Dick’s Sporting Goods announced this week it will pull guns and ammunition off the shelves of 125 of its 720 stores.
The move comes as Dick’s, the nation’s largest sporting goods retailer, is getting squeezed by specialty competitors and big-box stores looking to claim a piece of the ever-growing “athleisure” market. It also came before the latest episode of horrific gun violence that left 50 dead at two mosques in New Zealand.
The decision is part of a trend that is redefining what belongs in a sporting goods store, experts say.
Where once outdoorsy consumers convened for fishing tackle, camping tents and shotgun slugs, parents and children now gather for sneakers, soccer balls and their favorite team’s T-shirt.
“Dick’s is really the last man standing among the national sporting goods chains and what you’re seeing it do is adjust its merchandise to meet consumer preferences in a shifting retail landscape,” said Brian Nagel, senior equity research analyst at investment bank Oppenheimer.
And in large part, gun buyers aren’t going to sporting goods stores such as Dick’s for their firearms. Only 6 percent of rifle buyers bought their weapons from sporting goods retailers in 2018, according to Southwick Associates’ study of segmentation in the firearms market.
Instead, more than one in three consumers purchased guns from local firearm-specific shops and more than 15 percent bought them online. Gun buyers were also twice as likely to buy from an outdoors specialty store, such as Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s or Field & Stream, than a general sporting goods store.
That’s because the business of selling — and buying — a gun is more akin to that of other complex outdoorsy items, such as a kayak or a bicycle, experts say. Consumers often want to test how a gun fits and feels. They might have questions about its use and care and need to consult store clerks.
“Guns are a real technical product. The array of choices is pretty enormous. Add to that the array of accessories and ammunition that go with it,” said Marc Cohen, director of retail studies at the Columbia University Business School. “Customers gravitate based on their outlook to the most expedient location. They’ve probably gravitated away from Dick’s for a few years.”
And selling guns is an expensive business.A salesperson knowledgeable about guns costs more to employ than one knowledgeable about baseball bats, Cohen said. Training staff to adhere to federal and state laws governing firearm sales takes a lot of resources. Guns are also pretty big. They take up a whole lot of shelf space that could be used for other products that are easier to sell.
Ed Stack, Dick’s chairman and chief executive, had the company halt assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazine sales after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018. The assailant purchased a gun legally at a Dick’s location before the attack, but didn’t use that particular firearm in the assault.
But this week’s decision is not political, Stack told investors in an earnings call on Tuesday.
“This is around having productive space,” he said. “There is some places that the hunt business is very good, other places that it’s not very good. And we’re just allocating floor space to make our [products] more productive.”
The sporting goods sector has found that production sits in the fashion and athleisure space, rather than outdoorsy activities, and especially hunting, said Neil Saudners, managing director of Global Retail Data. A customer can wear a Nike sweatshirt with their favorite team’s logo pretty much anywhere. They can only use a gun to do one thing.
“The traditional definition of sporting goods are products that you’ve used for sport or other recreational activities and now there’s been a fusion with fashion,” he said. “You have a lot more people who might wear sports tops to wear casually or who will buy sneakers for fashion. I think that has confused the category a bit.”
Dick’s decision to drop guns is a statement that sporting goods are not necessarily about the equipment necessary for sport and more about the items associated with the most popular sports, including prominent teams and athletes.
Dick’s is slowly withdrawing from the outdoor market, Cohen said, and hoping with this strategic move it won’t leave too many customers behind.
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