What does it take for a local gun store to be successful?

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May 22, 2011
Hello All,

Just curious what would it take for a small local gun store to be successful. By successful, I mean continuous year over year growth in revenues and market share?

Beyond the obvious: Good Service, Good Prices and Location - what would be the finer points that separate good from great?

I would imagine a range is necessary? A large inventory would be great, but not necessarily key? Group Events? Gun Smith? Special Deals (ie "Home Defense packages")?

This question came to me, after visiting a very small, relatively new (opened 2-3 years ago) gun store - The staff (owners) were very welcoming and I thought one of the least creepy and or snobbish gun stores nearby. Although I will admit, what originally brought me there was their cheap FFL transfer rates and monthly bulk ammo purchases. They have a rather small selection of firearms for sale, but can get almost whatever you want in 2-3 days.
1. Inexpensive firearm transfer fees. $25 seems fair. Local stores should realize that they can't match the stock or the prices of large internet gun providers like "Cheaper Than Dirt" or "Impact Guns." But they can make money on transfer fees. My local gun shop (really a pawn shop) has done thousands of transfers in the last five years.
2. Good communication. If a gun is ordered and does not arrive, the store should call the buyer and explain the delay.
3. Good gunsmith on duty who will explain what will be done with repairs or upgrades. He should also give an accurate estimate of the cost.
4. Classes offered for new shooters and those who want to qualify for their concealed carry permit.
5. Reasonable prices. I know the local gun shops can't match the big dealers in price, but if they come close they will have my business. A nearby dealer wanted $443 for a new Ruger LC9 and I had to wait weeks to get one. I purchased it for $379 (and no tax) from an internet dealer and I had it in three days.
The original post sounds a lot like my local shop, open and thriving for the last couple of years:

1) Quality, monitored indoor range set-up. Even frequent visitors have safe gun handling and range rules repeated every visit. The rules are politely but strictly enforced.

2) Decent selection of firearms for purchase and rental. They don't seem to try and emulate inventory that you can find at the local Academy or Wal Mart as they can't match the prices but they are reasonably priced.

3) The shop isn't fancy but it is clean and well maintained.

4) The staff is VERY courteous and is happy to help.

5) Classes offered (often full)

6) Gunsmithing available

Here are some additional pluses that my local store offers:

1) Family owned and operated - it is real apparent that everyone behind the counter cares!

2) A woman's touch. The shop owners wife stocks a pretty good selection of concealed carry purses, firearms geared specifically to women and women specific advice / discussion in a polite non condescending professional manner. Additionally, she carries a few woman focused, non-gun related items (high end bedazzled flip flops, etc.). Shop owner says they sell a bunch of that stuff....

3) Population base of about 250,000+ within about 30 minutes drive. Small potatoes for a lot of folks, I know, but there are places with far less population and I do think it makes it more difficult.

4) A Gander Mountain about 7 minutes away with many of the same high end fire arms behind the counter being sold at retail list prices w/ snotty kids behind the counter that act like they are doing you a huge favor by stopping surfing on the internet behind the counter long enough to say "what do you want?"

"Reasonable prices. I know the local gun shops can't match the big dealers in price..."

That's not necessarily true. There is a shop somewhere between Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio but kind of out in the middle of nowhere. They have insanely cheap prices on new guns but do mega volume. Walk into that place and one feels like they are at a gun show. Plus, they have a reasonable lay away plan (20% down and 90 days) but do tack on 3% for credit card sales. As an example they had FNX 9 and .40 new for $330 with plenty in inventory. Their building is like a giant warehouse. The only way i can see they are able to sell so cheap is by purchasing heavy volume directly from manufacturers. All their business is at the shop although they've been talking about opening up an internet store.
First of all, if you are looking to start your own gun store, make up a full business plan and make absolutely sure of what you are getting into. The firearms business has some pretty high entry costs such as ITAR (over $2,000 per year) and industry specific insurance which will be fairly expensive for a firearms related business, and that is in addition to the normal expenses seen by all businesses like rent and inventory etc.

More on the theoretical side of things, good service, good prices, and good location (in that order) are definitely good starting points, and will probably win/keep the most customers. Having a range is good, but it will greatly limit your ability to have a good, high traffic location for your shop.

A large inventory will be difficult for a new shop to maintain because it will be very capital intensive, especially if you want to create the inventory that would draw customers in its own merit alone. But even then, that won't guarantee that people will buy from you. For example, there is a gun shop that's been around for years (with a great selection) that I sometimes visit to look at and handle firearms, but I don't buy from them. I buy from the guy an hour and a half away who can order anything I want with a smile, rather than a scowl and a snap as he dry fires a pistol at my chest. Advertising and getting your name out there is a much better use of funds than just pouring money into inventory.

The biggest differentiating factor for me is service. If a customer comes to you with a problem (ESPECIALLY one that was caused by you or should have been prevented by you) treat them with respect (even the younger ones 18-30 years old). Talk with them, not at them. Don't treat them like idiots, and don't out right lie to them when they ask you about something, and definitely don't justify any illegal action by saying "don't worry, I do it all the time, you'll never get caught" and you'll go far.

Also, do your best to know all the laws regarding firearms in your area, not just the ones pertaining to FFLs. For example, federally, and in many states, it is legal to possess (and in some states even to carry) pistols at 18 years of age. DO NOT try to steal a pistol from a 19 year old who brought the gun in to get some night sights installed, just because you think he can't possess it just because you can't sell it to him. Selling and possession are completely separate sections of law (It was a pretty heated conversation ending with me threatening to call the police and report an armed robbery --as he was carrying at the time. I left with my gun and have not been back to that store since.)

I have several other stories like that, but my point is that I travel an hour and a half and pass 4 (!) other gun shops to get to a gun store that treats me well, and they get ALL of my business. Treating customers right will keep them coming back and buying from you, which I believe is the key to growing a business.
Every local business is threatened by the internet companies. When I used to play paintball it was so expensive to buy paint and field fees because they weren't selling any equipment in the store because it's cheaper online. It got to expensive and 4 out of the 5 fields ended up on the brink of shutting down.

I go to the bigger store around me rather than the smaller mom and pop type. Mostly because they have a range in the building and they have a much much bigger selection of firearms. I can walk in buy a gun and be out of there in less than an hour.
Thanks for the info!

I'm too new to guns to open a shop ;-), I was just curious what drives the gun stores.

I was initially thinking a range was needed - in order to offer try (or something similar) before you buy, classes/training, attracting first time shooters, etc. With the thought that the real profit generators would be the bringing in new shooters (who will hopefully become long term customers), training and probably to a certain extent FFL transfers.
large internet gun providers like "Cheaper Than Dirt" or "Impact Guns."
Impact is my LGS. I don't think of them as an internet powerhouse. While their prices are ok, I've never thought of them as a screaming bargain. I frequent the one in Ogden.
They have great staff, good facilities, and for the most part, good selection. This combo of things seems to work well for any business.
I can't say too much, but I am strongly considering opening up a gun shop or related business (machine shop producing accessories?), so I am very much interested in what others have to say on the topic. I know what I like, but additional input is always welcome.

Unfortunately, i think price and availability are what it mostly comes down to. Most will endure poor customer service if the savings are there.
1: Most important for me is a knowledgeable staff who won't repeat the idiotic lore perpetuate misconceptions (you know, like the examples throughout this thread).

2: You're gonna have looky-loos and tire kickers—it's inevitable. So don't disrespect them and shoot the stink eye at them just because they're there. Who knows, maybe they'll be your best customer.

3: Be competitive in your pricing. Don't let people walk in and see a $250 Mosin Nagant or a $400 Hi-Point.

4: Demand a healthy respect for firearm safety from your customers. Correct people handling the guns who sweep the entire room with their finger on the trigger.

Just my two cents.
1: Smart and effective sale staff. I would rank it Number One because your staff *IS* your store. Without them, it's just a gun collection and it will just sit there. A good gun store salesman should be able to inform the customer without belittling him, make him feel smart without coddling him, and have patience to deal with folks who take time. He also needs to know the basics of gun laws and how to deal with NICS and the BATFE. It's a tough combination but the stores that have good staff have good business.

I'll give you an example from my own recent experiences, since I just bought a pricey (for me) AR-15.
--I came into the store, where I'm well known for buying ammo but not so much for buying expensive firearms. I fiddle, I fondle, I prod and poke. Some clerks would dismiss me as a "lookie loo" and have. This store's staff doesn't, which is why I was there and not at the competition.
--After about half an hour of prodding, I start asking the clerk a series of questions about the various chamberings and options. He is patient with me, not short. He doesn't dismiss any of my potential choices out of hand, but he helps me assess pros and cons. I do a bit more research using the store's books. Again this is something other gun stores do not like people doing. (The books are for SALE after all).
--After about an hour or so of prodding and questioning I take the plunge. He immediately has the transfer form ready. I fill it out, but realize I don't have my proof of physical address. He knows something I do not--that the voter registration card works for this purpose. So we're not derailed.
--I'm about to get delayed as I usually do, but he sweet talks the NICS person into putting him on hold while they go check whatever it is that seems to perpetually get me delayed. Presto, I'm approved.
--He has the box, and rounds down the price when I include some ammo. He offers to deliver the thing even!
--He gets out an ACOG primo sight and has me test it. I'm impressed, but the price is astronomical. HOWEVER, pay attention folks. Because this very clever fellow has now set an UPPER MARK of $1,000 in my brainpan for optics. Which means that the Leopold running for $400 SEEMS LIKE A BARGAIN. Smart guy! And it also increases the chances that I'll go back there for optics, instead of easily ordering them on line.

So that's customer service, and that's why that particular store has been around for generations and is something of a legend. I know full well that I could have gotten that identical carbine on GB for about $150 less, but it's the service that makes the sale.

prices, and to a lesser degree, customer service. that's all most gun buyers care about.

Price is of course important, but I disagree that it outranks customer service. If it did then they'd just buy off gunbroker from the cut rate wholesalers where there's no real customer service. I'd say price is No. 2, with selection at No. 3.

There are other factors as well, of course. Having a store you can physically move through is important. I know one in particular locally that has a great selection but is crammed into a cubical so tight you can literally barely move between ammo crates and the display cases.

2: You're gonna have looky-loos and tire kickers—it's inevitable. So don't disrespect them and shoot the stink eye at them just because they're there. Who knows, maybe they'll be your best customer.

This needs to be stressed. I suspect a lot of owners encourage staff to get hard on the looky loos. But I can tell you that the two outfits locally who have no patience with folks like myself have lost a large amount of business as a result.

On the other hand, you don't want your store to become an exclusive gun club for a few old guys who never buy anything. You want it comfortable for browsing, but not *too* comfortable. Put out coffee, but don't set up tables and chairs ;-)
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The reasons I love my local shop:

1) Great selection first and foremost

2) Friendly staff that invites questions

3) They have a fantastic 12 bay pistol and rifle indoor range. They rent everything including Class 3. Love going there to shoot the HK MP5 and Glock 18-only $20 to rent.

4) They sell a full line of ammo and accessories.
To me, it's the ability to bring my gun in (there are gun stores here that you can't), and the mood of the staff when I'm there. I like hearing jokes here and there, I like a smile once in a while, and good advice that's not bull.

Prices are secondary to inventory for me. I'd rather pay more for a local store.
A gun shop that sells only firearms will NEVER make it~! Believe me, I takes a
lot of inventory in firearms and accessories, fishing equipment, clothing, boots,
safes, bows, etc; all priced right, to sell~! ;) :D
Unfortunateltly, Dan has nailed it to a tee.

Shops dont make much on guns, most of their REAL profit comes from accessories.
Well, the #1 thing is to GET PEOPLE TO COME BACK.

If you're a wacko/militia nut/paranoid/wierdo/sour puss, and you scare off 1/2 of your customers on their first visit, then you are in for a long painful struggle with your lease and electric bills.

#1) Be personable to EVERYONE, even you're having a bad day. Make sure any employees do the same.

#2) Be HELPFUL to new people who are looking for their first gun, or just starting out in a new shooting sport. Don't push them into a gun just because it makes you more $$$, or because it's your favorite brand. TRY to be impartial.

#3) Be willing to aid a customer, even if your not going to make a fist full of cash. Even if you're only going to see a $20 bill for a transfer fee, send out faxes and notify them of arrivals promptly and courteously.

#4) BUY PRODUCTS THAT SELL. You may hate Taurus/Bersa/Charter/Milsurps but if you don't stock them, then you WILL loose most of your potential sales, and the money that comes with. Most people don't want to spend $900 on a gun they will probably never use. You NEED to have several handgun options in the $200 - $299 range, as well as some inexpensive hunting long guns in the $99 - $250 range, or you just wont sell as many guns as you're going to need to keep the doors open. You are also going to need the accessories for said guns to get that person to come back - holsters, ammo, safes, cleaning supplies, ect. If it gets asked for more than once, then you need to stock it.

#5) Advertise. If no one knows you exist, then you wont sell anything. Period. Hanging your placard out by the road is not enough exposure. E-mail sales flyers and short local radio spots are cheap and they can reach huge amounts of people.

Basically you need to be nice, stock guns that the general public will buy, and let people know you exist. Most LGS's fail miserably at all three of those - even the "good" ones usually fail at the last two. They gun shops that make enough money to open up secondary locations and hire new employees do all three.
Unless you want to work out of your garage, gun sales aren't enough. Ala Dan summed it up briefly. Takes a huge investment in inventory to be successful along with knowledgable staff and fair prices. You need to attact more than gun buyers to your business. There simply aren't enough of them. Frankly, I would consider an alternative business combined with sporting goods like hardware. In my neck of the woods, ACE Hardware stores are pretty successful and they are generally not the lowest priced place around.
it's a VERY poor bet for a money making biz, if that is what you are asking. Instead, put your money in cross country leasing of your used, 18wheeler trucks, with reefer trailors, using Mexican man/wife teams that you import. Using them about triples what you clear per year, per truck. Buy used, fleet-serviced trucks, and be sure to run the fuel saving canopy atop the cab. They can spend their 1 day off (out of 8) "living' in an old van, at your base. Running new trucks will eat you alive with the interest, don't do it.
If you expand beyond family employees, do your best to vet your new employees.

Nothing worse than the new guy behind the counter who claims to have "been there, done that" (i.e. pretend SEAL/Ranger/SF/LE something-or-other) who really hasn't been beyond the keyboard. Those who have 'been there' will pick up on that and go & spend somewhere else.
I don't like it when I seem to know more about guns than the employees. One guy didin't know what a magpul pmag was even though they had them in stock.
I also like to see a good selection of accessories. I can order any gun online anyway, so it's convenient to buy the inexpensive accessories at the local store.
Not in any particular order:
1. Price-it's not necessary to be the cheapest or compete with internet sales. But, throw me a bone once in a while. Free gun rug ($7) after I paid darn near list price...
2. No SHTF senarios...Not all of us believe the world is ending this week.
3. Offer some kind of demo dayat a local range.
4. Offer a class on reloading.
5. Be kind to women customers. They but guns too.
6. Don't bad mouth other shops.
Price match. Don't insult the modern customer.

If I'm buying a $1500 rifle from you, and I can get it online for the same price, I expect your out the door price to be no more than $1530. This is ESPECIALLY true if the freaking thing isn't in stock, and I have to wait 6 weeks to get it. Sales tax isn't the consumer's problem, it's the stores problem. I mean, seriously. How long does it take to order a gun for a customer? How much do you have to make on that transaction? If you're not stocking it at your store, it's not costing you anything to sell it for less than your ideal mark up.

Military surplus ammo. I can't tell you how much I hate having to go to a gun show to buy it. Buy 100k rounds of Lake City green tip, and sell the freaking stuff! Preferably in 100-200 count lots.

Have a real stock of cleaning supplies. I don't want the only patches to come in a kit that includes a bunch of stuff I already freaking have.

Offer $5-10 store credit for the poor guys that have to come back because the NICS check didn't go through in a decent amount of time. Is it your fault? No, but it will give you a definite edge over the rest of the shops, and customers won't hate you.

Force all of the employees to participate in some kind of shooting competition, and have their scores displayed on their name tags. That way you know who's full of crap. ;-)
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