October 15, 2019
From the Counter: Nebraska Gun
“From the Counter” works 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 small independent retailer in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Nebraska Gun, Lincoln, Nebraska
Located in a blue 1890s barn, this small-city gun shop is on the edge of downtown and one block from Kaplan University. Keeping an average of 250 firearms in stock, the store is staffed by its owner with one part-time employee.
This retailer sells a mix of used and new firearms in rotation with traditional hunting, defensive and historic weapons. Open Monday through Saturday, it’s not the only gun shop in Lincoln, but the blue barn building is one of the last non-chain stores in the city.
Learning Guns — and Aquariums?
While owner Jeff McIntyre managed to find a job with a gun store right out of school, his new employer’s gun shop shared space with an aquarium store in an old blue barn.
“I’m sure I was born with a cork pop gun in my crib. I was completely driven to the firearms business. When I had a chance to go to work at a gun shop, I took it — even though it turned out to be on the aquarium side of the business,” laughed McIntyre.
McIntyre’s first employer was a hobbyist who wanted to be in the sporting firearms and tropical fish business. He believed retailing was about appreciating the customer and promoting social interaction. This was “old-school” friendly, even in the 1980s. It was the kind of store where the owner spent more time talking about firearms than selling them, and he was perfectly happy creating this retail environment. He encouraged regulars to hang out as long as they wanted.
While McIntyre was refining his retail skills on the aquarium side of the store, he was able to observe the gun shop. It did fine, but frequently just wasn’t up on new products. At times, it also wasn’t in tune with many of the customers’ needs. Still, McIntyre learned about the value of low margins and tightly competitive retailing. “There’s not a lot of money in selling guppies and water pumps. You need to learn quickly how to find the cash,” he said.
From Guppies to Landlord
Over a period of years, McIntyre learned how to market guppies and survive in a tremendously competitive environment. He eventually became the landlord.
“I had the chance to buy the blue barn for a reasonable price after I’d watched the slow decline of the aquarium and gun store because of the passing of the owner,” said McIntyre.
While keeping the property intact, McIntyre tightened his skills in the machine shop trade and went to work for another local firearms retailer. He found it was the polar opposite of his first retail experience. By 2006, McIntyre had amassed the vital skills to open the firearms store he always wanted. Today, he operates the blue barn as Lincoln’s full-service gun shop. His emphasis is on rare firearms.
Living off the Table Scraps — And Picking Up Where Others Leave Off
In recent years, the retail landscape in many towns has moved to a big-box mentality. McIntyre’s philosophy is simple: “I live off the table scraps,” he says.
The scraps include stocking specialized inventory, offering expert gunsmithing services, and providing an environment that truly welcomes its customers.
“Will we sell someone a Ruger LCR if they ask for it? Yes, and I’ll get it for them quickly at a very good price. That’s part of being a good retailer. But I’m not going to keep one in stock when they’re heavily discounted across town.” he said.
One door of opportunity that recently reopened was AR-style rifles, or modern sporting rifles (MSRs).
“We had a good stock of MSRs when we opened. However, the competitive environment became a race to the basement. Today the landscape is changing. As our local chain retailers are walking away from those sales, we’re stocking more MSR inventory,” he said.
McIntyre also noted that in addition to welcoming his regular “insider” customers, he takes deliberate steps to welcome new customers.
Checking in on the Rack of Shame
When someone brings Nebraska Gun a firearm that’s old and in disrepair, the guns are often repaired. Sometimes, though they are passed to the Rack of Shame.
“If I can get the gun cheap enough, I’ll buy any gun. These unwanted or often antique firearms are frequently sold for parts or display. There’s always a market for them, you just can’t pay very much,” he said.
McIntyre added that keeping the rare firearms on display in both working and non-working condition is one of the reasons customers regularly check in.
Selling the past is a big part of this store’s sales strategy. Older firearms uniquely tug on the emotional strings of many of their customers.
“So often someone comes in and sees a gun from their past. Perhaps it was like their grandfather’s. Just seeing the gun triggers a memory and creates an instant emotional response,” he said.
In this store, one of the trending firearms with shooters younger than 40 are older bolt guns. “Someone sees a gun on the rack that’s often been used hard and isn’t very expensive. If they recognize it as their grandfather’s gun, most customers want to buy it,” he said.
“I find it interesting they almost never say it was their father’s gun,” he added. “But I hear them talk about their grandpa all the time.”
McIntyre surmises it was the grandparent who showed them the joy of hunting in the field, as opposed to their father who most likely was “all about the rules.”
McIntyre said even the grandparent’s caliber of choice is an emotional trigger. “Sometimes it’s just about feeling that connection to their past that can create a swift emotional purchase. I can’t sell an older bolt gun unless it’s a 30-06, because that’s the caliber of the ’50s, ‘60s and ’70s,” he said.
Lesson Learned from the Counter
This retailer was fortunate to experience several management levels in diverse retail environments. In combination, he was provided a unique perspective he needed to open his own store. He learned how to differentiate his store from competitors and how to welcome customers and listen to his clients’ stories to move them toward the sale.
Love Your Customers — But Not Too Much: Customers want a supportive, friendly environment to shop. They want to be a part of a tribe. They seek a place where they belong. McIntyre is careful to be welcoming, supportive and friendly but not to point where a new customer is uncomfortable.
Sell What Others Don’t: It seems obvious, yet many retailers overlook this adage. Distance your store from your competitors’ “on-sale” items. Develop your specialized niche as the go-to store. Customers don’t need to enter a chain store to see what’s on sale. Smaller, specialized retailers attract a loyal following who drop by as an experience — not just a purchase.
Cater to the Emotional Sale: Focusing on the past and regional hunting traditions lay the groundwork for customer conversations that evoke an emotional response. Engaging in a client narrative is comforting. It draws out memories of relatives and friends while making the register ring.