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September 29, 2017

From the Counter: The Sportsman’s Shop, East Earl, Pennsylvania


By Peter B. Mathiesen

“From the Counter” is NSSF’s timely series of industry perspectives from firearm retailers across the country. Our goal is to identify and highlight innovative market strategies to help retailers compete more successfully. Lessons learned will be drawn from an array of regions with diverse market economies in an era of political change. This month, we visited with a large and recently expanded independent in central Pennsylvania, The Sportsman’s Shop.

The Sportsman’s Shop, East Earl, Pennsylvania

Originating in 1954, this dealer is located in the Keystone State’s Lancaster County. During 2014-’15, the company converted a bowling alley to a newly renovated, 25,000 square-foot retail location that included a 12-lane indoor rifle and pistol range. Today, the family run retailer keeps an average of 2,000 new and 500 used firearms in stock, as well as 150 rental firearms. The Sportsman’s Shop has seven full-time employees, with an additional 23 part-time workers.

The store is open seven days a week: Mondays through Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. and on Sundays from 12:00 to 6:00 p.m. It specializes in firearms and hunting and shooting accessories. Nearly 80 percent of the building is devoted to firearms, with the remainder tied to general fishing inventory and other apparel.

If You Build It …

The plan for the expansion was to create a facility that would foster the development of new shooters. The goal was to deliver the inventory clout to compete with regional and online competitors. The store’s expansion date dovetailed with and was set on a parallel path to commence with the national presidential election in 2016. As the election process progressed, numerous scenarios were examined.

“There was a wide range of predictions. We forecasted a strong uptick, even a run on the store, with a Hillary win. This compared to a significant decrease in sales if Trump won the White House,” said Joe Keffer, the facility’s President and Owner.

Despite the presidential outcome, Keffer acknowledged that, ultimately, the store’s success would be directly tied to strong promotional sales and a larger inventory. To ensure success, it would need to find and keep first-time shooters new to the sport.

Creating a Customer-Centric Experience

The store’s unique retail floor plan was specifically designed to create an elevated entry area. When a shopper walks into the building, this customer-centric perspective enables the individual to immediately see everything, from the store’s guns displayed on the wall to the range. At the front door, there is a welcome desk. All customers are greeted at the door, and employees behind the counter are specifically trained to identify someone who is a new customer.

“As it turns out, a new customer is pretty obvious. Our greeters know when someone appears wide-eyed or lost, and they are attended to immediately. They ask the customer what they are looking for and how they can be of service. If they sense the person is a new shooter, the greeter will personally escort the customer to a specific salesperson with an introduction. Then the salesperson takes over. They spend as much time as necessary to answer any questions. The goal is to build a relationship with the customer. This makes the process of purchasing a firearm friendly, calm and always reassuring,” Keffer said.

He added that getting away from the old retail mentality was critical.

“Our industry was often not welcoming to the person who had questions. With many old-school retailers, if they didn’t like something about you, first-timers were often ostracized or ignored. This still happens today, although thankfully less often. Our goal was to eliminate this altogether,” said Keffer.

Welcoming a New Demographic

Like many stores, Sportsman’s is witnessing a clear change in the type of new shooter who’s walking through their door.

More than half of our new customers are women. They are typically in their mid-20s to early 40s. Many come in as a couple, with a boyfriend or spouse. Some are alone and a few are older,” he said.

To close this new customer, Keffer says it’s all about having a pleasant, safe experience. Staff members encourage the customers to have a hands-on range experience. Once a gun is in their hands, they realize how fun and safe the interaction with the firearm can be. If a purchase is made the same day, all range fees, firearm rentals and ammo are refunded.

Converting New Shooters — NSSF’s First Shots Tools

One of the education tools Sportsman’s uses in recruiting new shooters is NSSF’s First Shots program. Created to provide basic firearms safety instruction to small groups, these roughly three-hour seminars begin with classroom time before heading to the range where instructors lead their students to, literally, take their first shots.

“This successful program gives our staff the standardized tools to help the new shooter enjoy a higher level of comfort, while having fun,” said Keffer.

To date, Keffer believes that First Shots turns a minimum of 25 percent of the attendees into a sale in less than 60 days. Indeed, Sportsman’s claims to have converted over 1,000 new shooters since the store adopted the First Shots program.

Connecting with Customers through Social Media

While email blasts and store promotions always need to be smartly managed, social media has become a daily priority.

“It’s easy to say you need to adopt all of the platforms. But if you’re not using someone that speaks the language of your audience, you’ll never see the success,” said Keffer. “We have a fulltime person under 30 years old with a marketing background managing our internet communications and Facebook. Not only does she understand the demographic, she speaks their language. She has just recently come to the shooting sports and shares an honest enthusiasm for the experience. She has aligned herself seamlessly with these new customers.”

Keffer attributes the employee’s growth to the Well Armed Woman program, a well-respected, nationwide program to introduce women to the firearms safety and the shooting sports. The program was developed by Carrie Lightfoot who, after deciding she wanted to purchase and carry a firearm, found few resources to accommodate what she wanted, “… straight-forward and complete information and products geared specifically toward me as a woman gun owner … .”

This initiative has kept all the staff at Sportsman’s well-tuned to the needs of its female customers, and it supports an active 70-member Well Armed Woman chapter that meets at the store’s range monthly.

Hosting Old-School Events to Drive Traffic & Sales

Sportsman’s has always viewed June as the slowest month of the season. For several years, the store has augmented June with its Father’s Day Sportsman’s Expo. By adding shuttle buses to an offsite rifle range, the retailer has found an event that regular customers look forward to and expect every summer.

“We pull in a lot of manufacturer support. This drives a large number of customers through the store and to the offsite range. The sales are strong and the turns make our summer,” Keffer said.

Keffer also noted that experience has shown the event can be carried out while maintaining profits.

“We can’t lose money on the event. However, when we have 3,000 customers in the store for one weekend, we’re going see a worthwhile net number,” Keffer added.

He also stated that the store would always support smaller monthly sales promotions to continue to build traffic. Keffer mentioned that most manufacturers have stepped up not only with strong promotions but also with direct help from factory reps.

During this interview, Keffer was willing to share the new store’s numbers as of mid-September 2017.

“We’re doing pretty well, and we may be as close as two percent of our budgeted predictions. I’m optimistic that we’ll meet our end-of-year numbers,” said Keffer.

Lessons Learned From the Counter

Several lessons were learned from the counter at this central-Pennsylvania retailer.

First is the willingness to foster a buyer relationship throughout the sales process. From the moment a shopper walks through the retail door, a dedicated staff member welcomes them; new customers are specifically identified. Next, that shopper is escorted and paired with a knowledgeable and active-listening sales professional. These steps ensure the store and sales experience are enjoyable.

Second, this store has invested in fine-tuned retailer training. By adopting a strategy with tested results, such as NSSF’s First Shots program and The Well Armed Woman local chapter, this shop is converting and keeping more first-time shooters.

Third, Sportsman’s ensures that staff communicating with the new customer can mentally identify with the demographic. In the case of social media, this match to connect and share information with this audience is critical to success.

Finally, events and promotions are key to driving traffic to your store during slower retail periods. To maintain a strong financial balance sheet, it concentrates on building traffic in the slower months, producing sound gross numbers while keeping a close eye on expenses.

The Action Plan — Retailing Pro Tips With NSSF

Want to take steps similar to those Joe Keffer and Sportsman’s Shop have to improve their business and bottom line? NSSF.org has a comprehensive library of resources for you. For instance, our landmark report “Consumer Segmentation Analysis of the U.S. Commercial Firearms & Accessories Market” is chock full of insights on the eight, specifically identifiable consumer segments in our industry, what these customers are thinking, when they’re thinking it and how that affects their buying habits—all which provide the avenues to shake up your marketing to keep your regular customers loyal and bring in the new customers you need to thrive. And that’s just one example! Check out the Retailers homepage at www.nssf.org to see all your trade association has to offer you.

Photo Credit: All photos courtesy Sportsman’s Shop/Larry Weaver/Weaver Companies, Inc.

 

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