’s always the chance someone will dent or scratch a gun since they’re handled two more times a day,” Hartsock said. “The solution came at a SHOT Show from Display Solutions of Topeka. The cases are impenetrable, and they keep us from putting a $500 scratch in a Les Baer 1911,” he said.

Tackling New Profit Centers

Significant profits for this store today continue to be generated at the handgun counter. Hartsock attributes it to the growth in women shooters.

“We still run an average of 15 students, mostly women, through our concealed carry class. It is a significant factor in closing handgun sales. As many as 80 percent of the concealed carry participants make a handgun purchase,” he said.

With a full-time gunsmith on staff to evaluate them, consignment guns these days are an area that also creates traffic and some of the highest profits in the store. According to Hartsock, in most cases they’re looking for an average margin of 30 to 40 percent for most used and consignment firearms.

Fin & Feather Retail

Lessons Learned from the Counter

While the retail landscape has continued to change, some basic rules of business have remained the same for this store.

  • Understanding and Embracing Change — Many retailers fight change. They know their inventory and want to stay in their lane, where they’re comfortable selling. But demographics and sports change with the times and the habitat. This retailer has understood and embraced these changes, and by paying critical attention to emerging trends and hunting regulations, Fin & Feather has expanded its diversity and inventory and stayed profitable.
  • Part-Time Staff Key to Busy Times — Any time this store feels a busy season coming on, it reaches out to its larger-than-average stable of part-time employees. This knowledgeable and capable crew is comprised of recreational hunters and shooters. Typically, employees work only one day a week but are on call so that when the need arises can be called in on a moment’s notice.
  • Creating Value to Build Customer Loyalty — While used guns deliver significantly higher profit margins than other inventory, this retailer is careful to maintain accessible prices for its customers. This practice creates loyalty and consistently higher traffic.

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