How’s Business: Business come rain or shine

CLA005Will summer 2013 be a heatwave or a washout? No one knows, so the retailers faring best are those that have diversified, finds Nicola Turner

The unpredictable nature of the British weather means retailers are unwilling to pin too many hopes on it being a barbecue summer – but some are still optimistic that summer 2013 won’t be a repeat of last year. With the game season long gone, I asked retailers what’s picking up and slowing down, and what they’re looking forward to as the summer months approach.

Mr Blackman of Test Valley Guns in Basingstoke, Hampshire, laughs that not a lot’s been selling particularly well, although that’s down to it being fairly steady across the board rather than having a star seller. He says: “I keep a fair range of air rifles, over-and-under and side-by-side shotguns, rifles, and then all the accessories. It’s all ticking over slowly. I’m not looking to increase anything in particular, just cruise along as we are. That’s a very mundane answer, isn’t it?”

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Is he expecting an increase in sales as the summer season gets under way? “Yes – the air rifle side always increases for that time of year. It’s happened every year, and I’ve been here 30 years. Repairs are slow at the moment, though. I spoke to someone in Birmingham this morning who says his repairs are slow, too. People are keeping their money in their pocket. They’re not having the services done that they normally do, so that side has slowed down a bit. It’s gone down over the last two or three years – just slowed and slowed, and this year’s been much slower.”

Over in Pocklington, Kevin, of W Richards Gunmakers, tells me what fortunes have been like recently: “Clothing-wise it’s been a quiet season. We tend to stock the top-end brands – tweeds have sold well, where Barbour’s been a bit quieter.

“On the gun side, it’s nothing but Beretta. Browning and Miroku, which are our other two main sellers, have been quiet recently.” Kevin explains that W Richards specialises in shotguns, so he’s expecting the summer months to be a little quieter, adding: “We’re in a rural area and it’s very game-oriented around us, so our biggest trade time is from the game season onwards. It’s not a big clay shooting area. We do a lot of repair work, so we do draw work in from the clay side there, but for most gun sales we’ll be reliant on game season.”

W Richards does repair and servicing work too, so I ask how it’s going. “Very good,” says Kevin. “We certainly get repeat customers for services, but we’re getting a lot of new customers as well. I think if we’re selling a gun to somebody, it’s nice to be able to offer to do the servicing too. We do tend to offer a fast service, as all our work is done in-house, so we can turn jobs round very quickly, unlike other gunshops that are either just retail, or offer a repair service but have to ship the guns away somewhere else. We do still build guns, too – we’re probably manufacturing about six to 10 a year, depending on how we’re fixed in the workshop.

“At present, we’ll just be offering the services that we’ve got, trying to live up to our good name. We don’t tend to advertise too much – it’s all word of mouth. I think that’s the best advertising anybody can get – if somebody’s walked out of the shop and they’re happy with the service they’ve had – so that’s what we tend to work on.”

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It’s all positive news from Forest Lodge Guns in Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, as Colin tells us: “Actually we’re having a good time. Virtually everything is selling well at the moment. Shotguns, rifles, airguns, accessories – though clothing is a bit slow now we’ve come out of the game season.

“Last year was a bad year for the recession, but we finished with an 11 per cent increase in turnover, and this year I thought we’ll be lucky if we break even, but we’re about 6.5-7 per cent up at the moment, on top of the 11 per cent the year before. So we’re having a good time – we can’t complain at all. When I talk to the people at GMK, they have an enormous depth of sales analysis, and they can’t believe it, they’re looking at the rest of the trade and say we’re bucking the trend so much they ask if we’re we sure we’ve got the figures right. Cheeky sods.”

Is there one sector of the market, or gun brand, that’s doing best? “If we’re talking shotguns,” Colin says, “as you’d expect it would be Beretta, then Browning, but if you’re talking rifles it would be Tikka, followed by the more expensive Sauer, Blaser, Mauser. They’re all doing quite well, but Tikka is the working rifle. It’s good value for the money. We sell more Tikkas than any other centrefire rifle, although in rimfires it’d be a toss-up between Browning and CZ.”

Impressive sales of working guns seems to indicate there are plenty of working, spend-savvy shooters in the Lincolnshire area – is that right? “Lincolnshire is mainly game shooting country,” explains Colin. “There are a couple of clay pigeon clubs too, and two or three rifle and pistol clubs. They’re quite rigorous, there aren’t many of them but they’re quite busy.” With a 2,500-acre game shoot, and two lots of shooting in Scotland, Forest Lodge Guns prides itself on being able cater to all kinds of shooter. “That’s true even if you want to go to Africa,” says Colin. “We had a guy in last week, and we set him up with all his safari clothing, and if you want to shoot Cape buffalo we can supply the ammunition and the rifle off the shelf. My oldest son is up in Scotland stalking at the moment, and we do all that sort of gear, from gralloching knives through to carcase lifts. We’re all qualified stalkers here.”

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Does he find being a shooter himself helpful when it comes to service? “Absolutely,” he says. “If you walk into the average gunshop and ask the assistant what weight of bullet you should be using for fallow deer out of a .25-06, and what sort of energy and velocity it’ll give you, most times you’ll be met with a complete blank. We consider ourselves pretty knowledgeable in that respect. That’s the important thing: knowledge.”

Meanwhile, Marlon at Dauntsey Guns in Chippenham, Wiltshire, is finding reloading equipment a source of strong sales figures. “It’s gone up for us recently, he says, “but the problem is actually getting hold of the ammunition from America. People are panic-buying over there and that’s affecting the export market, making products hard to get over here. We are just about managing to keep up with demand at the moment – we have had to source some of the rounds from elsewhere.”

No-one else has mentioned reloading equipment as being as strong a seller, so, my curiosity piqued, I ask if that’s driven by target shooters or live quarry shooters. Marlon says: “Both. I think quite a few people are coming round to the idea of hand-loading nowadays. I think we do get more target shooters, though, as they tend to get through a lot more rounds.”

He is expecting the sales of reloading equipment to stay strong through the summer, and is looking forward to some warmer weather. With such strong seasonal markets, the rest of the trade must be hoping for the same.

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