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August 19, 2020

From the Counter: R&R Shooters and Sporting Goods


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 all 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 in rural central Wisconsin, just an hour from the state’s capital, Madison.

R&R Shooters and Sporting Goods, Mauston, Wisconsin

This store has been in business for more than 40 years and was purchased by the current owner just over 20 years ago. The retailer sells a mix of archery, fishing gear and firearms, stocking approximately 200 to 300 handguns, rifles and shotguns. The firearms inventory is a mix of new and used, with an emphasis on traditional hunting and defensive guns. The store is open 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays and Saturday 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Through the early stages of the pandemic, Wisconsin kept firearm businesses open by way of a state court order. “They were going to close the state, but the courts forced the governor to keep us open. Although there were changes in our operating hours, we really didn’t miss any retail days,” said Bruce Denton, owner.

Like many firearms retailers, this store quickly found the demand for .223/5.56 and 9mm was overwhelming, and there was heavy traffic for any kind of home-defense shotgun. While demand was heavy during the first months of the pandemic, this retailer found it manageable and traffic had even settled down as the weeks passed.

That was until May 30. During the last week of May, demonstrators marched on the state capital, assaulted a state representative and destroyed municipal and state property. “Living in rural Wisconsin, we knew there were issues in Minneapolis, but we did not expect the disarray in our own capital in Madison,” said Denton.

What the demonstrations did for this store, just an hour away from Madison, was to reinvigorate demand and push up the volume of store traffic. “We thought we were doing okay with inventory. Then the riots happened in Madison and expanded to other parts of the country, and we were back scrambling for product. We saw very high traffic,” Denton said.

Changing Competition

I asked Denton about his local competition and how it was affecting his business during this unsettling time. He commented that he could never have predicted the position his store would be in 10 years ago, saying, “Business has completely changed. We no longer compete with Walmart, Gander Mountain left and the city of Madison, essentially, has no firearm stores. There’s still a Cabela’s in the Madison area, but it really isn’t a factor for our local business.”

While the big-box stores haven’t been affecting this retailer’s bottom line, it’s no surprise the internet has. “It’s been a learning experience for me and my customers. We make every effort to go through the cost of shipping, transfers and reminding our customers that often we can’t warranty a sale from an outside retailer,” he said. He also noted that internet competition arrives on two fronts. “Sometimes it’s about price and sometimes it’s about availability. To be fair, the availability is harder for our store to compete with right now,” he said.

Denton believes that offering great service makes a far bigger difference in keeping customers around. “We charge for background checks and receiving guns from internet buys. For in-store orders, those charges are free, and we don’t pass on the shipping charges from our distributors. Shipping is a significant charge added by internet sales,” he said.

Understanding that the landscape of doing business is changing throughout the country, Denton noted that keeping up with product acquisition is critical to his customers, emphasizing that this is key to his store being seen as a valued part of the community and something that sets it apart from other retailers.

Forecasts

While it’s safe to say that demand for firearms is going to stay high through the election, it’s the increased interest by first-time buyers that’s developing opportunities. Denton says his strong industry relationships are critical to maintaining a stable inventory and profitability while meeting this demand from new buyers.

“We spend a lot of time looking for products, and while that’s time-consuming, it’s a reminder of how important relationships with our distributors and manufacturers are,” Denton said.

Denton also noted that he’s looking forward to next winter, after the first of the year, when he hopes trade shows, distributor shows, and the NRA Annual Meetings all go back to normal. “It’s all a part of a community that we enjoy and need to connect with. These gatherings will do wonders for our industry’s health and our mindset. There isn’t a retail business that hasn’t been turned upside down lately, but at least we have strong demand.”

Lessons Learned from the Counter

  • While there is strife in politics and unrest across the country, this retailer believes that opportunities in the firearm retail business are still viable and an important part of our heritage. “We can buy guns and sell them. There is profit in this, and I think demand is here for a while. All that said, if we protect our rights, we’ll still be able to look forward to deer season and a rural lifestyle that we all enjoy here in Wisconsin. Yes, it all takes more time and there’s more paperwork, but I’m not ready to retire yet. I would miss this store,” he said.
  • It’s no secret that anything retail is in a state of change. For our industry, the coming fall season will force firearm retailers to be flexible and creative to keep inventory available and their stores competing successfully with internet sales. As this retailer found, it’s essential to keep your customers informed about all the details that go into the final cost of a sale. Understanding the value of having the gun available, with no time or expense for shipping, can be a hidden value that pays dividends when brought to the attention of the customer standing in front of you.
  • This retailer believes demand will remain high for the rest of the year and into 2021. The challenge for buyers, then, will be to locate available product and keep their shelves stocked. This should demonstrate that buyers who make a priority of establishing solid relationships with wholesalers, while also being open to acquiring products from new manufactures, will be able to stock their stores with a variety of guns that consumers want.
  • This coming year may be one of the most important trade show years in recent memory. Denton knows it will be important to attend them and foster relationships with new manufacturers and wholesalers. It could mean the difference between products on the shelves versus products on backorder.

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