by Ed Friedman
In the past few years deal-of-the-day websites like Groupon and LivingSocial have grown very popular, particularly among young urban and suburban professionals. Offering discounts on everything from manicures to skydiving lessons, the deals that these programs offer are often far less than MSRP. Their delivery via subscribers’ email makes it easy for customers to take advantage of the savings and for the coupon issuer to reach a much wider audience in a desirable demographic.
These services provided an excellent means for shooting ranges to increase traffic and advertise services to shooters—and even people who never before fired a gun. In fact, new shooters made up a majority of deal takers according to several range-operations managers with whom I spoke.
According to Daniel Johnson, operations supervisor at Silver Eagle Group, an indoor shooting range and training facility in Ashburn, Va., more than 10,000 LivingSocial deals—offering discounted safety lessons, range time, gun rentals, targets and ammunition—were redeemed at the range over an 18-month period.
“LivingSocial provided us a means to get some extra revenue, albeit at extremely tight margins,” Johnson said. “What it did beyond that, however, was get people who would never come to our range, or any range for that matter, to come learn how to safely handle firearms and enjoy shooting. Women made up a much larger percentage of LivingSocial deal-takers than they do of our regular customer base.”
Then, everything came to a grinding halt.
In January, both Groupon and LivingSocial suspended all firearm-related deals, though in a statement released in May, LivingSocial denied it had ever changed its policy. Neither company responded to multiple requests for comment, but other media outlets have reported speaking with representatives of each service confirming what ended up being a four- to five-month hiatus of all shooting-sports coupons.
Groupon released a vague statement after its decision, denying politics played a role in its decision: “[Groupon’s] categories and inventory evolve with consumer and merchant sentiment…Change to our inventory is not a statement against these small businesses.”
Then, in June, Groupon resumed offering shooting-sports deals, though with little fanfare.
“We have decided to reopen certain firearm-related deals in specific markets where they’ve been frequently requested by both merchants and customers,” Nicholas Halliwell, a public relations officer for Groupon, wrote in an email to the website Red Alert Politics.
An exhaustive search of LivingSocial’s deals around the country conducted in the spring found zero firearm-related coupons, where there had been dozens of such offers—including many from a shooting range in New York City—just a few months prior. Furthermore, Johnson confirmed that, as of April, LivingSocial would not allow Silver Eagle Group to offer deals on the site. By May, however, LivingSocial had begun to allow shooting-sports deals again, and was even defying pressure from anti-gun groups to change its policy regarding firearm-experience deals.
Why should you care if some hipster sites stopped listing shooting-range deals next to discounts on organic arugula and yoga classes? Apart from the capacity to drive substantial increases in revenue for your range and attract a wide array of customers who might otherwise not even be aware of your business’ existence, deal-of-the-day sites play a significant role in broadening the appeal of the shooting sports, which creates future customers. Anti-Second Amendment groups know this, which is why they called for write-in campaigns urging Groupon and LivingSocial to purge the shooting industry from their lists of deals long before events of the last year brought gun rights into the forefront of political debate.
“We, along with other groups, had been applying pressure to Groupon for some time now because we were disturbed by the flippant nature of previous gun deals,” Ladd Everritt, director of communications at the rabidly anti-gun Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told the Huffington Post. “Even before Newtown, Groupon was undoubtedly getting e-mails from users who threatened to discontinue their membership if the site continued to promote those types of deals, and I expect those emails have only accelerated in intensity after the tragedy.”
Events turned those previously failing efforts into a temporary success, but anti-gun forces did not eliminate deal-of-the-day sites willing to do business with shooting-sports companies.
So, what’s a range to do when the two largest deal-of-the-day sites abandon the shooting industry for months at a time? There are a couple of options, both of which are growing at a rapid pace.
The first is AmazonLocal, a deal-of-the-day offering from online-retail giant Amazon.com. Launched in 2011 for the Boise, Idaho, metropolitan area, the service is now available in 100 urban areas in 29 states. Oddly some of the deals are aggregated from LivingSocial, a company in which Amazon is heavily invested. Apparently, those deals do not involve firearms, given LivingSocial’s new policy.
An examination in April of every deal currently offered via AmazonLocal nationwide found a single concealed-carry training coupon in the Washington, D.C., area, indicating Amazon—which lists thousands of firearm accessories on its main retail site—did not ban guns from AmazonLocal during a politically charged period. The company did not return numerous requests for comment.
A safer bet is Gunpon, which was founded the day Groupon announced it would no longer inventory firearm-related coupons.
“First and foremost your business will not be demonized,” said Gunpon founder John Bonner. “We built our relationship chain upon solid pro-Second Amendment relationships, from the hardware on which our systems run to the processing of financial transactions.”
Gunpon offers multiple options for ranges and trainers. First is the standard coupon, which, according to Bonner, works well for businesses that have an in-person relationship with customers. This promotion can be sent to consumers in the proper geographical area for the business. Customers can purchase the deal online and then show up with their certificate to redeem the service, similar to how Groupon and LivingSocial deals function. The system generates a bar code, and the business gets a report of the valid bar codes. When someone presents the coupon, the business can manually or electronically validate the bar code, cancel it and then render the promised services.
The second scenario arose from Gunpon’s willingness to listen to its customers.
“For Gunpon to do business we basically set up an e-commerce capable system,” Bonner said. “We had more than one person ask if we could just host their shopping cart. Why not? We are fully capable, and so our second product offering was born. We can host your entire website or just provide checkout capabilities.”
A third way to utilize Gunpon is via online purchases. A manufacturer or retailer can promote a product with some form of incentive, and Gunpon will take the consumer directly to the final page of the shopping-cart checkout. Customers will need to set up a Gunpon account for this option to function. After Gunpon captures the sale, the business is provided with order details for fulfillment and a batch ACH provides the revenue from the sale(s).
Bonner made an important distinction between Gunpon and other daily deal sites.
“We focus purely on the firearm and related industries. We don’t promote lawn care, restaurants, etc. Because we are firearms enthusiasts and strong supporters of America’s founding liberties, we don’t just go through the motions. We want to see your business succeed as it strengthens America, and that benefits consumers.”
As a result, consumers looking for firearm-related deals won’t have to sift through thousands of coupons in which they have little or no interest, which benefits a business’ capitalization rate.
“When you run a promotion with Gunpon,” Bonner said, “you are getting the attention of like-minded consumers who have a higher probability of becoming repeat customers.”
The sign-up process for Gunpon is simple. A short form on gunpon.net provides a means for a business to check the proper box and fill in two additional fields. Gunpon will then contact the business and do all the “busy work” getting information into the system.
“The service is up and running and growing,” Bonner added. “It is not yet fully operational for my vision. In my mind fully operational is when a business can login to the Gunpon site, setup their own promotion campaign, choose their audience distribution, fill in a few fields with information about the special and then launch their campaign. Currently that is a process that is available internally only.”
Now that Groupon and LivingSocial are again allowing gun-related deals, they are also an option, and they could provide shooting ranges with an enormous reach into untapped markets. Given both companies’ ban on shooting-sports offers when it was thought to be politically convenient, however, they may not be reliable platforms for businesses dealing with firearms.
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Though the temporary loss of Groupon and LivingSocial likely hampered business for many ranges, Silver Eagle Group’s Johnson brought up an important distinction.
“Though LivingSocial brought a ton of people to the range, the majority were not our core customers. Given the small margins resulting from the deals, while we miss the extra revenue, our business is still doing very well because our regular customers haven’t changed. That said, we are looking for daily-deal alternatives.”
For those ranges looking to expand their business or help current patrons, AmazonLocal and Gunpon offer two very different, but exciting options for ranges to attract new consumers and provide discounted services to existing customers.
AmazonLocal is more along the lines of Groupon and LivingSocial. It provides the capacity to reach customers who would not otherwise know about your range and the services it offers. A bachelor or bachelorette party deal would likely attract significant interest from young, affluent customers looking for an exciting and non-traditional means to celebrate, while training classes—particularly for concealed-carry permits—could help attract business from competitors.
Gunpon is more targeted to those consumers who are already familiar with firearms—and therefore more likely to become regular customers. If the site becomes popular, however, it too could attract thrill-seekers in addition to deal-sniffing established shooters.
Both sites are growing, and given the unreliability of Groupon and LivingSocial when the political winds shift, they could very well capitalize on this hole in the daily-deal market.