Shaun Ellis is the man pushing forward Elite Optical Distribution, the distribution company that’s sprung out of Optics Warehouse – and he has big plans…
If you had to name one sector of the shooting industry that’s more competitive than all the others, optics would have a good shout. Established European brands compete with each other for the premium market, while Asian-made scopes, once written off as inferior, have vastly improved and are a greater force than ever before. Meanwhile, there’s a new brand launching at seemingly every major trade event, be it Vudu at this year’s British Shooting Show or Kite Optics last year. The result is a huge array of stocking options for the retailer, and a potentially vast cost if they want to be sure of stocking what their customers want.
Elite Optical Distribution’s aim is to defeat that confusion by becoming a ‘one-stop shop’ for optics – a single distributor than can supply a scope to fit any customer, and help solve retailers’ stock issues while they’re at it. “We’ve got an extensive menu of scopes. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet,” says Shaun Ellis, who is taking the helm of Elite as it grows from an offshoot of retailer Optics Warehouse into a company in its own right. “We’re trying to stock everything you could potentially be asked for. So if someone doesn’t like neoprene scope covers, we’ll have flip-ups. If people don’t like Athlon, we have Sightron. If people don’t like tactical turrets, we have traditional hunting scopes…
“We’re stocking different brands, different models with multiple specifications at different price points. It allows you to go, for example, ‘Oh, I don’t like Optisan but I do like Athlon – I can still buy my preferred scope from the same people. I’ve got the same credit account, the same ability to rely on stock, and I can ask their opinion as to what the best scope is for a certain customer base.’”
Elite is developing as a response to necessity as much as anything else – Shaun says developing a wholesale wing was the only possible way forward. “The more brands we took on – and we’re lucky to have become the distributor for nearly 15 brands – it became clear that we needed to open a wholesale company to put these round the trade.
“These are optics the customer wants. We’ve learned that from being in retail ourselves – these are the optics people are asking us for. If we’re being asked about them, the rest of the trade will be too, and, we want to give them the chance to sell them too.
“Wholesale was the only route we could go down and the only way to do that was to split the two companies. No retailer wants to buy from another retailer – they see it as fuelling the competition. Elite is completely separate – we’re building a separate team and have a new premises which is split from the Optics Warehouse building.
“The idea is to launch a one-stop shop. We’re going to be continually adding to our portfolio and aim to become a distributor you can stock an entire shop or website from. And we will actually have the scopes in stock.”
Shaun, now 25, has been working on Optics Warehouse (owned by his father J-P) for over five years, and has concentrated on modernising its web offering – as well as really getting to know the optics they sell. “I’ve put a lot of time into it, really wanting to learn about the equipment. That’s one of our USP’s – we know the products and their utility for various disciplines, and we won’t sell a duff product.”
A REVOLUTION IN-SIGHT
Subject knowledge doesn’t just make for a good sales story, says Shaun. It goes beyond that, fundamentally altering the kinds of conversation they have with retailers and changing the sales process into a more consultative one. “With us being optical specialists, we are open to not only getting questions from end users but also to advising stockists. If a shop comes to us and said, ‘Most of my customers are stalkers and foxers,’ we won’t just say, ‘Ok, here’s our range, choose what you want.’ We’ll go, ‘Try the Optisan 3-12×56 at £250, try the S-TAC 4-20x, try the Delta 2.5-15×56 – it’s excellent value… If you have foxers who also use night vision, try the S-TAC 2.5-17.5×56 – in the day that gives you a brilliant optic that goes out to 600 yards, but put it under lamp and pair it with a night vision add-on, and we know the IR coatings work well.’ We’re not only here to have things in stock.”
That approachable nature has given rise to one of Elite’s two biggest ideas that could transform the scope market in the UK. It’s their in-progress showroom, which Elite hopes to invite retailers to see in the near future. “Scopes are expensive, high-precision instruments,” says Shaun. “We don’t want to be going around bringing them out of a suitcase.
“Instead, we’ll have selected retailers come down to us and we’ll offer a buying experience. Customers spend a day, have a chat and we’ll see what they actually want. Seeing all the scopes in our classy showroom, properly mounted on stocks… You’re much more likely to buy because you’ve come down with a purpose, rather than being sold to.
“We can go, ‘Here’s the budget stuff, here are the mid-range options… here are the first focal plane scopes… Don’t like that? Ok, try something like this instead.’ You couldn’t do that with a rep – they’d be carrying at least £200,000 worth of product in the back of their car. We want to offer a totally different approach. We want to spend time with dealers, give them targets, see how we can improve their business together. Give them reasons to buy from us.”
The other major development is Elite’s website, set to go live in April, which will offer full e-commerce functionality and even the chance for retailers to run their own stock based on what’s listed on the website.
“Say you’re a tiny gun shop – you can populate your website off our website. You have to keep an eye on the stock levels, make sure everything’s still with us, but then you can offer your customers a massive range of scopes and equipment. You’ve turned your shop into something much bigger and expand your business without having to risk a lot of money. You just spend 20 minutes of your time putting a product on the website.
“We’re trying to really push forward direct dispatch. We’re not imposing any penalties either. It’s like ordering clothes from ASOS – you can put your billing details in, charge it to your pro forma account, and put your customer’s details in the dispatch address so the scope can go straight to your customer’s house. You don’t even see it.”
The gun trade is often pilloried for being slow on the uptake of new technology – isn’t Shaun worried that will happen here? “I spoke to a few people who are eagerly waiting for this online stock control to be there. During the day they haven’t got the time to sit there and browse. They’re one-man bands, they’re selling during the day, and they want to be able to browse at night, put an order in and forget it. There is definitely demand for it.”
Perhaps that is the central ethos of Elite Optical distribution – trying to modernise every step of the optics supply chain, to make it as efficient as possible. “Knowledge, efficiency and stock – that’s what makes a good wholesaler,” says Shaun. “We want to cut out errors through efficiency. Every scope is checked before it goes out, which then limits your returns, and in turn maintains the reputation of the brands. You can end up with a mountain of problems stemming from something as simple as making sure scopes are checked.
“A scope is a big sum of money for someone, whether it’s £200 or £3,000. We know that the product needs to be quality-controlled. That begins with us, when it comes in from manufacturers. We check them, make sure they’re right when they go to the dealer. He sells it to his customer, he’s happy and they’re happy. That’s the process – let’s hope it goes as seamlessly as that!”.