It’s another busy day at H&H Shooting Sports in Oklahoma City. You hear the “pop-pop-pop” as you enter the front doors from the many handgunners practicing at the indoor shooting range. Customers look over shooting products lining the shelves and are clustered around the gun display floor racks. Local business people are filing in, heading back to one of the H&H conference rooms, where a community group holds their weekly membership meeting.
Meanwhile, the 4UCafé, located to the left of the main doors, is bustling with the lunch crowd; people line the counter, ordering their food and drinks, and there are just a few open seats at the tables. Some of the diners are regular shooters at H&H, others just like the food and atmosphere.
What, no day care?
“Actually, we will be doing that sometime in the future,” says Miles Hall, co-owner of H&H, with a chuckle. “There were a number of requirements that Oklahoma City has in place for such facilities as a day care. We have plans on the board — just waiting on the time and the funds!”
Welcome to what Hall believes is the future of our shooting sports: the all-in-one shooting center, where you can buy a gun, try it out, attend firearms training and maybe have lunch or attend your local Rotary meeting, too.
Ultimately, says Hall, the shooting center, because of its convenience and its positive atmosphere, conveys the message that shooting is a fun and safe form of entertainment. And that message is aimed at a very different demographic than what has been traditionally seen in shooters: urban and suburban, younger people in their 20s to early 40s, many of them married couples with young children. As a group, they are very oriented toward technology, love their iPhone and e-tablets, and are big into social media.
They are also very used to a retail experience typified by that very American institution, the suburban shopping mall, where shopping is seen as a fun and convenient experience.
Hall and his wife Jayne founded H&H in 1981 as an indoor shooting range with 10 50-foot lanes. Since then, H&H Shooting Sports has become one of America’s top shooting venues. Today, it encompasses 90,000 square feet, with 61 shooting lanes, retail space (added in 1996), a number of classrooms and the 4UCafe, which opened in 1999. It also employs 120 people, full and part time, and pulls in an amazing $25 million in annual sales.
The H&H Model
The shooting complex as a business plan is not limited to H&H. Across the country, more and more facilities like this are being built from the ground up. Already established firearms retailers are adding shooting ranges and classrooms, too, while many shooting ranges are adding extensive retail space.
Hall notes that people from the shooting industry come to his facility from all parts of America to see what H&H has done, what it is doing, and how they might apply the H&H lessons to their own operations. And that’s exactly what he wants.
“I really think we have to help each other in this industry, if our industry is to survive and thrive,” says Hall. “The better H&H does and the better your operation does, the better off we all are.”
One of the first things you notice when you walk into H&H is all the space. It’s not simply that the facility is large. The ceilings are clean and white and they help the already-bright lighting “pop” just a bit more. The shooting range areas — behind thick panes of glass — are also well-lit and inviting. The floors gleam. Counters and displays are dust-free. Washrooms? Spiffy!
“I wish I could tell you it was all planned out and we knew exactly what we were doing every step of the way,” says Hall. “But a lot of things came together and we were very fortunate. But we did listen to people, to our patrons, and we did pay attention to what shooting ranges and retailers were doing at the time we started H&H. And a lot of it really didn’t appeal to us.”
Hall says he and his wife are “self-professed mall rats” who came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As teens, they spent lots of time hanging out at the mall. Hall and Jayne got interested in shooting soon after they got married, and they bought their first handgun.
But the shooting ranges they practiced at had many of the same off-putting elements: low ceilings, poor lighting and a minimal selection of ammunition and targets for shooters to purchase. The bathrooms? Flat-out scary. Jayne refused to use them. Hall remembers bullet holes in the walls of one of the men’s rooms.
The Halls loved the shooting, though — the friendly competition with each other, working to improve their skills, the time spent together. It didn’t take long, and they decided they wanted to open their own indoor shooting range. As they did their research and put together their initial business plan, Hall and his wife took what they knew and built it into their vision.
And what they knew was the shopping mall. Lots of space. Good lighting. A family-type atmosphere.
It has all worked amazing well. So well, that in August H&H Shooting Sports was selected as an honoree for the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing companies in the United Sates. In fact, this was the eighth year in a row that H&H made this list!
“Any of the independent retailers today who are building — building large and for the long run — they are including a shooting range within their facility,” says Doug VanderWoude, Range Program Manager with AcuSport Corporation. “It just makes a lot of business sense, given how the shooting market’s changed over the last 30 years, to have that shooting range on site.”
Before he came to AcuSport, one of the country’s top distributors to independent retailers, VanderWoude spent 30 years in the gun shop and shooting range industry, the last seven of those years as the co-owner of a retail-and-range operation in Michigan.
According to VanderWounde, to compete in today’s market, the successful shooting sports center is built upon three facets.
- A top-quality retail operation
- An in-house shooting range
- A full slate of firearms training classes offered on site.
VanderWoude is the first to admit that the shooting sports center is certainly a more expensive undertaking than, say, a small gun shop. Plus, if you go from an FFL retailer to adding a shooting range, that addition comes with a number of regulatory requirements from government entities like the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. More paperwork, more expense.
On the other hand, VanderWoude adds, who are the people entering the shooting sports today and what are their expectations as consumers? In his experience, as a retailer and a consultant, they are the urban and suburban shopping-mall types catered to by Miles Hall and H&H.
“They want things clean and well-lit,” says VanderWounde. “Those low ceilings and yellowing lights you see in so many small gun shops? It makes these people uncomfortable, and they tend not to come back. They expect merchandise to be arranged in a certain logical order. If items A and item B are often bought and used together, they expect those two items to be side by side on your counters.”
And they want their shopping experience to be entertaining and educational, as hands-on as possible.
“Let’s say you are trying to sell a young woman — a first-time gun buyer — a handgun for self-defense,” VanderWoude says. “In one scenario, you talk to her about how to use it, let her hold it, give her some literature, and hope she comes back to buy the gun. In a second scenario, you have a nicely lit shooting range that she can see through the glass, and after the two of you go over some models, you slide over to the range and give her a chance to use a couple of different models.”
In his experience, the young woman in scenario two is much more likely to purchase that handgun. Plus, if you’ve done your job — informed her and made her feel comfortable — there’s a very good chance she will sign up for one of your training classes. She will be back to use the shooting range, too.
Now you’ve created a long-term customer.
It’s More Than Retail
“Training is the key to our operation,” says Edward Santos, owner of Center Target Sports in Post Falls, Idaho, a 16,000-square-foot facility that includes an indoor range with 15 lanes and 4,000 square feet of retail space.
“Right now, we usually have 85 to 90 percent of the space in our classes sold out soon after we announce the classes,” he adds.
It wasn’t always that way. A competitive shooter and firearms instructor for most of his adult life, Santos says Center Target Sports was a 30-year dream of his that he was able to make into a reality in 2004 when he opened the doors on this new business. At first, the results were disappointing.
“I guess I just assumed that if we offered firearms classes, those classes would fill,” Santos says with a chuckle. “Wow, how naïve was I? The community had to get to know us. Once they saw we were for real, and that we were offering a quality experience, then we started seeing fuller classes.”
Santos also acts as a consultant for shooting sports retailers and ranges, and notes that with most shooting “centers” he’s worked with, 60 percent of the gross sales come from the retail side, 30 percent from training, and 10 percent from the shooting range itself.
Hold it. If a shooting range — expensive as they are to build — is only generating 10 percent of your sales, does it make good business sense to even have one?
Without his range, Santos notes, he would lose much of his training ability. And training isn’t simply something that is offered as an enticement to potential retail customers. According to VanderWoude, training can be a real cash cow for the shooting center, generating profits in the 30 to 40 percent range, when many firearms regularly provide only 10 to 14 percent profits.
Shooting ranges also offer other profit opportunities. Companies reserve the Center Target range for team-building events, for example, while a growing number of bachelorette and bachelor parties are regularly scheduled here.
Recently, Santos and Center Target also began offering full-auto machine gun rentals on their range. For $35, customers can rent a 9mm machine gun and get 50 rounds of ammunition — $45 for the same set up in a .45 caliber model.
“We have people who come in all the time, and say to us, ‘Here’s $300 — let me know when I run out of ammo,’ ” VanderWoude says.
Center Target is also doing its part to fight the international trade imbalance. Located just 100 miles south of the Canadian border, Center Target Sports has had more than 400 Canadian citizens visit the facility specifically to have a “full-auto” experience.
“As I tell people I consult with in the industry, that shooting range lets you leverage all the other elements of our business,” says Santos. “Training, try-before-you-buy, hosting community events here, introducing new shooters to firearms — it all makes the bottom line work for us, and the range makes all of that possible.”