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Autumn hunt for outdoor gear keeps sporting goods stores busy

by Glen Chase | October 5, 2014 at 2:10 a.m.
Tuesday Shelnutt (left) of Benton checks out the scope on her new Ruger .270 bolt-action ri•e with gun sales associate Eric Carpenter on Thursday at the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Little Rock.

With the fall hunting seasons in Arkansas getting underway, sporting goods retailers are seeing a steady stream of customers shopping for rifles, shotguns, clothing and other hunting gear as outdoorsmen prepare for their favorite fall chase.

"The week before a season opens is typically very, very peak," said Will Anderson, general manager of the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Little Rock, which opened its doors in mid-November last year.

Chuck Lock, co-owner and vice president of Mack's Prairie Wings in Stuttgart, also said sales and store traffic rise and fall with the the seasons and the interests of sportsmen.

So far this year, Lock said, there has been a definite increase in sales at Mack's, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary, as the hunting seasons get underway.

"It's been actually pretty good," Lock said. "This year, I have seen a pretty good spike in people getting ready to deer hunt maybe a little earlier than they normally would."

Getting specific information about the seasonal rise and fall of sporting goods sales can be tough, even for those who track the economic impact of hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities.

While exact firearms sales figures by season aren't available, the number of background checks done by quarter reflects the heightened interest of hunters, according to Jim Curcuruto, director of industry research and analysis for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Background checks required for firearms purchases peaked in the last three months of 2011, 2012 and 2013, compared with other quarters, according to the foundation. While not all the checks were directly tied to firearms used for hunting, Curcuruto said the figures do reflect people getting ready for the fall hunting season.

"They start gearing up in September, October, and November is good," Curcuruto said. "December stays busy through the holidays, there and then things tend to slow down a little bit thereafter." While sales might pick up in January as people spend cash or gift cards, the next rise typically doesn't come until April when turkey season opens in many states.

"The bulk of it, of course, is going to be driven by deer hunting," he said. "Whitetail deer in most states seems to be the main driver of sales. That would be basically the fourth quarter: October, November and December." And, retail sales involve more than firearms as outdoorsmen buy hunting apparel and accessories.

A 2011 national survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that about $1.7 billion was spent in Arkansas in 2010 on outdoor activities including fishing, hunting and wildlife watching. The survey said that the 555,000 anglers, 363,000 hunters and 852,000 wildlife watchers that year each spent on average $846, $2,792 and $253, respectively, on their activity over the course of the year.

That report said that hunters in Arkansas spent slightly more than $1 billion that year on equipment and other hunting related expenses. The report said the 363,000 people who hunted that year spent a combined 10.9 million days in the field.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is no different when it comes to seeing a jump in sales in outdoors items in the fall, whether it's firearms or ammunition, apparel or other gear, said Cathy Towle, senior category director of hunting and fishing for Walmart U.S.

"Fall is obviously kickoff for archery and then we move into deer-gun later on," said Towle, noting that hunting is viewed as a "heritage category for us. It's one of those categories that Sam [Walton, the retailer's founder] built Wal-Mart on."

Given the different needs of customers from state to state, as well as different wildlife and fishing regulations, Towle said that Wal-Mart buyers work to ensure that stock is compatible with what customers want and what season is at hand. She said every Wal-Mart Supercenter has a sporting goods department, which may including hunting, fishing and camping merchandise.

"The current term now is localization. It's at the heart of what we do," Towle said. "Buyers and their teams dig in at a store-by-store level," and also consult with suppliers about what they are seeing in the market to ensure that what is stocked on shelves is accurate for the market.

"We do look at a store for what they should be classified as, whether it's for dove, waterfowl, turkey, deer, deer as in archery or deer gun, or muzzleloading or black powder, all of that," she said. Figuring out how to respond to customer needs has become complex, she said, from firearms to hunting gear, such as apparel. "Some people like RealTree [a camouflage pattern] more than Mossy Oak, or more of a brush versus a more desert look."

The archery deer season opened in Arkansas on Sept. 27, according to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission website. The modern gun deer season opens Nov. 8 and the waterfowl season will start Nov. 22.

Anderson said customer counts at Bass Pro Shops rise in the week before various seasons start, and that the hunting season rush continues into Christmas. "It really is the kickoff to our Christmas season. They run together."

As each season opens, more customers come to the store to gear up while the customers who came early to outfit themselves for earlier seasons return to restock, he said.

Towle said that in Arkansas, the fall sales upswing in the store's hunting and fishing departments is only slightly less than during the Christmas shopping season. She said that knives, youth archery gear and firearms all do well as gifts.

Lock agreed that the hunting season rush at Mack's leads into Christmas shopping.

"About Nov. 15 is when it really, really gets haywire," he said. "Ours really cranks up then and then runs all the way through the end of January" when duck season ends.

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