Robbins & Sons

Nick RobbinsAirgun Shooter’s Nick Robbins has been mulling over a career in retail, and looks at other specialist sectors to find the business model he is currently lacking. Is it time airgun retailers did the same?

In another life I would have been a retailer. It was – and perhaps still is – my goal to run a cricket shop, selling and making high quality cricket bats. The art of podshaving is under-appreciated, and, as with airguns, popular opinion posits that British is still best. Podshavers are artisans, and as much as the robotisation of manufacturing is a technological marvel, there’s something undeniably attractive about knowing your bat or your airgun has been hand made.

Unfortunately, being a retailer is a tough business – as most people reading this will be well aware. It’s tough to support the artisans when the mass-produced items sell at a higher volume, for less up-front cost and for decent margins to boot.

The removal of humans from the production line has spilled into the retail sector too. I recently spoke to a high-profile shop owner who told me that, as a businessman, his smartest decision was to swallow the upfront costs of an expensive stock management system and, in turn, decrease his workforce. The system, he said, effectively superseded at least two full-time jobs. He’d made his money back within the year, and on top of that he now had a more efficient system. Success for that retailer then – by its most rational definition at least – but not the msot heartening story for those looking to work in the retail sector.

Robbins & Sons – at this stage both the shop and the progeny are hypothetical, but bear with me – needs a business plan. It’s not enough for me to buy commercial premises and sit in the back with my spoke shave and draw knife playing with my Salix alba caerulea and wait for the customers to come flooding in, in the same way that just lining your walls with airguns and offering good prices and good customer service is not enough to guarantee retail success in this industry.

So is the plan to go exclusive and boutique? Charge high prices for high-end products and offer a sales experience, perhaps. Or the other end of the spectrum – low-cost items sold at volume. Do I even need a shop – can I do it all online instead? Should I go for a number of knowledgeable and personable staff, or run a skeleton crew and rely on technology to process orders and manage my inventory? What about aftersales care, repair, guarantees, on-site facilities to test products, clubs for customers to join?

Billy Cuthrell (left).jpeg

At some point, as retailers have told me, every manager wonders if they’ve made the right decision. Whether it’s during an unexpectedly slow Christmas or a worse-than-expected summer slump, the business plan is constantly pored over. ‘Have I made the right decision? Could I be doing something differently?’

I am no retail guru. Mary Portas, the self-dubbed Queen of Shops, probably isn’t having sleepless nights over me threatening her mantle. Yet I can recognise a good idea when I hear one. And I heard one recently, and it made me seriously think about my hypothetical retail business, and whether it could be applied in other markets.

Its origin is in music instrument sales – something I have pointed out in previous columns bears a fair number of similarities to the gun trade. As one columnist in GTN’s sister title Music Industry News pointed out: “No one really needs musical instruments. Only a minority of the population even wants them.” Substitute airguns into that sentence and it sounds like the sort of thing I would write in this column after a particularly bad morning.

An American instrument retailer named Billy Cuthrell decided to reinvent his shop by offering certain products on mobile phone-style contracts. He started with drum kits, which can retail from around £500 right through to £5,000 (think your high-end springers and PCPs rather than your budget break-barrels), and began to offer them at trade prices. This price, though, was only available if the customer signed up to 12 months’ worth of lessons at his shop, paid on a monthly basis.

For the retailer, he had broken even on the product with the sale, and then had a guaranteed income for the next 12 months. He also found that, once the customer reached the till, they felt like they were walking away with a bargain, and he was able to sell plenty of accessories – which benefit from high margins – to boost his profit on the sale.

The repercussions from this have seen distributors flock to him to include their goods in his deal. At no point does the customer know that the product is being sold at trade price – rather, they see a percentage discount on the retail price and are able to leave the shop with more money in their pocket than they were expecting. Distributors are happy because they are selling products, and the retailer is happy because he is making money on two fronts – accessories and lessons. Where there have been disputes with suppliers and manufacturers, Billy has been able to move to new lines. His bargaining position has been strengthened through sheer weight of sales.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHis strengthened position has also been evident in another area, with the tutors whose music lessons he packages with the deal. The promise of high-volume, guaranteed work has brought with it some of the top tutors in his area, which means he can charge a higher price for their services – and be more selective about who he uses.

There are some associated costs – particularly legal costs in both enforcing a contract and chasing up payments – but the profits are coming in. If a customer wants to buy out their contract, not only does the shop make that money in a lump sum, it also frees up another teaching slot to sell again.

For rifles and particularly shotguns, this business plan looks like an innovative way to encourage people to part with their money, and ensure repeat business, but the airgun industry is different. Would newcomers pay for airgun lessons? Possibly. But the seasoned shooters, the repeat customers, would be less interested. Can we borrow something else from the mobile phone market, though? Why not offer a monthly contract with the promise of a reduced-cost upgrade when it’s renewed? What about a top-up system for pellets – a monthly allocation they can collect in-store, that can’t be carried forward, and would ensure the shooter returns to the shop on a frequent basis?

For the airgun retailer, innovation is key in a market that, while not bottoming out in the recession, isn’t seeing too much growth, either. Billy Cuthrell’s ‘innovation’ not only strengthened his business, but it also got him the lead story of an American trade magazine, which in turn brought him to the attention of more tutors and more manufacturers.

His idea – while smart – was lifted straight from another market, and perhaps his wisest move was to have the confidence to show it off to the trade. His confidence in the idea was almost as important as the idea itself.

While ‘if you build it, they will come’ might not ring so true in the current economic climate, if you market it well enough, they might just pop along. Robbins & Sons is probably a few years from fruition, but it’s unlikely the current high street model for specialist retailers will be the same then as it is now. Mr Cuthrell’s plan might not be the standard model either, but, for now, the attention of his trade, and his customers, has been piqued – and you can’t put a price on that

Posted in Comment
Follow Us!