Gun dealers adjust to online competition

Local gun dealers say online firearms sales are both a source of competition and an opportunity to reach customers who live out of the area. But like other brick-and-mortar retailers, local gun dealers John Thyne and Evan English said the key to attracting customers to their shops is to make the in-store experience shine.

For example, Thyne, owner of Peabody Sports in Warren County, markets himself as a “gun concierge.” His store website promises customers “a personalized and specialized gun buying or selling experience” and the best prices.

“The brick-and-mortar stores have to focus more on that customer experience,” such as helping customers learn how to take care of their gun or showing them how to use it, said Glenn Platt, professor of marketing and director of interactive media studies at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business.

Just as Amazon has altered the retail terrain for booksellers, hardware stores and record shops, the rise of online gun sales has changed things for federally licensed gun dealers who run their businesses from storefronts across the country.

“It’s no understatement to say (internet commerce) has changed everything,” Platt said. “If nothing else, the core of the digital revolution and the internet revolution has been in reducing information friction — it was hard to match people who wanted to know something with people who knew something.”

By that he means the internet makes it easier for someone to find exactly what they are looking for without leaving home.

Gun dealers have always faced competition from each other, and from private sellers who are freed from regulations requiring background checks and paper records that are mandatory for dealers. Gun shows also provide competition.

But the internet — by its sheer size and searchability — expands the level of competition. Thyne likened the internet to a modern version of Trading Post, a once ubiquitous and now defunct regional classified advertising newspaper where people found cars, washing machines and other used items.

He and English, president of Olde English Outfitters in Tipp City, both have websites and also sell on other online sites, where they tend to focus on niches. Thyne said he mostly sells collectibles online. English said he’s developed his own online auction presence and has found the web particularly useful in selling high-powered hunting rifles to people in western states where more hunting with those type of rifles is permitted.

“I really think it’s done for the industry what it’s done for my store,” said English. “It’s only added. It hasn’t really taken away from what you’ve done locally, bricks and mortar.”

English said his internet business used to be very small but has grown to 7 to 10 percent of his sales.

One thing that is different for gun dealers than other retailers is they can charge a transfer fee when a seller needs to use the dealer to complete a transaction. With the exception of a few states, private parties may generally complete an in-state gun transaction without a background check. But out-of-state sales must go through a dealer, who does the required background check. English charges a $35 transfer fee and Thyne charges $30.

“It’s kind of ‘found money,’ ” said Thyne, estimating that 5 percent of his business comes from transfers.

English’s father, the founder of the company, was always bothered when someone came in wanting the store to handle a transfer for a private sale or another dealer, particularly if it was an item the store carried.

“We had to change our minds about that,” English said. “That person walking in the door is an opportunity.”

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