How one seller continually adapts to changing norms
Family owned and operated, this retailer had its humble beginnings in Robert Nagel’s garage, in 1942. Twelve full-time and three part-time employees service the 10,000-square-foot retail shop and warehouse in metro San Antonio. Nagel’s keeps an average of 4,000 firearms in stock and specializes in defensive shooting, hunting, soft goods, and optics. The store also features a well-staffed, full-service gunsmithing department. And with more than 70 years of firearms marketing, the company has emerged as one of the larger non-chain firearms retailers in the state. Hours of operation are 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Nagel’s customers are evolving in ways the staff had not predicted. I spoke with the store’s senior counter salesman, Gilbert Trevino, a 17-year veteran, about what they’re doing to create new demand and keep foot traffic high.
“We have begun to see a real transition from the guy who must get the gun because he fears it won’t be available to the couple who want to purchase a gun for protection,” says Trevino.
This couple demographic is a remarkable reset in the store’s new-customer profile. Often well under 40 years old, these evolving customers are the store’s first-time gun buyers. They have never had a history of gun ownership in their homes, and they do not lean to the Republican right.
“Not only are couples making [their firearm buying] decision together in the store, they are usually extraordinarily well informed on what they want to buy—and they expect knowledgeable service from the counter salesperson,” Trevino says.
The store is also seeing an abundance of women first-timers, from young and single to grandmothers who live alone. The common denominator is that none have owned a firearm before. Small concealed-carry handguns continue to be the primary focus of the store’s inventory profile. Nagel’s sales staff has adapted and is sensitive to the needs of these buyers, recommending SKUs that physically fit the operator, are easy to operate, and are comfortable to carry.
Building Customer Traffic and Demand through the Internet
The owners believe that not only is the web the best communication tool, it’s the best tool for positioning the store as a go-to resource for shooters. Nagel’s has a stalwart website, with a dedicated staff to promote weekly sales and events targeting private groups that have proven essential to the store’s sales mix. However, it’s the website’s search-ranking matrix that drives the cash register.
“The internet staff does a flat-out amazing job of keeping the store’s name in front of our customers. Every time someone searches for a gun store or anything gun-related, our name ranks at the top,” says Trevino, who notes that this online strategy differentiates Nagel’s from the area’s big-box stores.
“It’s such an effective tool to get them in the door. When we get a first-time customer in the store, they come back because of price, selection, and, possibly most important, service.”
Moving Used Guns
While shiny new firearms sales have reached a plateau at Nagel’s, the store is turning its focus to rifles with some hard-earned patina, which are attracting increased attention. Although some retailers struggle with used firearms, at Nagel’s they are a part of the high-profit mix.
“It’s imperative to know what you can sell in your market. In the end, the right counter knowledge is the key to making the transaction rewarding and profitable,” says Trevino.
Although staff knowledge always rules, in the used-gun category it’s critical. To close the sale, the counter person must know how much the gun is worth, understand how to evaluate its condition, and have the pulse of local demand to determine its optimal price point. Another motivation in developing client interest in older firearms is that it frequently leads to other purchases in similar calibers or brands. A customer who owns an older Browning over/under can be moved to purchase a newer one as brand affinity grows. But this retailer is seeing an increase in the nostalgia factor in firearms sales and taking note.
“We often hear comments like, ‘My grandfather loved that model rifle, and I would like to have one just like it,’ ” Trevino says.
Weaving Gunsmithing into the Sales Mix
Since a gunsmith founded Nagel’s, it comes as no surprise that the company sees gunsmithing as a critical avenue to driving traffic, new sales, and strong customer service.
In 2017, this focus has shouldered a weightier importance. The company staffs three full-time and one part-time gunsmith. In addition to classic custom work, there is plenty of traditional project building at this shop. However, it’s the day-in, day-out general turnaround services that keep this department in the black.
“Recoil pads are a really big seller for our store. It’s not really practical for the average customer to expertly size it into place without doing damage to their rifle or shotgun,” Trevino points out. “Likewise, modifications like triggers and rail changes on an MSR often require special tools and support to get the desired results.”
Nagel’s builds on that customer knowledge by offering a spectrum of gunsmithing services, from those that require expert finesses, like trigger and action jobs for semi-auto handgun owners, to those that are relatively simple, like firearms cleaning, especially for all those new firearms owners. The store also times some of these services to the season at hand.
“We have a special before dove season to get a semi-auto shotgun cleaned and oiled for $70. The number of customers that come through the door is amazing,” says Trevino.
There’s also a high demand from autoloading pistol owners, particularly from newer shooters. The average turnaround time at this retailer for most services is two weeks, with high seasonal traffic moving the needle to three weeks.
Lessons Learned from the Counter
Several bottom-line lessons about building and keeping customer loyalty were learned across this counter. First, the counter sales staff at Nagel’s is committed to customer service. Whether it’s expertly fitting a recoil pad, adding a custom trigger to an MSR, or working with a new shooter, they take the time to build a personal relationship with their clients.
Second, in addition to meeting its core clients’ needs, the company has carefully assessed the changing demands of its diverse client base. The staff is willing to pivot and change direction as new opportunities in the first-time firearms buyer sector emerge. They recognize and respond to new shooters making decisions together, monitor and respond to an increased interest in home defense, and contract with vendors for personal training to offer continued support for their novice customers.
Third, while promoting weekly sales is certainly part of the mix, the overarching goal is not to be low-price-dependent. By offering a plethora of readily available services, from gun cleaning to gunsmithing, Nagel’s has built a valuable reputation and holds a strong market position.
In the end, as Trevino says, “It’s all about listening and respecting your customer. It’s really that simple.”
—Peter B. Mathiesen
From the Counter is NSSF’s newest feature, providing timely industry perspectives from firearms retailers across the country. Our goal is to identify and highlight innovative market strategies to help retailers compete successfully. Lessons learned will be drawn from across an array of regions with diverse market economies in an era of political change.
Is your store doing something unique to improve your turn rates, margins, or customer recruitment/retention? Email NSSF retail services director Patrick Shay at firstname.lastname@example.org with details.