Airgun Shooter’s Nick Robbins looks at initiatives in other industries to see how they attract new blood to pick up their products.
Last month the Music Industries Association – through its charitable arm, Music For All – held the second ever National Learn To Play Day. Its goal is simple: to appeal to those people who otherwise wouldn’t make their way into a music instrument shop and to get those who wouldn’t see themselves as musicians – or perhaps those who haven’t played an instrument for a number of years – to pick one up. The MIA’s Paul McManus, speaking about the motivation behind the initiative, said: “We’re good at promoting our products to people who are already playing [instruments] – we preach to the converted beautifully.”
It’s an interesting quote – and one that can be applied to numerous markets no doubt – but to me, it neatly summarises the airgun scene. We can draw some comparisons from the musical instrument market with ours. National Learn To Play Day was as much targeted at parents as it was children. There’s a prevailing thought that to attract new blood to shooting, the target demographic has to be youngsters. ‘Children are the future’, as the old adage goes, but retailers and manufacturers need to live in the present. It’s the pressures of the present that provide them with their biggest problems. So why should new mean young?
I spoke to Linda Lowe, owner of Vale Pianos, Worcester, about National Learn To Play Day: “It seems to attract people in where they wouldn’t necessarily go, and it was adults as well, not just children.” There’s crossover here. Just as most people will have picked up a musical instrument before, many people will have shot at some point in their life. Most commonly, shops tell us, it’s men in their 30s and 40s who are newcomers to their shops. Their reason? Introducing their children to shooting, having shot an airgun at a similar age in their youth. These people don’t walk out the door with a low-powered air rifle for junior and never cross the threshold again. They’ll usually walk around the shop, see some familiar names like BSA, Weihrauch and Webley, and pick a rifle that both shooters can use. So their airgun story, punctuated by 20 years of inactivity, begins again.
But while we can be content that airguns have a respectable rate at which people return, can we not get these people in the shops earlier? These ex-shooters are the ones we want to get through the door. When people look back, they are likely to link airguns to memories of outdoor fun, not days spent in a classroom learning to play ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ on a disintegrating guitar… or worse, a recorder. That’s a handicap we don’t have to overcome.
Though it has its own set of challenges, shooting doesn’t have a perceived barrier to participation that learning an instrument has – people don’t consider it to be work. While learning to play guitar and learning to shoot properly both entail a considerable amount of theory and esoteric vocabulary, a new or returning airgun shooter can take his new rifle back to his garden and knock over a few cans immediately. Put a Les Paul in his hands and it’s unlikely he’ll be belting out ‘Stairway to Heaven’ within half an hour.
We have National Shooting Week, the Countryside Alliance’s annual event to encourage new shooters. Its goals are admirable: “To enable anyone to try shooting for the first time and to promote respect for and understanding of legal firearms and airguns.” But it doesn’t happen on the high street, but in shooting clubs – which by their very nature will be out of the way. It’s pushed in shooting magazines, but not the national press. It doesn’t have, like NLTPD did, Al Murray singing its praises on BBC Radio Two or Harry Hill turning up at a retail shop in Newcastle to promote the event.
No doubt Peter Wilson will be wheeled out, but where are the celebrities and personalities from outside the shooting bubble? The last two celebrities I saw attracting any mainstream media attention for their dalliances with an airgun were Alan Partridge (aka Steve Coogan), who was pictured holding one in a publicity plug for his new film Alpha Papa, and Ashley Cole, hardly putting our sport and livelihoods in the most positive light.
There are millions of airgunners in the UK – it stands to reason that someone from the mainstream media will be a fan. Where are they? England cricket captain Alastair Cook speaks regularly of his love of stalking, rugby star Tom Croft is a Sauer rifle shooter and Marco Pierre White is a keen game shot – but where’s our airgun poster boy or girl? We can’t even pin our hopes on an Olympian – none of the Team GB airgunners made it onto the TV at London 2012 as it was only the finals that were televised.
There are no easy solutions. I’ve put the question: “How do we get more people interested in airgunning?” to the people in the office, and while the consensus was around getting it in the public’s eye, it fell apart after that. Colin Fallon, this magazine’s editor, and I talked about how we would pitch 10m airgun shooting to Sky Sports given an unlimited budget. He wanted to present it like golf coverage. My model was darts.
Is it feasible for us to have a National Learn To Shoot Day? Maybe it isn’t. But what we can do is learn lessons from what is happening in other, more universally palatable hobbies, like playing music. We need to target parents, or those who have might have dabbled before – those who now have the disposable income to invest seriously in shooting. It is this demographic that will ultimately offer the best return for shooting retailers and manufacturers.