April 13, 2020
Working Through a Crisis: Center Target Sports
Welcome to NSSF®‘s column for firearms range owners, managers and staff. In the coming months this space will feature ranges working through the social and legal challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, showing how they’re responding to these unusual circumstances, demonstrating best industry practices to protect staff and customers while offering services when appropriate and allowed by law. For more information on NSSF’s range programs, visit www.nssf.org. —Zach Snow, NSSF Director, Retail & Range Business Development
Picking Up Speed—And Lots of New Customers
This interview was conducted with Ed Santos, owner and founder of Center Target Sports in Post Falls, Idaho, just outside of Coeur d’Alene on March 30, 2020. Santos is also a member of NSSF’s Range Action Specialist Team.
Retail traffic at this range since the COVID-19 pandemic gathered steam has grown at a rather steady pace compared to some retailers in the United States. Sales started to jump around the 12th of March. Range use was also up, and Santos notes that shotguns in particular were selling well. By St. Patrick’s Day the following Tuesday, though, demand had doubled, and by the end of that week, the store’s traffic was at a record-setting level.
At the time we conducted this interview, Center Target Sports was experiencing sales approaching five times its normal volume, with heavy demand on 9mm, .223 and .556 ball ammo. Shotguns, pistols and modern sporting rifles (MSRs), in that order, were in highest demand.
The store’s demographic has also been changing rapidly. Like many ranges throughout the country, this facility is reporting a remarkable increase in traffic from first-time buyers. New customers have been a mix of everything from truckers to surgeons and lawyers, and one common thread has been a large number of younger couples purchasing their first firearm together.
“While we were planning for an election bump, we in no way expected the volume of new shooters that the coronavirus pandemic has created. In our Mountain West region, our customers are generally not as sensitive to major media stories; our regular client base already have much of the firearms and ammunition they need. We do often see high demand for ammo because we aggressively promote our range services and training, which helps in attracting new shooters. We want our customers to feel like they can always afford to shoot, anytime they want,” said Santos.
Safe Shopping Means New Protocols
Santos knew from the start that everything about this sales bump was different. He also knew his employees and their health had to come first.
“Keeping our staff safe was the first concern. Although the staff opted not to put up plastic partitions at the sales counters, in one day we’d put in place new cleaning and contact standards,” Santos said. He also said it wasn’t easy to adjust to the new protocols initially.
“It took about two days to get used to an honest six-foot distancing with staff and customers. Not shaking hands was the biggest challenge. Procedures for running NICS checks had to become more organized, and we started to analyze every single step and physical movement during the process of a sale,” Santos said.
While this range has always taken great pride in a maintaining exceptional cleanliness, when he pandemic was clearly becoming a factor in how day-to-day business would be conducted, its staff increased their commitment to having a facility that was safe for both staff and shooters.
“Before the virus struck, we wiped down the store twice a day, so we had strong inventories of cleaning supplies. We now disinfect the store every two hours, with staff washing their hands between every single customer,” he said. Center Target Sports employs a staff of 22 full- and part-time employees, and Santos has the store operating six days a week during this pandemic with reduced hours of 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. to enhance its social distancing protocols.
+ONESM Training on Hold—But Much to Look Forward to
Before the pandemic, the time spanning spring 2020 through August (NSSF’s National Shooting Sports Month®) was intended to be one of Center Target’s most aggressive marketing seasons, with the business committed to attracting new shooters.
“We are in a part of the country that support lots of outdoor recreation, and the reality is that when the weather is nice here in Northern Idaho, we are at odds with golf and boating. This was the year our company intended to be sponsoring a constant flow of new-shooter opportunities that have now been postponed. We had to cancel events for which we had more than 400 clients committed because of the virus. We are committed to reviving these programs as soon as social distancing allows and the range reopened,” he said.
“Bringing new shooters into the sport is how we grow,” Santos added. “Our range offers a free, one-hour, supervised orientation course with every firearm purchase. Also, the new shooter gets a free one-day range pass. Even our rental program is tied to the caliber of the gun they’re considering. A new shooter can try, say, any .380 model we stock instead of being charged a per-gun fee,” he said.
Anticipating a rise in sales due to this year’s national elections, this retailer had purchased additional ammunition to meet that demand as well as more to support their planned new shooting programs through the summer. Since the pandemic has grown, this range has had high demand for ammo, but only a few calibers are currently being sold with limitations.
“We have substantial inventory and contract buys that even at this demand level should get us through the year and keeping our customers’ needs filled. While I realize no one saw this crisis coming, I planned for extra inventory in 2020 simply because it’s an election year,” Santos said.
This range owner feels that some responsibility for ammo shortages some are experiencing should fall to the manufacturers that just assumed demand would be low this year with Trump in office. Those assumptions don’t allow for the growth in the sport and the needs of new shooters as they purchase their first guns.
“Every single year that we expand the shooting sports, there must be a commitment from our industry to produce enough inventory. It’s critical that we support our new shooters with product. We can’t just sell them a gun. We must follow through with personalized training and give them the opportunity to spend the time on the range to become safely proficient,” he said.
The Good News
Santos was clear that both the manufacturing and retail sides have to be prepared for the unexpected. “This is the business we are in now: We sell training for the unexpected as we talk about this ‘new normal.’ This event may be a shock to the industry, but every part of it improves the chance for a business to expand the skills of its managers and planners. This is a learning opportunity, and it’s our responsibility to our employees and our families to do the best job possible,” he said.
“We must take every single one of these new sales seriously,” Santos also emphasized. “Training and embracing these newly acquired customers will help them become our industry’s best advocates in the coming decade,” he said.
About Center Target Sports
Center Target Sports is just three miles from the Washington State line off I-90, thus serving both the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane communities. The roughly 6,000-square-foot facility includes a 4,000-square-foot retail store that carries an average of 400 firearms and a revolving stock of more than 70 rentals. The range itself has 10 25-yard shooting lanes that are handicap accessible.