Features February 2014 — 05 February 2014

The Welcome Mat

Ways to attract and keep new customers

A clean parking lot, clear signage and an impressive exterior set the stage for an overall favorable first impression and create a welcoming mood.

Brandy Huth can spot them as soon as they walk through the front door. The initial pause, the darting eyes, the body language all point to one thing: a new shooter. Who can blame them? Buying a first gun or visiting a range for the first time can be intimidating.

Huth, Marketing Director for Georgia’s Sandy Springs Gun Club and Shooting Range, was one of those newbies not too long ago. She knows exactly what it’s like to walk into a range for the first time. She also knows what its like to feel intimidated by an apathetic staff.

“I was in the military, but I didn’t have a lot of knowledge of handguns or indoor ranges,” she recalled. “I just remember feeling like the first range I visited was a good old boys club. It wasn’t a very comfortable atmosphere. I actually hear similar stories all the time about bad experiences at other ranges from our customers.”

Many of those ranges are still in business, thanks largely to a booming gun market and a high interest in personal defense and shooting sports. Guns and range time practically sell themselves these days. However, the new gun boom may not last forever. That’s why it’s more important than ever to give new shooters a reason to spend money at your range not just today, but for years to come. It starts with an inviting atmosphere and a generally satisfying experience.

First impressions matter

That satisfaction can begin the moment a new customer steps through the door. It begins with a warm smile from a friendly employee who engages the customer and puts him or her at ease. It also starts with the look and feel of the facility itself. Shoot Smart Owner Roxanne Laney says her Fort Worth and Grand Prairie, Texas, facilities encompass artwork on the walls, leather furniture in the lounges and well-lit sales counters.

“We want to look more like Macy’s than a typical shooting range,” she said. “I’m a business woman first. I understand that if you create a comfortable atmosphere, customers are much more likely to return.”

There’s certainly more to retaining new customers than nice chairs and art, of course, but Colonial Shooting Academy General Manager Ed Coleman agrees first impressions start with the visual aspects of the store. His range also uses ample lighting, visible signs and low, wide and well-lit counters. Even the exterior is bright and clean. Nothing can chase away a first-time shooter faster than a dim, dirty, cluttered facility that looks more like a flea market than a pro shop. Add an apathetic staff to the mix, and you’ve got the recipe for a failing business model.

Say something

From a greeter to a one-on-one tour guide and instructor, Colonial Shooting Academy makes new customers and new shooters very comfortable.

That’s one reason everyone who walks through Colonial’s front doors is met by a greeter who offers a warm smile and a simple question: Can I help you find something? That single step is the perfect ice-breaker and possibly the best way to keep a new shooter in the facility. Depending on the number of people coming through the door, the greeter may walk a new customer directly to a staff member in a specific area of the facility. Laney goes even further. Any new customer is offered a one-on-one tour of her range and shop.

“We ask if they have ever shot before and what kind of shooting or firearms they are interested in,” she said. “We engage our customers. Also, our staff always asks new shooters if they would be interested in private lessons, which have turned out to be quite popular, and we offer new-shooter group clinics.”

Once isn’t enough

Beginner clinics are a great way to start a relationship with those new customers, but no store or range can survive on a one-time crash course on basic firearms safety and use. That’s why Colonial, Shoot Smart and Sandy Springs also offer a series of graduated courses that take shooting and personal defense to new levels. Each one is a bit more in-depth than the last one. Those clinics aren’t just designed to introduce beginners to new shooting techniques and firearms safety; they are also an avenue to increase the long-term customer base. They have been a huge success for Laney. Although her facilities have only been open for about three years, she has developed a strong repeat customer base through those courses.

“I want to give my customers a reason to come back,” she added. “Simply offering a range isn’t always a good enough reason for new shooters to return.”

Hire good people

All three gun stores are choosy about who they hire. A new shooter’s first impression of a range or store includes the smile—or scowl—on the faces of the staff. That initial contact can create a permanent impression, especially among new shooters. Laney is careful to screen potential employees, hiring only those with an upbeat, outgoing personality and who are patient. About half of her sales staff is women because a large portion of her new customers are women. That’s important, she adds.

“I think women are more comfortable dealing with other women in a situation like ours, especially if they are new,” Laney said.

Laney photo

All of her staff are proficient shooters with a general knowledge of firearms, and some are experts on specific types of guns. However, from a business perspective, hiring gun experts is somewhat less important than hiring people experts, says Laney, whose facility is a National Shooting Sports Foundation-certified Five Star range.

“I don’t expect everyone to know everything about every gun we sell. However, everyone is certainly expected to have a good knowledge of some types of guns. If a particular staff member can’t answer a question, he or she will find someone who can,” she explained. “Hire enthusiastic people, and they will be enthusiastic about becoming better at their jobs. The longer they work here, the more knowledgeable they become, so it really works well.”

They don’t even have to be experts at selling, at least not when they first come on board. All three stores train their employees not only on how to turn on the lights and work cash registers, but also on how to deal with customers of all kinds, particularly those new to the shooting sports. All told, Laney’s 31 employees go through 40 hours of hands-on training, and each one must go through the various classes taught at Shoot Smart, even if they are expert shooters or certified trainers already. That helps remind the staff what it’s like to be on the other side of the table or display case.

Hands-on help

It takes more than a trained staff and good lighting to convert potential new customers to actual new customers, of course. For places like Colonial Shooting Academy, which was recognized as the 2013 Shooting Range of the Year by SHOT Business Magazine, it’s sometimes as simple as offering rental guns. According to a survey of new shooters conducted for NSSF, 86 percent of first-time gun buyers said “fit” was the most important reason they selected a particular gun. Customers can try any number of handguns for a flat fee at Colonial. That try-before-you-buy opportunity can ease the selection process by allowing customers to shoot a variety of guns in different calibers.

“It’s a very effective sales tool,” Coleman said. “People are much more likely to choose a particular gun if they’ve had the opportunity to shoot it. I often see a new shooter come back a couple of times before settling on a particular model.”

Shoot Smart also has dedicated training lanes separated from the rest of the lanes by a concrete wall. That segregates new shooters and their instructors from the distractions typical of any range.

“A big-bore handgun in the next lane can be a little intimidating for someone who’s never been to a range like ours,” Laney said. “Anything we can do to make the shooting experience more enjoyable is going to help that new shooter come back.”

Ten Ways To Get and Keep First-Time Shooters

1. Build a professional and easy-to-navigate website.
2. Greet every customer immediately.
3. Hire friendly, positive staff.
4. Keep your exterior clean and well lit.
5. Provide ample lighting and signage indoors.
6. Engage customers and make honest recommendations.
7. Offer one-on-one instruction and follow-up courses.
8. Offer specials for first-time shooters.
9. Train staffers to better interact with customers.
10. Update or clean your interior.

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