Picture a sprawling 30,000-square-foot Best Buy store—only instead of electronic gadgets and games, every aisle inside the big-box center is devoted to firearms, bullets, and “tactical gear.” This is the hot retail concept spreading throughout the Midwest.
Minnesota-based outdoors retailer Gander Mountain is expanding a new concept it first introduced in Wisconsin in 2011: the big-box store devoted almost exclusively to guns and ammo. Three such stores are set to open this month, in Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota.
Don’t come looking for camping gear, mountain bikes, rugged footwear, or other outdoor store standards at these locations. Gander Mountain describes the firearms super center model as “a new concept which will provide a specialty retail outlet focused specifically on fulfilling the needs of firearms enthusiasts, featuring thousands of new and used firearms of all kinds, and the industry’s best selection of firearms accessories, specialty apparel, ammunition and security.”
For Gander Mountain, the model helps it compete better with ultra-big-box retailers like Cabela’s, which is known to operate stores with upwards of 88,000 square feet of space mostly devoted to hunting supplies. The increase in gun sales is the main reason that gun super centers have great growth potential. “Taking a whole store and devoting it to guns is fairly radical but, from a business standpoint, it makes sense,” retail analyst Chris Boring, principal at Boulevard Strategies, told the Columbus Dispatch. “Cabela’s is well known for its hunting and fishing equipment. So it’s a response to that — and it’s also a response to the overwhelming demand for more guns everywhere. I think it’s wise for them to take advantage of unique market conditions.”
The first Gander Mountain Firearms Super Center in Ohio opened in February in Reynoldsburg, a suburb just east of Columbus. In a phone interview, Boring said that Gander Mountain’s gun-focused retail centers will attract some sales away from gun shows and smaller gun stores, but the real competition is Cabela’s, with its huge “destination” stores that boast enormous firearms selections. He also found it especially interesting where Grander Mountain decided to open its Firearms Super Center. “The company had two stores in Columbus, one on the east side and one on the west,” said Boring. “They decided to convert the one on the east side [Reynoldsburg] to the all-guns thing. The west side of Columbus just so happens to be known for gun shows. There’s one almost every weekend. It seems like Gander Mountain didn’t want to compete with the gun shows, which don’t require background checks and aren’t as regulated.”
A second Ohio gun-focused Gander Mountain store, with 31,000 square feet of space devoted to firearms, opened last weekend in Springfield Township, Ohio, near Toledo. Steve Uline, Gander Mountain’s executive vice president of marketing, told the Toledo Blade that the Toledo area is a strong market for gun sales, and that the company is “comfortable with our position” despite controversies regarding rising gun sales and the push for tougher gun control regulations. “We play close attention to what’s going on, but we follow local, and state, and federal laws, and we’re proud to be a firearms retailer,” he said.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that Gander Mountain and Cabela’s are “staging a showdown” in the Minnesota town of Rogers, located northwest of Minneapolis—on the way to popular hunting territory up north. Hunters are already known to frequent the Cabela’s location in Rogers, and now Gander Mountain is opening a 30,000-square-foot guns-only store nearby, inside a former Best Buy.
Gander Mountain’s strong push into the firearms-focused model is meant to take advantage of increased demand for guns, according to Sean Naughton, a Piper Jaffray retail analyst. “Right now there is a spike in demand for guns that is driven by potential changes in legislation, and the fear of consumers that they may not be able to buy some guns in the future,” Naughton told the Star-Tribune in early April, noting that in December 2012, gun sales jumped 48% compared to the same period the year before.
December, of course, is when the tragic mass shooting took place in Newtown, Conn., prompting gun enthusiasts to fear that stricter gun control measures in the future would restrict access to some weapons. Gun stores reported booming sales, apparently for similar reasons, after President Obama was reelected in November 2012, and after the 2008 election as well. In recent months, gun shows in Virginia, Illinois, and other states have drawn record crowds, including many motivated to buy due to concerns of impending gun control measures. One shopper at a gun show in Illinois in February explained his purchase of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle this way: “I’ve always wanted it and now I thought maybe I won’t be able to (buy it) later.”
Now that national gun control measures have been defeated in Congress, the sense of immediacy among enthusiasts to snatch up guns appears to be gone. Firearms enthusiasts don’t seem to have the pressing need to maintain recent buying spree levels, so it’s unclear whether gun sales will keep rising. Boring, of Boulevard Strategies, is skeptical that gun sales can maintain their sharp upward trajectory. “The current levels of growth are unsustainable in the long run,” said Boring. “They just can’t stay on this pace. I mean, how many guns can you possibly have?”
Regardless, Gander Mountain is pressing onward with its new focus on firearms. “This is an area that we are known for and played to our strength,” Uline told MLive, reporting on the Gander Mountain Firearms Super Center grand opening at the end of April in Grandville, Mich., a gala that included giveaways and appearances by stars of the History Channel reality TV show “Swamp People.”
Uline stressed that in addition to weapons, the new super centers emphasize safety, offering customers a huge range of safes, gun vaults, and gun locks. Gander Mountain has also launched a gun safety campaign called “With Rights Come Responsibility,” in which gun owners are encouraged to take a responsibility pledge. “With Rights Comes Responsibility, secure your firearms and keep them out of the hands of the underage, untrained and unauthorized,” Uline explained. “No matter what side of the argument you are on, no one is going to argue with the doctrine to be responsible.”