Those eye-catching billboards of a gun-toting Santa Claus along Charlotte’s highways underscore a key facet of today’s retail firearms industry: As more gun stores enter the market, retailers are working harder than ever to gain a competitive advantage.
State-of-the-art gun ranges, spaces for corporate events, gun restoration services – all are among the ways Charlotte gun retailers are trying to gain an edge at a time when demand for firearms is already high.
Guns are a perennially popular Christmas gift, and the cold-weather hunting season is in its peak. And Charlotte gun retailers said this week that demand this season is up in part because of the recent shootings in San Bernadino and in Oregon. Retailers say they’ve heard from customers concerned about any moves to restrict access to guns.
Over a dozen large-scale gun dealers have opened in the Charlotte region over the last two years, heating up competition in an industry filled with long-standing, independent retailers like Hyatt Gun Shop and Carolina Sporting Arms. Area gun shows, like Dixie’s Gun and Knife Show this weekend at the Metrolina Expo Tradeshow Center, also add to the competitive mix.
One of the larger new stores is Blackstone Shooting Sports, which opened last fall on Wilkinson Boulevard. Its Santa billboards (“Santa knows what you really want”) have caused more of a stir than owner Taylor Hayden anticipated.
But one thing is certain: The signs are serving their intended, attention-grabbing purpose.
Also unconventional is Hayden’s modern design of Blackstone’s facilities – intended to fill what he calls a “gap in the market.” His store doesn’t have the jewelry store-style counters that he says create a “power vacuum” between the gun buyer and seller. The store has many windows and high ceilings, and its brightly lit range features purified hospital-grade air, he says. The range also doubles as a space for events like corporate holiday parties.
To showcase the facility, Blackstone also last month gave away a free firearm safety class with every handgun sold. Hayden said the promotion wasn’t necessarily intended to boost sales, though he added that Blackstone likely will offer it again.
Other stores have caught on that shooting ranges could provide a boost, making the business a one-stop-shop where gun enthusiasts can buy firearms, get trained and take classes.
Carolina Sporting Arms has been in Charlotte since the late 1960s and built a gun range two years ago at its South Boulevard store. Store manager Donald Ingram says the range is “the best investment” the company has made and estimates it has boosted handgun sales by 20 percent to 40 percent.
“As people buy guns, they need a place to shoot, and that was a common request for us from the consumer,” Ingram said. “We heard their complaint, and we responded.”
Hot right now
Guns are typically in demand this time of year, just ahead of the holidays and in the middle of hunting season. Experts say demand also spikes right after mass shootings, when gun control starts to dominate political rhetoric.
Take the period right after Sandy Hook in late 2012, for example, when the White House, under a newly re-elected President Barack Obama, started developing policy proposals like a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.
From 2012 to 2013, handgun purchase permits in Mecklenburg County alone soared more than 41 percent, according to the county sheriff’s office. The number of permits leveled off in 2015 but still totals almost twice as much as it did 10 years ago. The permit is required for all handgun sales in the state, including private transactions.
“When you have legislation talking about trying to restrict guns – even though they’re not, it’s just in the news – you’ll see spikes,” said Erik Hagesether, special services officer at Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. “People ... jump on the bandwagon to get a gun.”
Gun demand is reflected in the rise in the shares of some publicly traded gun makers. Since the Dec. 2 San Bernadino shootings, shares of Smith & Wesson have soared nearly 28 percent, and shares of Sturm, Ruger & Co. have risen nearly 13 percent.
At Hyatt Gun Shop on Wilkinson Boulevard, owner Larry Hyatt says the products in highest demand in his store are ones for self-protection purposes, like handguns. That’s unusual for this time of year, he says, when hunting rifles normally are the biggest sellers.
Hyatt’s competitive edge comes from the shop’s long-standing reputation, he says. Hyatt’s father started the business nearly 60 years ago and along with retail gun sales, the specialized store offers services like finishing, gun restoration and repair from a staff that is well-versed in firearm regulation.
Kathy Watson drove to Hyatt from Kannapolis Friday evening to pick up a few accessories for her husband. “You always see familiar faces here,” she said. “If they don't know the answer right away, they will do all they can to figure it out.”
The arrival of large retailers like Cabela’s, Gander Mountain and Academy Sports in the area threatens to draw customers away from independent retailers like the Arms Room on South Boulevard, which has been around for about five years.
“I treat people much differently than some hourly employee at a big-box retailer. I’m a little edgier down here, and I think people like that,” said owner and store manager Matt King.
Representatives of Cabela’s, Gander Mountain and Academy Sports did not return messages seeking comment.
The real competitive threat, King says, comes from the Internet, which drives down prices for everyone since consumers can compare costs instantly.
“If you don’t have an online presence, you’re screwed,” King says, adding that promotion through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is also helpful. “If you’re not riding that wave, then you’re hurting yourself.”
Federal law requires licensed gun dealers to do a background check on each sale, but states vary on laws governing permits and private sales. For Charlotte gun retailers, that means figuring out how to attract and maintain the big customer base in South Carolina.
So if a South Carolina customer comes into Hyatt’s store to buy a gun, for example, Hyatt would ship the gun to another federal firearm licensee in South Carolina and charge a transfer fee of $39. The customer would have to go into the South Carolina store to receive his or her background check and to pick up the gun.
Internet sales work basically the same way. It’s illegal to ship a gun to an individual, so when a customer buys a gun online, he or she has to go into the physical store to take care of permits and checks before getting the gun.
Hyatt and Blackstone also have started facilitating private gun sales, which are less regulated than dealers but can carry big liability risks for both parties.
If someone inherited a gun and wanted to sell it, for example, both buyer and seller would come into the store, which would transfer the gun to the buyer. The store would do the background checks. It’s a voluntary way to relieve the seller of liability, Hyatt said.
“It’s like selling a car. It’s not just like a guy gives you $1,000, and you throw him the keys,” he said. “You have to get that title transferred from your name to his.”