Down, but not out

February: Not a month known for plenitude among the gun trade, writes Colin Fallon. After a strong autumn and a Christmas period that, if it wasn’t filling every retailer with glee, at least kept things moving and saw some good advertising rates, this traditional weakest month of the year creeps into the sights of Industry Data and sees things performing, well, weakly. Normal service, the pessimists would say, has been resumed.

This month’s crop of just under 300 ad pages isn’t wholly disheartening, though. Whatever the month and the situation, there always seems to be a selection of trade suppliers ready to put in a big spend and make a strong ‘top five’. This month’s top five, all booking an average of a full page or more per magazine, doesn’t contain any particular surprises, but it’s worth noting that ASI, Edgar Brothers and Highland Outdoors all increased their spend for this apparently barren month. In the retailer chart, too, there are some high-risers, including The Airgun Centre and John Forsey.

It’s in depth that the trade really lacks at this time of year. I often use this space to moan about how retail advertising has contracted to the point it’s hard to find 10 retailers who have booked three pages of ads – this month, it was hard even to find retailers with two pages.

It appears the trade, in an imitation of some of the quarry its customers hunt, has gone into hibernation. Sensing a frosty few months ahead with little financial nourishment, it curls up and retracts its appendages. What’s left is just the core – the central set of companies that can afford to keep up an ad presence throughout the year, the part of the trade  that doesn’t deem itself to be particularly vulnerable by spending on marketing in the weaker months.

As with much of the observations made in this column, this is hardly unexpected – as long as we can confidently look forward to the according emergence from hibernation and growth in advertising spends in a few months’ time. It will come – but until then we have a nervous month or two to endure.

The death of the high street – that’s a phrase used with worryingly increasing regularity. There have been a few casualties among high-street retail chains already in 2013, and according to the British Retail Consortium, 50 per cent of retailers plan to cut their staff in the first quarter of the year. It’s not clear how much of that is simply off-loading the extra staff taken on to cope with the Christmas period, but it’s still not the sort of statistic you want to be hearing as you return to work for the new year.hmv_logo-l_0 copy

We can be slightly more confident than most: the gun trade, to an extent, is impervious to these dangers. The law continues to necessitate that customers come into our shops instead of buying online, but it’s more than that – the overall stature of our businesses is working in our favour. On the high street, it’s the major multiples that are suffering, while smaller independents – the ones that have found their specific niche – are surviving against the odds. Take the most recent example: music giant HMV went into administration after years of struggle. Independent record shops – the sort filled with vinyl and magazines and other ‘traditional’ media – are still there, despite many having predicted their extinction years ago. As gun shops, we’re filling that niche in a different market. Tough economic times these may be, but income-squeezed shooters are still shooting. It’s more ‘mainstream’ activities, like buying CDs or going to the pub, that get cut down, while niche markets that benefit from increased strength of feeling continue to get business.

If you look at it one way, it’s a comic means of survival: We aren’t making widespread staff cuts, simply because most of us didn’t have that many staff to begin with. We’ve succeeded through that old business chestnut of being ‘lean and flexible’, and it’s something other industries are coming round to. As the country considers the threat of a triple-dip recession, the gun trade can be proud that it is providing at least a modicum of stability.

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