By Peter B. Mathiesen
“From the Counter” is the NSSF’s timely industry perspectives from firearm retailers across the country. Our goal is to highlight innovative market strategies helping retailers compete more successfully. Lessons learned are drawn from an array of regions with diverse market economies in an era of political change. This month we visit a midsize independent retailer in the northern suburban area of Portland, Maine.
Howell’s Indoor Range & Gun Shop, Gray, Maine
Located just 15 miles north of Portland, Howell’s Indoor Range and Gun Shop is a 27,000-square-foot FFL that sells a mix of archery, soft goods and firearms — the last dominates the mix. This retailer stocks an average of 2,000 firearms, with about half pre-owned and 150 units set aside for rentals. Expanded in 2016, the new facility also boasts 12 25-yard shooting lanes.
There are, on average, 10 full- and five part-time employees. Hours are Monday through Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and Sunday 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Grease and Skeet
While founder Howell Copp began his career in his father’s auto repair shop, a talent for skeet shooting ultimately took him down a different road. He quickly found that traveling and competing in the National Skeet Shooting Association (NSSA) was more attractive than oil changes and bodywork.
It was the early 1980s when the 20-year-old Copp saw opportunity in a 24-acre property that had been in foreclosure. Near his father’s body shop, he agreed to a high 10-percent mortgage at $789.22 per month, set up some shelves and opened his first store with just 28 guns.
His first employee was a part-time college student who did her homework at the front counter while he continued to work at his dad’s shop, coming next door whenever a customer dropped by. It took a few more years of crossing the lawn and driving a wrecker at night to pay the bills before he felt comfortable devoting himself fully to the new business. Today, Howell’s has emerged as one of the larger independent, best-practices firearm retailers in the state of Maine.
The Right Financial Partner
Howell readily admits his store expanded over three decades in stages, without the most sophisticated display and marketing planning.
“Our shop wasn’t as bright, organized or as clean and it could have been. To grow beyond that stage, I knew the building had to change in a large way,” he said.
Howell contemplated expanding the store to become a much larger retail and indoor shooting facility. The plan eventually grew into a 15,000-square-foot building accompanied by a bank loan that dwarfed the financing he used to start the business years ago.
Copp’s son Adam, now the CEO, managed the expansion. With two years of planning and market research completed, there remained the challenge of financing.
“I thought a larger bank was what our company really needed,” Copp said. “It turned out that the large corporate structure made them less nimble and slow to respond. That gave us the feeling that our company had little interest to them.”
The Copps eventually enlisted a small local credit union, believing they would have more skin in the game. As negotiations moved forward, the Copps were convinced the local bank had the motivation to make the new operation a success.
“Our credit union pulled together the largest loan in their history, and we have never looked back. They understand our business, know our names and appreciate what we bring to the community,” he said.
Even then, expansion meant meeting and exceeding the high standards required to implement best practices in the retail and range industry.
“I was always a build-it-myself kind of guy, and this was a different animal,” Copp said. The new build included engineers, architects and contractors, an expenditure of more than $4 million and an investment in long hours by Copp’s son.
“I would have never thought to expand in this way. It took a younger eye to see the value and scale of this project,” Copp Sr. explained.
Selling Responsibility, Not Just Safety
Every firearm sold at Howell’s includes serious discussions with each customer regarding safe firearms handling, storage and transport. Customers are encouraged to buy safes, lockable storage devices and other safety accessories.
“We go through this with every FFL transaction in the store, regardless whether you’re a first-time buyer or a long-time customer,” Copp said. “This is one of the many ways we present responsible ownership to our community,” he said. An unexpected benefit is the staff sees first-time shooters embracing their new obligation and old-guard customers demonstrating an increased level of responsibility with the ownership of their existing firearms.
“We are frequently selling safes to older shooters who now realize they need to raise their safety game,” Copp added. “Having all your firearms securely locked up at home is one way we prove to the community that we are responsible gun owners,” he said.
Lessons Learned From The Counter
- Old School Hard Work — No one who gets into the retail business should expect an easy 9-to-5 existence. Success takes commitment and vision. While a $100,000 mortgage doesn’t seem like much today, Copp worked two jobs for several years to realize his dream.
- Controlled Growth — A changing firearms retail landscape didn’t slow down this retailer’s choice to grow. Once the research showed the need and with encouraging demographics, the company moved ahead.
- Generational Insight — While a younger employee may not have the experience or management background to run an established business, he or she can bring value in other ways. A passionate, talented member of your staff may have the insight needed to lead more veteran staff to explore expanding into a new market.
- Selling Responsibility — Customers understand when they purchase a firearm at Howell’s that their purchase comes with a responsibility to the local community and to the shooting sports. Offering gun safes and providing information on the safe storage and transport of firearms is good business.