Gilbert Distribution’s Ross Marshall tells Colin Fallon about the unexpected hurdles in bringing an air compressor to the UK, and why convenience trumps features as a sales tool.
Though essentially healthy, the gun trade is plagued by the tortuous processes attached to it. There’s legislative pressure, restrictive sales and shipping requirements, and of course, mountains of paperwork. That’s obviously true of firearms – but it turns out the humble air compressor is susceptible to the same difficulties. Ross Marshall of Gilbert Distribution, which brings the Omega Supercharger air compressor to the UK and Europe, says he’s been caught off guard by unexpected problems at every turn – but despite that, they’ve still sold more than they ever thought possible.
“We were appointed lead agents in a number of territories,” he says. “There’s Europe, the Middle East, Japan and Australia among others. All these places have different plugs or voltages – you can end up with the motor being driven at a different speed depending on what country it’s operated in. So we’ve had to cope with that, first off.”
That extensive distribution network also brings with it the problems of shipping. “The Americans who supply the compressor throughout the USA and Canada tend to ship the product by air. But the compressor has a water cooling system in it – and of course, at 33,000 feet the water will freeze! So they learned to drain it.” However, says Ross, taking on the product when it’s already had a year of problem-solving in the USA means unforeseen difficulties like this have been sorted out already. “An advantage from our point of view is that the engineers and manufacturers are constantly looking to improve the product. A couple of shipments ago, the plain black cover that comes with the compressor suddenly had a large printed logo – and the serial number was engraved into the unit, as a permanent marker. Little improvements like that are taking place all the time.”
Manufactured in China to an American design, the Omega Compressor is independently inspected as it leaves the factory and again by Gilbert Distribution when it arrives in the UK – which means it gets a double quality-control check before it ships to dealers or end users. It’s obviously working, because Ross says the unit has exceeded its sales projections by upwards of 50 per cent this year.
What’s behind this surge in demand? The quality of the Supercharger’s fill is a major selling point – it’s a slow, cool fill, compared to the hot-and-fast job that’s often offered in a dive shop. But, says Ross, it’s really the convenience of the unit that’s got airgunners hooked. “It’s not just buyers who live up on a Scottish mountain an hour’s drive from the nearest dive shop – we’ve had sales in Aylesbury, Egham, Hampstead, everywhere.
“Most airgun shops don’t provide a filling service, and if it’s a 15-20 minute trip each way to the dive shop, it starts to add up. Plus, if you get a hot and fast fill, you’ll end up with fewer shots in the tank by the time you’ve arrived home and it’s cooled down. Then, what if you need a fill on a Tuesday and that happens to be the one day the dive shop is shut – so you’ve got to put off your shoot…
“There is not a network of bottle-filling stations as there are petrol stations. So people get fed up and they want the convenience of having it themselves.”
That means Gilbert has mostly sold to individuals rather than dealers so far – another thing Ross says has surprised him – but Gilbert is now actively looking to foster a retail network.
“It’s always been my view that the Omega would work well installed in a larger shooting retailer,” explains Ross. “Our electric compressor gives a high-quality fill but as a result it is a bit slower than the usual petrol compressor. This extra filling time gives their customers a very good opportunity to browse around a larger store. My experience from working with Milbro, where people often came in for airgun repairs, is that they were quite happy to sit around and chat for half an hour while the repair was being done – or even just on the way out.
“Plus, the Supercharger is entirely automatic, so once the fill is set up, the dealer can leave it to run while they talk to another customer.
“That’s how I see it working, though the market never ceases to surprise me and throw me off balance – so I wouldn’t be surprised if traders find a different way of maximising the Compressor’s effectiveness. People are very inventive!”
Ross left the now-defunct Milbro to take up the Gilbert mantle, but he says his move was independent of Milbro’s future: “I actually left four or five months before Milbro went. Once we discovered the product through Airguns of Arizona, I quickly realised its potential.”
It has the capacity to grow, too, with the next wave of product developments potentially opening it up to the diving market. Meanwhile, Gilbert Distribution could be set to grow in its own way, with the addition of more product lines. “The Omega Compressor is the main product we have – but a number of manufacturers have approached me to see if we’ll take on their products too. I’ve given this some thought and I don’t want to dilute the presence of the Compressor – so we’re going to launch a new brand. We’re looking at scopes, rifle cases, target shooting training systems and so on. These product categories are obviously available already but the products themselves will be new to the UK. There will be trade pricing on these products.”
Despite all the problems he professes to have experienced so far, Ross clearly believes in the quality of the products Gilbert imports, and their ability to benefit retailers. And though the distribution network is only in its early phases of growth, Ross is already keen to emphasise his desire to support bricks-and-mortar stockists. “It comes down to that age-old argument I have with my shooting chums: It’s all very well to buy something online, but when it comes to Saturday morning and you realise you don’t have your shotgun cartridges for the shoot, you can’t order them online, but you can go down to the shop, which is open on a Saturday morning. But the shop has to earn a living for the other five days a week, not just that Saturday.”
Contact Ross on 01953 860323 or firstname.lastname@example.org