Before I begin, the editorial staff here at TTAG has asked me to make sure it’s absolutely clear that I am biased towards small, local retailers. Because I am one. Still, there are a lot of things that big box retailers can do that small box stores can’t and it’s worth taking a look at both options.
The day started like any other. I had a walk-in customer with a problem that nobody over at Academy, Dick’s or Walmart seemed to be able to fix.
The gentleman walked in with an old top break revolver from Smith & Wesson. He wanted some ammo for it and he was having trouble finding any. He first went to Academy and they sold him a box of ammo. That wasn’t the right caliber.
Next, he went to Dick’s across the street. They sold him some ammo that was also wrong. Walmart admitted to not having anything other than the rifle ammo behind the counter. After a search of local gun stores near him, he came to me.
Big Box Store pros: They’re open, convenient locations, lots of selection.
Big Box Store con: They don’t employ the most helpful or knowledgeable staff.
I looked at his gun and although I didn’t have any .38 S&W short ammo, I pointed him to a few places online where he could buy some. He asked if he could return any of the ammo he bought and I told him that most big box stores don’t do returns on ammo.
For those who were wondering, the teenager working at Academy sold him a box of .32 ACP. The person working the counter that afternoon at Dick’s sold him a box of .38 Specials. Both are useful cartridges, but hardly interchangeable with .38 S&W short.
He seemed puzzled that someone who was working in the gun department didn’t know much about guns. I explained to him that the people behind the gun counter are typically not gun people, but warm bodies the store puts there to prevent theft.
I was on vacation recently and visiting some family and I got to witness the grand opening of a new Bass Pro Shop store. I had never been to one, so I walked in and did some browsing. While there, I overheard two employees chatting.
Employee A: You must know a lot about guns to work at the gun counter!
Employee B: Nope. I just showed up and they hired me and told me to stand here and they’d train me later.
That explains so much.
Granted, some smaller retailers – for some reason I can’t fathom, the majority of urban legends, myths, etc. seem to come from pawn shops – have pretty poor reputations as far as being knowledgeable and up to speed on current product lines, features and firearm laws.
I’ve heard both big and small box employees spout factually inaccurate things like it’s illegal to carry hollow point ammunition in Texas, or your gun only needs night sights if you plan on shooting at night. One told a customer that the color of your belt should match your holster…by law.
I’m not making those up. Those were actual conversations that made my head hurt.
Another case that tilts the advantage toward smaller retailers is specialized items. NFA regulated goods, the occasional Barrett MRAD or a Colt slabside. These are items that a Bass Pro, Academy, Cabelas, etc. have no training on and are frequently the source of poor, if any information about.
Big Box Store pros: They have lots of things that you might want to buy.
Big Box Store con: They are in many cases unable/unknowing/unwilling to sell you something exotic that you want because it’s not something they do regularly.
That’s where the smaller retailers can shine, because larger retailers don’t like selling “those kinds of guns.”
Where do big box retailers have an advantage?
Volume lets them bring prices down on a lot of items, and I’ve seen some absolutely smoking deals to be had around Black Friday/Christmas. You have to be a savvy consumer, but if you can spot deals, you can take advantage of their ability to buy en masse.
The downside is everyone else is usually able to spot big savings as well and you’ll be in line with a whole bunch of other folks who want to save a few bucks, too. If you’re patient and don’t mind waiting, your wallet will thank you.
Big Box Store pros: When they decide to make deals, they make some great deals and it’s worth braving the crowds and the mall parking lot for the savings.
Big Box Store con: Everyone else is in the same boat and you’re going to spend an hour in line waiting to get your stuff.
What I’ve always been proud of as a small retailer is the ability to have precision in operations. For example, if I have a customer doing some shopping for a birthday or an anniversary, the first question I like to ask is what’s the deadline?
If thunderstorms in Memphis back up Fedex or a flood hits Louisville, I need to know what’s going on so that special someone gets that special present.
Most big box retailers are able to order stuff, but it’s a giant question mark as to when it will arrive. They’re limited by what their computer and centralized buying group allows them to order. When they open the box, you’ll get a phone call.
Smaller, more agile retailers usually have a dozen vendors they can order from – and it’s almost down to a science where if someone walks in at noon on Wednesday, if my usual (or not so usual) vendors have the item in stock, I can have it here on Thursday at 1:45pm when the big brown or purple and orange truck rolls up.
Whereas a big box store is used to pulling things off the shelf, we’ve got ordering what we don’t have down to a science because we do it so often.
If a customer is under the gun and needs a present for the big party on Saturday or Sunday, we’ve got to use our skills that pay the bills to get a gun here by Friday, cleared of any waiting periods and 4473 complete, pray there are no NICS delays and acquire and apply the appropriate gift wrap and bow.
We have the ability to do that because we do that sort of thing almost daily.
Other folks are bound by what the computer allows them to do and the ordering/shipping process is at times that are not transparent to the employees of large corporations with complex ordering and supply systems.
If timing is a concern, a lot of big box stores stay open late and open up early, including Sundays and Mondays. Smaller retailers often close early on Saturday, entirely on Sunday and sometimes they take a Monday off since they work half or a whole Saturday.
As someone who has worked seven days a week during the busy season, I understand that everyone needs a break. And when your local small retailer isn’t able to fill your needs on a Sunday or Monday – the big box stores are there, able to pick up the slack.
In conclusion, there are advantages and disadvantages to both sides. For more specialty items, a smaller retailer can be more responsive to your needs and competitive on price with better service. And in the case of strange old firearms, they’re a resource that won’t sell you two boxes of the wrong caliber ammo that cannot be returned.
There’s always a balance, and for every customer who prefers a smaller environment with old fashioned service, there are other customers who have no problem braving the mall parking lot and crowds at the gun counter for a deal.
For service on a Sunday or during Christmas/Black Friday – your local big box might have some very big deals with specials that can’t be beat. Plus, you get to browse around and look for gun stuff while your better half is doing some shopping at Macy’s.
You can’t really beat that for convenience.
Don’t be afraid to shop around and find the retailer that suits your needs best.