Utilizing auction websites and having good descriptions of your product, along with clear photos, can help retailers realize more profits. (Photo: Doug Larsen)

Brick and mortar retail sellers — those with a fixed location where customers walk in the door — have been competing with mail order sellers for well over 100 years. They have also thrived while adapting to changes in the retail environment. Big box chain stores have become commonplace and continue to threaten small proprietors, but those small gun retailers fill a need that the large box stores do not: they continue to serve a customer who wants to buy from a seller who provides more personalized service.

In recent years though, brick and mortar gun retailers have been faced with another competitor, and that is websites through which retailers and even individuals sell guns to customers they will never see face-to-face. Those sales sometimes involve online auctions while others are classified advertisements in digital form rather than those on printed paper that are hand delivered by mail or a paper boy the old fashion way. The problem as seen by many retailers is that those online sellers are able to reach into the retailer’s local market, which had been difficult to penetrate before the internet became ubiquitous.

This Nagant 1895 could be one of the items up for online auction and bring a few dollars to the seller with minimal time or effort. (Photo: Doug Larsen)

But while some retailers may curse the internet intrusion into their backyard, others recognize the opportunity it provides to expand their own market and to entice more local buyers into their stores.

John Robertson’s gun store, Robertson Trading Post in Henderson, Tennessee, was founded in 1952 by his father and uncle. Robertson said using the internet to sell guns has helped his store to survive. In fact, he reports, that even though he has one brick and mortar location, he really runs two stores — the store with the door and the one on the internet.

Robertson primarily uses GunsAmerica for online sales and explains, “GunsAmerica has good people on staff that know how to do business. It’s like an internet listing service for dummies. It’s pretty simple.”

But using the internet to sell guns over long distances without ever seeing the buyer also allows local residents to see his listings online, which brings new customers to his store. Many of those customers are younger, something that is important to the perpetuation of the shooting sports and the survival of any business. As long time customers grow older, they eventually stop buying guns and equipment, so retailers need a steady stream of new buyers to take their place.

Jim Van Gilder is the President of GunsAmerica, an online gun and equipment listing enterprise that offers auctions and classified advertising to the gun community. Started in 1997, it now counts over 10,000 retail gun sellers using its services. He says that “Selling online increases a retailer’s visibility in its area and drives local customers into the store.”  At the same time, selling online broadens the customer base so more potential buyers are seeing the inventory which also boosts sales.

How it Works

GunsAmerica offers two basic ways for retailers to sell guns. A retailer can post a gun for auction or list a gun in a classified advertisement, much the same way it used to be done in print. But classified ads on the web can offer much more content than a print ad. And that allows the seller to convey more information to potential buyers increasing the chance that the buyer will take action to make a purchase.

Having clear, crisp images, such as this one of a Nighthawk Predator, can give online auction customers more information about the product. (Photo: Doug Larsen)

Van Gilder estimates that about 70 to 80 percent of listings on GunsAmerica are classified advertisements and the balance are guns put up for auction. If a seller has a gun that is difficult to value or is not a popular gun in the seller’s locality, an auction can serve the retailer by exposing the gun to a larger buying base thereby getting the best price possible.

So why do sellers use GunsAmerica classified advertisements more than auctions? Two reasons are that newspapers and other classified print media are losing circulation and few websites allow guns to be listed. Additionally, classified ads on GunsAmerica just seem to work, and there is no charge for listing a gun that is sold over the counter or to a local buyer. That is a major difference between GunsAmerica and its closest competitor, GunBroker. (Despite repeated requests for information, GunBroker never responded.)

If a buyer searches for a gun on GunsAmerica, the first listings at the top of the page are always those posted by retailers in the buyer’s locale. And since most buyers would rather deal face-to-face with a seller where the merchandise can be examined and shipping and transfer fees can be avoided, buyers will usually make the trip into the store to look at the gun. So the seller not only avoids advertising fees if the gun is sold across the counter, but also has the opportunity to sell accessories or other items to the customer. And, he may create a return buyer.

Van Gilder says there is more to GunsAmerica than just listing guns for sale either in classifieds or on auction. He characterizes the site as a dealer service platform. For example, GunsAmerica will send an email for special buying occasions like Black Friday to all readers in a store’s trade area. Any dealer with a GunsAmerica account merely completes an online form providing information that is used to create an email customized for the store. And there is no charge to the dealer.

What Van Gilder says is backed up by retailers interviewed for this article.

Jamie Torino operates The Exchange located in Brookings, South Dakota. She has been using GunsAmerica to sell guns since 2005, more than 10 years, and also operates her own website, onlinegundeals.com. About 60 to 70 percent of sales are online while the remaining are transacted with walk-in customers at her main street retail location. She says, “GunsAmerica has treated us very well and helped grow our business.” She explains that the service has introduced the store to new customers by helping them find the guns they want. “Customers can check our inventory online before driving to the store. Some people will drive an hour or more for a gun they see posted on GunsAmerica.”

Despite being located in a town with a population of less than 25,000, with GunsAmerica, The Exchange is able to sell to a much larger customer base living in all parts of the country. That helps turn inventory and generates income a small store in a small town might never realize.

Besides selling guns online, Torino offers transfer service for locals who buy a gun online from a seller in another part of the country. “It’s another source of revenue,” she explains.

Also located in South Dakota, but in Rapid City, which is considerably larger than Brookings, is First Stop Guns (firststopguns.com) owned by Mark Blote. He says, “We’ve been using GunsAmerica since 2001 and it has been good for our business. It gives us another venue to sell niche items or guns that don’t sell well in Rapid City.”

According to Blote, First Stop Guns has over 450 listings on GunsAmerica. He sells a variety of guns online from SIG pistols to Dakota Arms rifles, and while he does post guns for auctions, most of his listings are fixed price classified items. He likes the fact that he doesn’t pay for a listing on GunsAmerica until after the gun is sold. “That’s a nice feature.” he says.

He cautions that the seller must know his market when venturing into online selling. For example, he uses GunBroker to list auction guns because he thinks it gets more bidders than GunsAmerica. On the other hand, he uses GunsAmerica for classified advertising. When he has a special foreign gun like a Belgium Browning, for example, he turns to Guns International because he believes it is frequented by more buyers for that type of gun.

When asked how much time it takes to list guns online compared to making an in-store sale, the general consensus of sellers interviewed was that it is no more time consuming than selling a gun over the counter. On average it takes about 15 minutes to do a posting. And none of the retailers interviewed expressed concern for difficulties in shipping guns sold to online customers or with getting paid for online sales. Firearm shipments are always made to licensed dealers in the customer’s area who handle the legal transfer of the gun according to federal and local laws, and guns are not shipped until payment is received.

Whether new guns or used, common or scarce, many retailers are taking advantage of the expanded market offered by the internet. And online selling services like GunsAmerica have even saved some businesses from closing when face-to-face sales have declined.

It used to be essential that a retailer be listed in the telephone directory, but no longer. Now a retail establishment must have an internet presence, and online selling services like GunsAmerica help fill that requirement with little effort on the part of the seller.

For more information, email customerservice@gunsamerica.com or visit gunsamerica.com.

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