How’s Business: January 2014

As the gun trade shakes off its collective New Year’s hangover and starts work for 2014, Craig Nicholson finds out if it was a happy Christmas for retailers

Speaking to a number of shooting industry retailers, I soon learned that the traditional Christmas boost wasn’t universally felt. For some, it’s been a time of sitting tight and hoping for the best.

The signs of this begin on the high street, where Debenhams suffered a tumultuous time, issuing an early profit warning. Sales reports will continue to be released across January and February, indicating whether any other major chains suffered similar difficulties. As far as the gun trade is concerned, one retailer rather summed it up when they put it to me that people have learned to buy what they need rather than what they want, and even then everyone eyes up a bargain. And while the floods and wind may provide a boost to the clothing sector, it also hastened the transition to the much-forewarned ‘online Christmas.’ After all, who wants to brave the wind and rain when they can buy presents from the comfort of their living room?

I asked members of the gun trade about the potential of online sales, and came to the conclusion that many of us are yet to fully harness them. You will rightly reply that buying a gun necessitates going to a gunroom and speaking to the experts – but, particularly at Christmas, the market for gifts, accessories and other unlicensed goods is particularly high, and you need to be prepared if you want to capitalise on the demand.

One retailer that has embraced online sales is Chelmsford’s Eastern Sporting. The business is run by Alan Walker and his daughter Amanda, and they experienced their busiest month for online sales in December. “It was very busy over Christmas,” said Amanda. “Everything was popular – mainly gifts and small things, but it keeps business ticking over.” Excess stock can often be a problem in the aftermath of a slow Christmas, necessitating a January sale, but Eastern Sporting got its levels spot on. “We’ve been here seven years now and over the years I’ve learned how much we need to order and what’s needed so we don’t really have a lot of leftovers,” said Amanda. “I’ve just managed to restock for the new year now as we were very, very low when we opened the store back up. We do a small sale in mid-February but there’s not usually a lot in there because there’s not a lot unsold, which is good on our part.”

Almost all of the retailers I spoke to this month told me that Berettas and Brownings remain their best sellers, and Eastern Sporting was no different, while starter packs have also proved popular. “We get a lot of new shooters coming in and we see a lot of them again stocking up on everything else they need, so we like new shooters,” said Amanda. “We also do a lot of second-hand guns but we rarely hold any stock because as soon as we get them in they go out again the same day!” Even the wet weather hasn’t dampened Amanda’s enthusiasm. “The weather has actually helped us,” she added. “Because it’s been so bad, everyone wants to come and get their waterproofs, wellies, hats and gloves – anything to keep them warm and dry!”

There wasn’t quite such a positive outlook from Mark Hazel, whose gunroom near Stroud, Gloucestershire, experienced a testing Christmas. “The run-up to Christmas was like normal weeks should have been, in that Christmas isn’t going to happen for a few years yet and people have got no money,” admitted Mark. “But the first few days in January were good – some people obviously had money left over from Christmas. It’s been a little bit quieter since then and I think that’s how it’s going to go from now on.”

Mark is philosophical about spending habits and the retail trade in general, admitting that if wages don’t increase in 2014 then neither will disposable income. “Five years ago was probably the peak for us,” said Mark. “The next four years have gone steadily down to the level that we’re at now, and it’s been bubbling along like that for a couple of years.” The trend for bargain-hunting is reflected by the popularity of budget guns – but Mark insists there’s no point having a sale because margins are tough enough to maintain as it is. “People come in and ask if we have any second-hand air rifles for around £150. I tell them we can do them a brand new one for that. Most airguns I sell are simple springers for pest control, mainly for squirrels, around the £100-200 bracket, which is steady. The Hatsan Strikers tend to be the most popular in that bracket. I still love BSAs but you’re looking at a £250-£300 minimum there, and again people are buying on price.”

It was a similar story for Hugh Earl at Pax Guns in London, who kicked off by asking me if I wanted to buy a gun from him. He said a slow Christmas had resulted in his numbers being down on previous years, with SMK airguns and pellets the only items selling well. “We’ve got a hell of a lot of stock – we can’t give it away at the moment,” said Hugh. “We bought a lot of stock in and we’ve still got it. It wouldn’t make any difference if we were giving it away – there’s nobody coming in.”

Peter Mayo at West Bromwich’s Sporting Supplies, meanwhile, doesn’t have any excess stock to shift, but said Christmas had been “satisfactory” considering the level business usually reaches over this period. “Having been in the trade for 20-odd years, we don’t get a large amount of stuff in for Christmas,” said Peter, “just a small amount which we seem to get about right – a few little niceties that people want as presents.”

Stephen Battaglia at Park Street Guns in St Albans told me that, after a slow run-up, his store “got there in the end,” mainly selling accessories and a few Berettas. “Getting hold of decent second-hand guns is the hard part, but they sell well when we do have them,” said Stephen. “I’ve done well with new air rifles and I’m just starting to restock now – I’ve had two new deliveries of Berettas since the start of the new year.” Chris Tanner at Norfolk Sporting Guns said that accessories such as gun covers, socks and ties had sold well over Christmas. “Wellington boots always do very well for us – although not a lot of clothing, funnily enough – and after Christmas we have had a bit more of a pick-up on the gun sales,” he said.

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