Is The Shooting Industry Getting It All Wrong?

RICK SAPP — JULY 31, 2015

It’s been a major theme for the shooting sports industry over the past couple of years, but it’s been a difficult problem to reconcile without clear consensus.

How does the firearms market attract a new customer demographic?

It seems a simple question, but the industry has responded so far in fits and starts. That’s something the industry’s top advocacy group is trying to change.

This year’s National Shooting Sports Foundation industry summit in Georgia attacked that problem head on, delivering hard truths to businesses that had relied too much on an older generation of shooters.

The summit theme was recruitment to replace the Baby Boomer generation that has done so much for the shooting sports. No, the post-War generation is not suddenly disappearing, but its members — mostly white men — still make up an overwhelming majority of the hunters, shooters and concealed carry permit holders in the U.S.

The NSSF believes that rapidly retiring demographic is unsustainable in the long run, and hence this meeting sought to alert attendees to looming population trends and to send folks home with an agenda: reach out to women and minorities. Fill our ranks with the generations that have come of age since 1964, individuals who treat a rocket launch as hum-drum, a personal computer and Internet access as a necessity for life, and who take for granted their remarkable individual liberties.

Changing Demographics

America’s demographics are inexorably changing. By the middle of this century, the U.S. will be a nation of nearly 425 million people and, judging from official census information, the U.S. will look quite a bit different than it looks today. In 50 years, white people (Caucasians) will no longer be in the majority.

Barring some unforeseen event, most of America’s net population growth will be among its minorities, as well as in a growing mixed-race population. The number of U.S. residents identifying themselves as being of two or more races is projected to more than triple, increasing to 16 million from its current 6 million, says the Census Bureau, which already differentiates between “Latino” and “Hispanic.”

Latino and Asian populations are expected to nearly triple, and the children of immigrants will become much more prominent. Today in the U.S., 25 percent of children under age 5 are Hispanic; by 2050, that percentage will be almost 40 percent.

Nearly 55 million people now identify as “Latino” or “Hispanic” in the U.S. By 2050 that number will exceed 125 million.

The second-fastest-growing minority in America identifies its roots in Asia or India. That population percentage is now more than 5 percent or above 19 million, and it is expected to double by 2050 to exceed 40 million.

The slowest-growing major ethnic group is black Americans. Blacks number about 42 million people, or between 13 and 14 percent of the population now, but that will increase to 66 million by 2050.

Steve Sanetti, President and CEO of the NSSF noted, “What a difference this is from just a few years ago when the industry was lamenting that it was becoming stale, male and pale.”

Changing Generations

The age chart for America is also changing. The Baby Boom population — the bubble of men and women born between the end of World War II and 1964 — is no longer the dynamic force driving the economy. That group is gradually being overcome by younger generations —Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials. This is significant economically, and it has broad social and political implications as well. It is also deeply significant for the shooting sports.

Baby Boomers (not always American, of course) were an accomplished generation. They put men on the moon and revolutionized portable computing. They enthusiastically took up the outdoor ethic from the tattered pre-war generation. Baby Boomers ensured that endangered populations of wild game would survive and even thrive. Baby Boomers led the reinvigoration of shooting games, from sporting clays to archery, from practical shooting to cowboy and 3-gun competition.

Baby Boomers voluntarily included archery products in the tax on shooting gear through Pittman-Robertson and then watched that hunting opportunity grow to sustain more than 3 million license holders a year.

Still, that generation has struggled to recruit from the outside, build its numbers or even fill its ranks with sustaining children and grandchildren. What those young people appear to be most interested in, at least superficially, is playing computer games, tapping on tiny keyboards and communicating with their friends through social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other websites.

And of course, the problem with failing to recruit and grow is that numbers equate to political power. In an era when the private ownership and use of firearms, the right to “keep and bear arms,” has come under increasing pressure, numbers and a young, vital membership are critical.

Former NSSF President Doug Painter noted during a presentation that exclusivity sells to Millennials — the concept that they were not just another number on the assembly line. He suggested that hunting and fishing in America were actually the basis for the “locovore” movement, people who are interested in purchasing and consuming food that is locally produced, not moved long distances to market.

Summit speaker Seth Mattison, who write Driving Engagement Across the Generations, focused on how business leaders can build a next-generation enterprise by shifting how they do business. While the Baby Boomer generation grew up in the “physical space speaking English,” he says the people needed to refresh and sustain the shooting sports grew up in “digital space speaking Social.”

The difference in generations does not mean, Mattison explained, that the generations cannot communicate. It only means that business leaders need to adapt to the changing demographic in America.

“It’s not about how you want to communicate,” he said, “it’s about how the person you are trying to reach and connect with wants to be communicated with.”

In other words, Mattison echoed Painter’s point about exclusivity by maintaining that newer generations want a more customized experience than “buying off the rack,” and the more a manufacturer or retailer could promote that, the more successful he would be with sales and recruitment.

And “That” 50 Percent

It is probably no surprise that women are half the population. Although their presence in the shooting sports has grown in the last decade, it is still relatively marginal. This growth almost certainly has more to do with expanded opportunities to carry handguns for self-defense than it has to do with the development of low-recoil shotgun shells for trap shooting or the idea to paint handguns pink.

Most speakers — and you might want to check this sentiment against your own store’s surroundings and clientele — felt that the traditional “man cave” design of a gun store was the very thing that drives women away. The gruff, burly salesman who knows more than you do and is impatient with beginners and downright surly with women won’t work.

To attract women who tend to be the primary decision makers when it comes to a household’s disposable income, a retail establishment needs to remodel its design and its staff in a manner similar to that of an Apple computer store — sleek, bright and inviting. Make women feel welcome and they will prove to be loyal customers and will bring their friends inside with them.

Carrie Lightfoot of The Well Armed Woman website gave a presentation titled “What Women Want” that focused on four main ideas.

When women walk into a retail store or out to the line of a shooting range, they want to feel welcome. The traditional gun store drenched in testosterone and steel has an off-putting feel, and many women simply will not visit or shop there.

Women expect that people in business will show them the same courtesy and respect afforded to men. Certainly there are physical differences between men and women, but this should be an opportunity for adding SKUs that sell.

Women want an opportunity to be heard, to ask questions — especially “dumb” questions with answers that are obvious to experienced sales clerks — without having to fear embarrassment. (If they wanted that treatment, she suggested, most women would simply ask their husbands for help and training.)

Finally, women want to build a relationship. Women are “all about relationships,” and if you can promote this in your store or club or even as a manufacturer, maybe through special training classes and social media, you will quickly earn their loyalty.

“When I began thinking about purchasing and carrying a gun several years ago,” Lightfoot wrote, “there was no single resource for a woman gun owner and shooter. I was frustrated and disappointed to discover that there were so few resources out there that provided straightforward and complete information, and products geared specifically toward me as a woman gun owner in this male-driven industry. The information I did find was often condescending and sometimes downright insulting. They simply weren’t talking to me or meeting my needs as a woman interested in gun ownership.”

Lightfoot also took part in a panel discussion with freelance writer and editor Barbara Baird of Women’s Outdoor News, Judy Rhodes of DIVA: Women Outdoors Worldwide and Julianna Crowder of A Girl and A Gun Women’s Shooting League.

Crowder, as it turns out, made one of the fundamental comments of the session: “If mom is shooting, the whole family is shooting.” And thus millions of new customers, new shooting sports participants and supporters are searching for a way to help preserve and expand hunting, shooting and outdoor opportunities in America.

The NSSF presented an industry summit that was drenched in significant, sometimes exciting and sometimes alarming data. But as Mattison pointed out, it isn’t data that moves people to action; stories move people to action.

And so to protect and preserve the future of the shooting sports in America, it is time that we begin to rewrite our own story.

See original story on Shooting Sports Retailer