David Drummond used to worry about being targeted by an undercover agent. As owner of local firearms retailer Carolina Sporting Arms, he worried that one day his store would be secret-shopped by firearms trade magazine Shot Business.
“We always strive to provide great service, but I’ve feared they would happen to come in here sometime when we were having a really bad day,” admits Drummond.
Shot Business picks a city for each of its issues and sends an undercover shopper to local firearms dealers to score them on customer service, product knowledge and product selection. As it turns out, Drummond’s fears were unjustified, because when the magazine actually did shop Carolina Sporting Arms for its February/March 2012 issue, Drummond’s business was top ranked, the only one of four Charlotte retailers to score five-stars in all three rating categories.
Drummond points to the results of the undercover shopper and several years of increasing sales as proof that his strategy of focusing on the customer is working. “We started this business because we loved to hunt and we loved to shoot,” he says. “But it turns out guns are just an avenue to meet great people. My biggest thrill is to see people walk out with a big smile on their face.”
Carolina Sporting Arms traces its roots back to 1968 as Collias-Lawing & Co., Inc. in the Dilworth/Uptown area. The business had operated under multiple owners until Drummond and partner Scott Pope bought it in 1998. Pope ran the store for about 10 years, while Drummond kept his full-time job as a sales manager at Livingston & Haven, an industrial technology and solutions provider.
When Drummond and Pope bought the business it was located on Kingston Avenue near the South End area. “It was the worst retail location in the world,” laughs Drummond. “You couldn’t see it from any major road.” So in 2002, they moved to a new 10,000-square foot building on South Boulevard, just north of Sharon Road West. The new location put them on a high-traffic artery between Uptown and their core customer base in south Charlotte, setting the stage for growth.
Pope eventually decided he wanted out of the day-to-day grind of retail, so Drummond left his job at Livingston & Haven in 2008, gradually expanding his role, taking over full ownership and management of the business in 2010.
“Scott went over to the wholesale side,” explains Drummond. “He actually calls on the store now, so all of his knowledge and contacts have really served him well.”
A Changing Marketplace
The firearms business is unique because government rules for gun sales require that sellers obtain a considerable amount of information from their customers every time a sale is made.
“We have to store this information forever,” says Drummond. “So a few years ago we did some full-blown data mining and it gave us a great look at who our customer was. It was a strong demographic: customers were 93 percent male, were 35 to 65 years old, and 90 percent of them owned a house.”
In the last two or three years, the entire gun industry has seen an influx of female customers looking for concealed carry handguns for personal protection and home defense.
“We’ve got so many new female gun owners that I’ve hired a new female employee for the store,” explains Drummond. “She helps put the women customers at ease. That’s something every business owner has to do—to see where the business is going and adapt to it.”
The firearms industry as a whole is growing at a record pace, despite the background environment of a slow economy. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation trade association, gun sales in 2011 were up 14 percent over 2010, hitting an all-time high of just under 11 million firearms.
Drummond says that Carolina Sporting Arms has mirrored the national trend with double-digit sales growth in three out of the last four years. He says the boom started in late 2008, and coincided with fears among gun owners that changes in control of Congress and the White House as a result of the election could result in further restrictions on gun rights.
While those restrictions have not materialized, Drummond says the gun industry is expecting another big 2012 as uncertainty persists in yet another election year.
Another factor in the growth trend may be the general increase in fear and uncertainty that accompanies an economic downturn. “Whenever there is fear, people want to do something tangible to address that fear,” opines Drummond. “And a lot of times that tangible thing is to go buy a firearm to protect themselves.”
Getting the word out to potential customers is another ongoing challenge for the company and is a key focus for Drummond. “We’ve reached out to the news media so that when they need a comment on a firearm-related story they will come to us instead of one of our competitors,” he explains. “We’ve also launched an aggressive radio campaign after we found that radio outperformed the other options by a wide margin.” The company has also embraced social media through their Facebook page and close to 100 instructional videos on YouTube.
Training and Education
The entrance of women into the ranks of gun owners and the influx of other new owners has created a demand for education and training. In response to that need, Carolina Sporting Arms offers classes for new and experienced gun owners. “We tell people that self defense and home defense are not just about the equipment,” says Drummond. “We really like to see them getting training rather than just buying something to get checked off the list.”
This need for more training is driving a major new initiative for the company. Plans are in the works to add training and shooting facilities at the South Boulevard location. “Our customers are always asking us where they can shoot and where can they train,” remarks Drummond. “So we’re going to add a shooting facility out back and we’re going to put a classroom in here as well.”
The new classroom will have an interactive simulator with pneumatic-powered guns where new shooters will be able to take their first shots in a completely non-threatening environment. The sensation of the pneumatic gun will give them a realistic feel, but there is absolutely no danger.
The new 4,000-square-foot addition will be two levels, with seven shooting lanes on top and five underneath. The layout will allow daily shooting on top while more focused training is taking place simultaneously down below.
“The technology for ranges has changed so much,” explains Drummond. “There are baffles, bullet traps, and a high tech filtration system to get the smoke and the lead out of the air. The noise containment has come so far you can literally have a range out back and not hear it in the store.
“We think it will be a great addition to the community and a great addition to our business.” Once the city of Charlotte gives the go ahead, Drummond says the new facility could be completed in less than six months.
The Customer Experience
In the early days, Carolina Sporting Arms also carried clothing, boots and other accessories not directly related to guns. “We decided we really needed to focus on firearms and firearm accessories,” remarks Drummond. “That is what we do really well. If you look in our store today, you’ll see a large selection of firearms and all the accessories that go along with the use, cleaning and safe storage of those firearms. We’re not a hunting store.”
Carolina Sporting Arms sells firearms at a variety of price points, but they have elected to avoid the lowest-end products. “We don’t carry under-$100 pistols,” admits Drummond. “We have a width breadth of price points—good, better, and best in class—but we believe there is a certain minimum to have reliability and a factory warranty. We believe that minimum starts around $300.”
Industry data also shows that under-$100 handguns have a higher likelihood of being used in illegal activity, so that is another reason to avoid those products. According to Drummond, “We want to be known as a community partner and a good steward.”
“We sell more handguns than we do anything else,” he continues. “Ten years ago we were selling sporting shotguns. We still sell those, but the mass numbers of handguns we sell now is amazing.” There is also a huge market for quality used firearms. “The manager of my collectibles area was out this morning going to pawn shops and other dealers trying to find quality used stuff. It’s no problem selling used guns, but often it’s a problem finding used guns to sell.”
Drummond says the vast majority of their business comes from the typical five to seven mile retail draw radius, but that due to their extensive selection of products, customers also come from as far away as the Triad, Research Triangle or Columbia, S.C.
Carolina Sporting Arms competes with independent gun shops, big-box retailers and online sellers. “There are several other independent firearms retailers in town, plus the big box stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Bass Pro Shop,” notes Drummond. “And then there’s the Internet which has exploded with outlets to buy guns.”
Although the retail store represents the core of their business, Carolina Sporting Arms now also has an online store that sells less-than-lethal self-defense items like pepper spray. They also use an online auction site—gunsinternational.com—as their portal for online firearm sales. Federal law prohibits online gun sales direct to an individual, so while an out-of-market buyer can pay online, they must designate a local gun shop in their area to which the gun is shipped. The buyer then goes to that local shop to complete the required paperwork and pick up the firearm.
Drummond says his biggest competitive challenge is when a customer asks him to match a low online or big box price, but then also expects the high level of personal service provided by an independent dealer.
“If you buy your gun here and have a problem, we’re going to take care of it for you,” says Drummond, explaining their buyer protection plan. “Many of the discount sellers will just say that it’s the manufacturer’s issue, give you the address, and tell you to go handle it.”
Drummond also takes pride in his experienced sales staff and the overall customer experience they aim to deliver. “All of our folks have 10-plus years in the industry,” he says. “They are trained to uncover the true needs of the customer, to understand what the customer wants, and to help them make an informed decision. We do understand there are other places our customers can shop, so we really want them to have a great experience every time that they deal with us. We know the minute they don’t have a good experience they’ll seek out somebody else.”
For David Drummond, it’s all about creating that great experience for the customer. “That’s what makes Carolina Sporting Arms who we are,” he concludes. “At the end of the day it’s all ‘Better Service, Better Products, for a Better Experience.’ That’s what we’re all about.”