I had a conflicting experience when I was in Galveston, Texas a few days ago. Some friends of mine that live there asked me if I wanted to swing by the local gun store on the Island. Of course, that’s an offer I will almost never turn down. We made our way down the coast and parked in a shopping center that is perhaps 75 yards from the front doors of the Academy Sporting Goods store next door – a big box gun retailer, if you aren’t familiar with the company. We walk up to the front door of Sergeant Mac’s Gun Shack and pull the handle. The door doesn’t move. Just to be safe, I give the burglar-barred glass a little shove. Doesn’t budge. That’s when I notice this sheet of white paper taped next to the door:
Tragic, to be sure. I posted the picture on my Instagram account, and it elicited a lot of powerful reactions:
This somewhat polarizing farewell essentially brought two camps of people to the surface in the comments: those of us who believe that local gun stores are the last remaining bastions of freedom in our communities, and that we should support them even if that means paying higher prices, and those of us who take an “evolve or die approach,” seeing brick-and-mortar gun stores as relics of a dying retail industry in general, unable or just unwilling to compete with low-overhead online shops. It’s the gun equivalent of Amazon versus Sears.
The Gun Industry Isn’t Exactly Agile
Our industry is a funny one, too. The gun business has to be one of the slowest-moving and the most traditional of retail industries. While niche hobbies like ours have been wheeling and dealing on the internet for it seems like two decades now, only in the past few years has the gun industry established a formidable presence online, at least in respect to firearm sales. The internet has also made the chain of commerce more accessible for consumers and manufacturers: manufacturer-direct sales to consumers are more common than department-store-style arrangements. However, the gun industry still clings to an obsolete “manufacturer-distributor-dealer-consumer” chain.
So we find ourselves at an interesting locus in the history of this business. Are online gun shops the wave of the future? Should they be? All things being equal, is a brick-and-mortar local gun store just plain better than ordering online?
online vs. local
I can see the merits of both sides. I think we can all agree that the local gun store experience should be theoretically superior to the online experience, even if it is reasonably, slightly more expensive than its online competition. Being able to go to a counter and handle the guns you want to look at – possibly even try them out if your local gun store has a range – is inarguably superior to selecting a gun you think you’re going to like from internet research alone and hoping it works out for you. Plus there’s usually ancillary services like gunsmithing, training, or just a place for gun enthusiasts to gather and talk about our shared passion.
Unfortunately, the LGS doesn’t always work out that way. Local gun stores that became accustomed to being the only show in town have allowed monopolization to cause paralysis. Charging MSRP or more for guns or double the fair price for accessories over the course of years exposed a vulnerability for local shops, and arguably even created the “monster” that is the low-overhead, Internet-based market. Many shops carried on as if they would always have the market cornered, without innovating or acknowledging the storm gathering on the horizon. Have you ever frequented a shop that you had no choice but to deal with, even if it treated customers like shopping there was a privilege? I bet a number of you have – I know I did. There’s a reason why the often-memed stereotype of the “gun counter employee” exists. We’ve all met him once, haven’t we? Clad in his range vest, 1911 on his drop-leg, armed with the experience of working at his brother-in-law’s gun store for 8 months. And boy, is he ready to tell you why the gun you came in for will “get you killed” and “you need one-ah-these” instead. No question, there are former customers dancing in the flames of gun stores that had been overcharging them for years.
The Good Guy Local Gun Store
But what about the good shops out there? They exist. Entrepreneurs, family-run businesses, and even relatively large companies that take pride in their reputation, which are active in the community, which charge fair prices, and which treat their customers with respect.
To get the brick-and-mortar perspective on this issue, I asked for a statement from none other than our own Adam S. from TFB. Adam runs The Guns and Gear Store (https://www.thegunsandgearstore.com/) in his Minnesota community along with his family. They have done well for themselves in the business because they offer good service, knowledgeable staff, and reasonably priced inventory. His take:
My family has owned a small gun shop for over 9 years now. We have ridden out the Obama administration.. witnessed the explosion of social media leviathans like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook… and understand the daunting power of the internet.
Shop local. I state this because we have a vested interest in you, the customer, and you have a vested interest in the “mom ‘n pop shop” whether you can keenly see it or not.
Yes, many “mom ‘n pops” have gone the way of the 8-track tape and were not agile enough to change with technology. Others have adapted to the internet and do sell online, but that is not how they pay the rent.
So when you want to hang a flyer for your concealed carry class; when you need quick turnaround service on a gun; when you want somewhere to trade in your gun; or even when you want to transfer something you bought online – where are you going to go when your local shop shuts down?
Online Shopping is Typically Cheaper
To play the devil’s advocate (I ran an online-only gun shop from 2004 until I sold it to an investor before I went to law school): We all like to virtue signal and say “shop local” and “support the brick and mortar store,” but I think at the end of the day, the bottom line is the bottom line. Most customers would rather snag a deal online, skip paying taxes (which avoidance is likely illegal, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling in South Dakota v. Wayfair: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/17-494_j4el.pdf), and save a few bucks while paying the transfer fee. Online shops can be run with very little overhead, allowing them to drastically undercut stores that have to pay rent, general liability and property insurance, property taxes, utilities, and etc. on larger buildings. I more or less ran my internet operation out of a storage container, so it was easy for me to still beat your local shop even after shipping and your transfer fee.
Speaking of transfer fees, I find it improbable that the local FFL transfer is going to end, even if the local gun store does. My local FFL is two blocks from my office, and it’s a fishing shop. They don’t sell guns, but they make quick and easy money with a few minutes spent calling in a Form 4 for a transfer. Not a bad gig.
Finally, I can find the exact SKU that I want online and get the exact gun that I am looking for, rather than settling for the local inventory. So buying online is typically cheaper and usually offers a great selection.
But why not both?
For another opinion, I reached out to my long-time friends, Tom and Michelle Allen of Top Gun Supply (https://www.topgunsupply.com/). TGS is one of the good guys, too – like The Guns and Gear Store, TGS built their company through dedication to good customer service. Their brick and mortar business has been booming, allowing them to expand from their home state of Ohio to opening a new store in Florida. They credit hiring “knowledgeable and friendly shooters” for the success of their physical locations.
But Tom and Michelle, being an astute, business-minded couple, also got online very early in 2005 and sell guns and accessories on the web as well. Thus, they have an online presence that taps into their physical inventory and allows them to compete on both planes. This may be the business model of the industry’s future.
As far as fly-by-night, low-overhead operations go, they aren’t concerned. Tom says:
We do get quite a few transfers from the online budget sellers. We charge for the transfer, which also gets the customer into our store. Once they see our business model, many become customers. There are those guys that simply shop price. Many of those guys will lose the customer service aspect of purchasing a firearm. We get involved with issues and work hard to get the customer to a happy place.
Who is Killing Brick and Mortar Businesses?
My opinion is this: The brick and mortar gun store is better than the online seller if it’s done correctly. Well-run gun stores like The Guns and Gear Store and Top Gun Supply, with engaging, not-pushy, knowledgeable employees and a good selection of inventory not only tend to be successful but also serve as hubs for their local firearms community. But when a shop goes out of business, we don’t point at the $650 Glock 19 under the counter or the owner’s brother-in-law, Bill, behind it with his “guns don’t kill people, I do” t-shirt. (I remember when he told Travis Haley “Son, that Glock doesn’t have a safety and if you buy it you will definitely die. You need this Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum here.”) Rather, we direct our wrath towards the specter of the gunternet – the low-overhead, no-presence online gun shop.
I may be wrong, but it seems like it isn’t the big box retailer or the online gun dealer – it’s the local gun store killing the local gun store.