Game fair season is here, and that means some of the biggest one-off opportunities to move stock retailers will see all year. Even those choosing not to exhibit get pulled in, going along as attendees to check out the latest innovations. But while the general public peruse the stalls, will the retailers be sharing woeful grumbles of disappointing sales, or congratulating themselves on a lucrative year so far?
Eastern Sporting is definitely the latter, enjoying strong sales thanks in part to a major remodelling effort that’s expanded the shop. “We’ve recently had a refit in our shop, so we’ve now got more space and more products,” said one staff member. “In January and February, the quieter time of the year, we decided to have a big refit, knock a couple of walls down, do two new showrooms, one new gunroom and one new clothing area. This coming game season we’re doing a lot of new brands that we’ve never done before, so we’ve now got a bigger space for them.” In terms of clothing items, it has expanded its range to include some big name brands: “We’re now taking on the Harkila range and Beretta clothing this year, for the game season anyway.”
So apart from anticipating an interest in clothing, what trends are they noticing in current sales? “We’ve had a lot of new shooters come in once they’ve got their certificate. We’ve constantly got new and used guns put aside with deposits on, just waiting for the Essex police to issue licences.”
Will Eastern Sporting be building on their success with a place at any game fairs? We’re given the negative: “We usually just go to them as spectators, but not as a business.”
Lings Country Goods, based in Norfolk, is also seeing a lot of steady business. “We’ve been really busy, selling a whole mixture of guns: airguns, shotguns, people replacing or upgrading shotguns, and also at this time of year, with vermin about, a lot of rifles. One thing we have noticed is that there’s been a lot of people selling guns. At this time of year a lot of people need to free up some extra cash, perhaps to take the family on holiday.” In fact, there’s been a notable increase in people selling: “We’ve certainly been inundated with second-hand guns, to the point where we’ve really stopped taking the cheaper guns. We’ve been able to be really picky with what we buy in. But it has meant we haven’t been able to give the best offer or the best price for a second-hand gun, because we’re in a position where we don’t really need any more guns.”
Which products are selling well? “With shotguns, semi-automatics have been selling really well, the cheaper ones; lots of scopes. We had the pigeon season, so a lot of pigeon equipment.” There’s also an exciting new product coming into stock: “We’ve got this new camera, a wireless camera. When it detects movement – it normally just stores it on a memory card – but it actually now sends the images directly to your phone. I’ve now got it and I’ve just been playing with it, and we definitely seem to be getting a lot of interest about it.” Generally, things are busy at Lings, if a little hectic, and business is looking good: “I’m in the gun section side of things and I seem to be the one that’s running around. To be honest with you, I’m kind of short-staffed – the shop’s filling up with people and generally the phone’s ringing and it’s gun enquiries.”
Any game fairs on the cards for Lings? “We’re not showing anywhere, we’re not going as a business to any.” Why is that – are game fairs just simply not worth the effort? “We don’t normally do a great deal with them anyway; we don’t find we really need to, I’ll be honest. We’ve done them before and with all the effort it takes to pack everything up and get everything down there, the effort and the manpower it takes to do that, we’ve just decided we don’t really need to do it.” Instead, Lings is concentrating on expanding its online presence: “We have just started putting things on Facebook and also we’re trying to do a little bit more with our website and displaying what we have online. So we’ve gone down that route as opposed to going out.”
“Business at the moment at Ogden’s Shooting Supplies is very brisk,” Phil Ogden tells me, echoing the positive reports from Eastern and Lings. “It’s doing extremely well. Better than I could expect, really.” What’s the secret? “It’s the realisation from our customers, new and old, that the products they’re buying from us are good quality British- made products and that they are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do, which is provide service and not fall to pieces, basically. Our Cambridge range – our shotgun range – which is a shotgun slip, game bag and cartridge bag, is selling extremely well. On the stalking side of things, the quick slip that we make is a definite hit with the stalking lads, because it’s made to their spec.”
Phil explains the benefit of bespoke products: “Rather than a brand just saying ‘This our new slip and we think it’s right’, [the customers] told me what they want, I’ve gone away and made it, and they realise that it’s exactly what they wanted.” Furthermore, Phil is seeing growth in the shooting sector: “The shooting side of things is only one of the things I do, but it is becoming quite dominant. The customers appreciate that made-in-England quality.”
Unlike Eastern and Lings, Phil Ogden is finding time for a few shows. “I’m actually doing the CLA this year for the first time,” he says. “And I am doing the Midland Game Fair. I may be able to squeeze one in between, a little one, but I don’t know because I’ve got quite a lot on this year. And I’ll be doing the South Yorkshire in October.”
Another retailer experiencing an increase in business is Tony of Tony’s Camo and Airgun Centre. “It’s steady, no major grumbles,” he tells me. “We’re seeing an increase across the board.”
Compared to previous years, the business is growing: “Two years ago was quite a bit a slower, last year was a little better and this year is better again, so it’s all stepping in the right direction.” But Tony is giving the show circuit a miss: “I haven’t [attended] for a number of years. It’s predominantly the expense of staffing and securing the show.”
I also spoke to Nicola Florent of the Oxford Gun Company. Both the clay shooting ranges and the shop there are seeing good business, and there’s quite a few new shooters coming to the grounds. “It’s possibly more dispensable income, people retiring,” Nicola says. “We get a lot of people that have just retired that want to take up a sport, and because it’s such a sociable sport, they go in to clay shooting.” The shop is busy too: “There’s new ranges coming out, so people tend to go for them.”
The Oxford Gun Company is exhibiting at the CLA Game Fair and Nicola is anticipating the hard work involved. “We do the CL A every year, so we’re heading off to Harewood House, which will be a very long couple of weeks,” she says. “It’s not just the three days you’re there, it’s the build-up and take-down after. We’ve got one of the biggest stands there on Gunmakers’ Row.”
So although the response to game fair attendance is somewhat mixed, there’s definitely one thing that the retailers agree on: business is good and the shops are full, with not so much as a gripe or grumble from anyone.