Looking Ahead

From constant assaults by the anti-gun crowd to softening firearms sales and ongoing ammunition shortages, the shooting, hunting, and outdoors industry has faced significant headwinds in 2014, and a look ahead doesn’t offer any indication that we should expect a change. Just as the industry was adjusting to the boom, a new, but not altogether negative, normal has settled in.

The good news is there is a huge crop of first-time gun owners anxious for information, young companies injecting a fresh perspective, and a stable group of experienced stalwarts still in place to provide leadership as we collectively move forward. Taken together, the industry has a bright future. To that end, we’ve identified a few trends that have taken shape in recent months. Most shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention, but some, including growth in some interesting categories, offer retailers the potential to capture more dollars.

Home Security

Over the course of the past few years, many shop owners have put the number of first-time gun buyers as high as 25 percent. Consider that number for a second: As many as a quarter of the people buying guns are doing so for the first time in their lives. Such a sizable flock of new gun owners offers increased opportunities for smart retailers to educate an entire demographic about the requirements for safe, responsible gun ownership, which means increased sales in the safe and home-security category.

There are many reasons to lead new
customers toward safes and other home-security devices, but none so important as responsible gun ownership. Selling security reflects a positive image of both the industry and gun owners as a group, taking ammunition away from anti-gunners who love to portray us as dangerous and irresponsible. Instead, emphasize to customers that a secured gun is a safe gun, and start the discussion about best practices for gun security right at the gun counter.

“Gun rights come with personal responsibility,” says Pasquale Murena, marketing manager at Cannon Safe and GunVault. “Knowing that your gun will not get into the wrong hands is value in itself.”

A straightforward question asking how a customer plans to secure his new gun is a simple way to get a conversation started that could ultimately lead to add-on sales. But don’t push them to a mammoth-sized gun safe right away; the sticker shock of such an item might chase them right out of the store. Instead, lead customers up to it with an honest conversation about their needs. Maybe the trigger lock that’s included with all new guns will suffice, but offer other easy-to-swallow options, such as pistol lockers or lockboxes, at the point of sale.

“Have a quick-access pistol safe, like a GunVault MiniVault or SpeedVault, at your checkout counter,” says Murena. “We see sales on these units increase at every store that uses a GunVault at the counter. It flows right into the conversation when selling a gun.”

Though it might be hard to hear over the din of questions from first-time gun buyers, keep an ear open to the home-security needs of your existing customers as well. A gun purchase by one of your regulars might just push his current safe over capacity, putting him in the market for an upgrade. If your inventory includes used guns, something as simple as a peg full of cable-locks hanging behind the register can add incremental sales that add up over the course of the season. And don’t forget to emphasize the versatility that safes offer in an age where identify theft is on the rise.

“Safes are not only for guns,” explains Murano. “Everyone has other items they can keep secure in their safe: money, documents, family photos, hard drives, and more.”

Admittedly, safes aren’t easy to merchandise, taking up both valuable floor space and dollars that can go to other inventory. But make room on your sales floor and in your budget to stock as wide of variety of models as possible. Catalog photos and bullet-point copy are nowhere near as effective as being able to show customers first-hand how safes can fit, both literally and figuratively, into their home-security plan.

“A larger variety of different gun-capacity safes will keep your customer in your store and help him make a better decision on the spot for what he needs,” says Murano.

Sub-Gauge Shotguns

During the recentrun on handguns and modern sporting rifles, you could almost hear the bells tolling for the sporting shotgun. The shotguns that were selling, to hear media and manufacturers tell it, were generally black and fitted with all manner of tactical accessories, from Picatinny rails to crenelated choke tubes. You’d have thought all the hunters had gone to ground. Well, to take a note from Mark Twain, those obituaries were a bit premature, and just as sales of MSRs and handguns have stabilized, sporting shotguns have emerged as a bright spot on retailers’ ledger sheets.

Among those shotgun sales, one particular category, sub-gauge shotguns, has trended upward in the past 18 months, with especially renewed interest in the 28-gauge. Within the past year, several manufacturers have successfully launched 28-gauge versions of established platforms to much fanfare—including Beretta, which announced an A400 Xplor in 28 at the 2014 SHOT Show.

“Since their introduction, the A400 in 12 and 20 gauge have sold really well, and we were looking to grow the A400 family,” says John Ryan, senior product manager for Beretta. “A lot of people have been asking for a 28-gauge version, and we recognized there was a place in the market for it.”

According to Ryan, the 28-gauge platform is becoming more popular across the board as the once hard-to-find ammunition has become more available—and in the case of target loads, not as expensive. Although field loads still might set a hunter back $25, boxes of target loads from Rio, Fiocchi, and other manufacturers can often be found for around $10, giving the 28-gauge shooter an affordable reason to hit the range. Ryan also notes that the hunting and shooting demographic trends older, and lot of aging shooters are turning to sub-gauge shotguns for the reduced recoil. Plus, a 28-gauge is just fun to shoot.

“There is a cool factor with the 28-gauge,” says Ryan. “People pick it up and can’t help but smile. Then when you shoot it, there’s so little recoil, it’s like shooting a .22. Some people shoot skeet with it for the challenge, while others are using it to teach young people how to shoot. The 28 is lighter with less recoil, so it’s not beating them up.”

Beretta isn’t the only gun company hopping on the sub-gauge train. Last year, Weatherby introduced the Turkish-made SA-08 in 28 gauge, and Franchi sells a stacked double 28 in the Aspire line of shotguns for the double-barrel crowd. Combine that with popular sub-gauge offerings from all the other major manufacturers, and retailers have plenty of opportunities to earn the money no longer being diverted to the handgun and MSR boom.

Food and Game Processing

For all the reasons customers might choose to come into your shop, one that offers a good taste of increased sales is food. That’s right, a renewed interest in eating food made from healthy, sustainable ingredients has caused both new and experienced gun owners to take advantage of all that wild game available to anyone with a hunting license.

A 2013 study by Responsive Management has put numbers to the motivations behind hunting—and meat came out on top. The study, released last November, asked Americans 18 and older about their most important reason for hunting in the prior year. Of those polled, 35 percent selected “for the meat” as the most important reason for their recent hunting participation, a 13 percent uptick from a similar survey conducted in 2006, when just 22 percent of hunters considered it their biggest reason for going afield.

“From our perspective, a large reason for the renewed interest in eating wild game is the influx of new hunters concerned about where their food comes from,” says Steve McGrath, director of marketing for Camp Chef. “Instead of spending their money at Whole Foods, they’re getting into harvesting their own game.”

Looking outside of just the hunting world, food is a bigger deal than perhaps it has ever been. Society as a whole has reached a critical mass in terms of understanding how artificially created foods affect health, and many people want to change the way they do things and eat better. McGrath has seen sales of cooking equipment related to preparing wild game or to cooking outdoors parallel that interest and grow exponentially in the last decade.

“Cooking-related business is up with all of our retailers,” he says. “What we’re hearing is that while guns and ammunition sales are like a roller-coaster, cooking equipment has done nothing but go up. Retailers aren’t just selling more of their inventory, but are also asking us for additional SKUs. There is no sign of a slowdown either. We’re still nowhere near what the market can bear.”

A traditional gun shop might hesitate in replacing proven, if somewhat tired, inventory with a whole new category, but McGrath encourages giving the cooking segment a try. As he says, “Everybody cooks and everybody eats.”

And, he reminds savvy retailers, even in the food business, it’s all about the money. “Margins in cooking gear are as good as any SKUs in the camping department,” he says.

Investing in the cooking category doesn’t have to mean turning your gun shop into Bed, Bath & Beyond, but it does take a commitment to make it succeed. Just as with any new category, you can’t just stuff a bunch of cast iron on a shelf and expect it to sell itself. You’ve spent the last two years educating new gun owners. Now teach them how to cook the animals they kill and, according to McGrath, you’ll reap big rewards.

“People also want to learn about wild-game cooking,” says McGrath. “We’ve seen an immediate and automatic increase in sales with our retailers that made the step to doing demonstrations. We had a guy demo in front of a Seattle-area outdoor store, and year-to-date comps of cooking equipment doubled at that location.”

Social Marketing

Traditional marketing,aka “The way it’s always been done,” is giving the consumer a tangible reason to buy from you, such as offering a sale price or other value proposition. However, it creates a low level of engagement with a large, often uninterested audience. Today’s non-traditional advertising, whether it’s through Facebook, Twitter, or other social venues, delivers information to an engaged group of consumers, who in turn will spread that message to others.

Aside from a select few savvy marketers, the outdoors industry has been slow to adopt social media, but that has changed in a big way in recent years as brands such as Blackhawk, Badlands, and others have reaped big rewards by investing in relationships with their customers. Now it’s time for retailers to follow suit by creating honest relationships with core consumers.

“We look to drive engagement with social media,” says Tim Brandt, communications director for ATK. “Consumers talk about our products, our competition, and our industry every day, but more important, they talk to us with social media. And in turn, we listen, learn, and interact. Through platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, we’re able to form unique relationships with consumers, whereas opportunities with traditional media outlets are relegated to one-way, platform-specific, and mostly ‘one-size-fits-all’ messages to the masses.”

“Non-traditional marketing” doesn’t mean a funny cat picture posted on an otherwise inactive Facebook page, but that platform does offer the best way for all retailers to build their brand and create top-of-mind awareness in an otherwise noisy world. Facebook is also a way for small-shop owners to compete on a level playing field with big, multi-channel retailers.

“Whether you have a 300-square-foot store or you are the manager of a Cabela’s, you can gain a foothold in your local market and increase market share through social media,” says Justin Moore, director of marketing for Weatherby, a company that more than gets social media. “It’s the one medium that gives everyone the same opportunities to share with their followers, for free. No matter what your marketing or advertising budget is, you can create a Facebook page that looks just like the world’s biggest retail store’s page. Be creative, offer incentives, make your page interesting to visit and the people will follow.”

So, what is a Facebook page or Twitter feed for, if not to post funny cat pictures or anti–government rants? It’s for curating the public face of your brand. Sure, you can share what sales you are currently running, but don’t make it a hard sell. Show what your store looks like, and who your employees are. Work to obtain professionally produced online content from manufacturers showing who makes their products,  and how. All this creates an engagement with your customer that, though you might not think it, translates into sales when those customer decide to buy.

“To a large majority of the people that buy your product or visit your store, you have the world’s best job,” says Moore. “Share it with them, and they will be happy to listen.”

Millennials

First, let me stress that I don’t have the answer when it comes to marketing to the Millennial Generation, and I would distrust anyone who says they do. The Millennials—people born in the ’80s and ’90s—might be the most difficult demographic to market to. No other group has so much information and advertising competing for its attention, and, having come of age during the most recent financial crisis, Millenials are more savvy when it comes to spending their money than you might imagine. Capturing some of those dollars can be confusing, but it’s not impossible.

A good start would be to reread the section on social marketing, above; marketing to the 100-million-strong Millennial Generation means engaging them on their terms and creating a social connection that transfers to the rest of their tribe. At the core, it’s still Marketing 101 in terms of the need to build relationships with your consumer. It’s the means to that end that are a challenge.

“The current generation is deeply imbedded into a ‘reality-driven’ lifestyle,” says Wendy Cunningham, social media coordinator for Leupold, who was recently hired to tap into young shooters and hunters. “Social media allows us to interact with our consumers on a real-time basis, creating a more personal relationship with our end user.”

For being such a diverse group of individuals, Millennials actually work hardest at being part of a group, or more accurately, as many groups as possible. Through their smartphones and tablets, they are connected to their peers at all times. They do nothing alone—not even shopping—so don’t be afraid when they pull out their smartphone. Usually they’re looking for validation for their purchases, so give them reasons to let their friends and followers know about your location, your products, and your services. If their friends deliver positive feedback, you’ve not only made that sale, but also created touch-points with an almost infinite number of new customers in their wide sphere of influence.

“The value in social media is in the almost real-time interaction we are able to have with our customers and fans,” says Blake VanTussenbrook, marketing director for Vortex Outdoors, maker of Badlands Packs. “What we’ve found is that our customers and potential customers really feel like they have a personal relationship with the brands they use. Having customers post reviews and tips helps us improve as a company and continue to bring the products to market that people want most. Social media is also an amazing outlet to share content—whether it’s a video of a hunt or a review of a piece of gear—and provides a gateway for consumers to voice their opinions and ideas and know that they are being heard.”

Peer validation, social acceptance, instant gratification. Although it might sound as if you’re dealing with children, realize Millennials are actually incredibly perceptive about the ways of the world. They’ve grown up with the internet, plugged into information in a way older generations are still struggling to grasp, and can instantly find the answers they need while you’re still trying to remember the password to your AOL account. They great thing is, this group is happy to share that information willingly, which leads to the best advice I can give for marketing to Millennials—hire one.

Women Hunters

For the past few years, the industry has been trumpeting the rise of the woman hunter, to the tune of 11 percent of the hunting market now identifying as female. In terms of overall dollars spent, that's an estimated $4.2 billion—yes, I said billion—in sales to women of the $38.3 billion spent by hunters in 2011, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Of that, $71 million was spent on hunting and shooting clothing—a growth category that hasn't gone unnoticed by Kirstie Pike, founder and president of Prois Hunting & Field Apparel.

“Not only is the average hunter spending more money a year, but that hunter is more and more likely to be a woman,” says Pike. “This is a solid trend, and I think the industry is taking note of those numbers. It’s only natural they will plateau at some point, but I do not see that happening anytime soon.”

Pike is also quick to point out that women aren’t just more likely to be interested in hunting. The growth trend extends deep into the shooting side of the industry as well. In 2013, the NSSF reported an estimated 20 million target-shooting enthusiasts in the U.S. who spent nearly $10 billion on firearms and gear. Women make up a whopping 22 percent of this population, which translates to 4.4 million female target shooters.

When we talk about shooting, the numbers are also quite impressive, says Pike. “Female shooters spent an estimated $2.2 billion on firearms and shooting gear in 2013. Better yet, females make up 37 percent of the new target shooters entering the market. We are seeing far more options in terms of gear, firearms, and clothing for women. Giving women options is a fantastic thing.”

Giving women those options is just one of the ways manufacturers can attract female customers and capture expendable income that is increasingly held by that side of the household. Men not understanding women is a joke that goes as far back as human history, but, while tricky, marketing to women is not that difficult. It does, however, mean more than simply adding the color pink to something and calling it a female product, which, according to Pike, is doing a huge disservice to women and manufacturers alike.

“Serious female hunters are very astute students of the sport,” she says. “They read product reviews, learn the nuances of different gear, and understand how firearms and gear should fit their bodies for maximum efficiency. They want top-of-the-line products. They will spend money on top-of-the-line products. They need to be taken seriously.”

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