(Continued from Part 1.)
Not Just Guns
There is a lot more for sale at gun shows than just serialized modern guns. Magazines are always good sellers. In fact, your average guy walking in to a show cannot afford to buy another gun, at any given show. But he usually wants and can afford to buy a few magazines. It is magazines that have always been my “bread and butter” sellers, at gun shows. There is also a lot of money to be made with ammunition, but that as a primary inventory should only be considered by men under age 50, with strong backs!
There is also a lot of money in optics. Those have a high profit margin, and are relatively compact and lightweight to transport and store, per dollar value. Another advantage is that they are fairly noncontroversial, and can be sold at sites such as eBay.
Books can be profitable, but it is best to mainly sell books that relate to your firearms specialty. They are heavy to lug around from show to show and tend to be slow sellers, so keep your book inventory small, and specialized. Also, one word of warning: If your main inventory consists of dirty military surplus or greasy items, then don’t sell any books. Otherwise, countless grubby fingers will end up soiling your books, making them un-sellable.
Bayonets and knives also tend to be steady sellers. Avoid selling any junky Chinese knives, or it will make your entire inventory look suspect. For liability reasons, you should prominently post a sign that reads: “No knife handling allowed by anyone under age 18!”
Selling holsters can be problematic. This is because they are sized items. This is something akin to running a shoe store–it takes a huge inventory to keep all customers happy. The inventory turn-over for modern holsters is painfully slow. So your inventory of new holsters gets toted around to dozens of shows, and ends up looking like a bunch of used holsters. One notable exception is specializing in selling antique holsters with marks from famous makers. Those sell quite well at cowboy-themed gun shows in the western states. If you want to try this, you really should get a copy of Richard Rattenbury’s outstanding reference book, Packing Iron .
Authentic Western and Native American artifacts sell quite well, especially at cowboy gun shows in the western states. But be warned: This is a very specialized market, and it takes a lot of research.
One growing market segment is 80%-complete frames and receivers. These days, you could easily fill two or three tables and have brisk sales, if you sold nothing but 80% AR lowers, 80% Glock frames, 80% SIG P320 pistol trigger group modules, along with the requisite completion parts. I’ve often thought that this would be a good biz for someone. Ideally, you’d hunt around and find a police department that is retiring one model of Glock, and make a deal to have them strip (and discard or destroy) the frames and then sell you the full parts sets. Those, combined with an 80% frame, would sell sell like hotcakes!
Specialty non-gun items can be profitable, but just be advised that their markets can be fickle. And you will also be up against online sellers. Yes, there is a lot of money in selling ear muffs, shooting glasses, and targets–since those have broad appeal–but profit margins on them can be thin, and many of those items tend to be bulky (per dolllar.) How many pairs of earmuffs do you have to sell to make $1,000 in profit, versus selling 1st Generation Colt Single Action revolvers? If you limited yourself to high end antique revolvers, then your entire inventory (worth $50,000+) could fit in just two tote bins!
JWR’s Rules For Gun Shows
I’ve developed a few rules for gun shows, over the years. Your experience may differ, but for what they are worth, here are my rules:
- Don’t trade hard items for soft items. Remember: It is a gun show. Don’t arrive with guns and then come home with a pile of holsters and slings.
- Don’t trade compact items for bulky items. Read: Don’t trade handguns for long guns. (Do it the other way around.)
- Don’t trade light for heavy. For example, don’t trade guns for ammunition unless the trade ratio is so favorable that you know you’ll make a huge profit on the ammo, quickly.
- Never buy something that you believe won’t likely resell within the same day or at least by the end of your next scheduled next show.
- Don’t buy or trade for junk. Always try to trade up. Nobody wants to buy old single shot .22s. That is, unless they are made by Anshutz, Tikka, or Winchester!
- Don’t specialize in something too obscure or arcane. The bigger your market, the larger your gross sales.
- Don’t buy a gun that is missing its magazine or another part unless you are certain that you have a source for an exactly correct replacement.
- Get to know as many wholesale level dealers and importers as you can, as quickly as possible. They have the good stuff (often military surplus) in huge quantities that they bought for a pittance, but you have the face time with customers. The wholesalers and importers should be willing to cut you slack on prices, since you will be buying from them regularly.
- Unless you are at a jam-packed show, greet everyone who approaches your table with a smile and a hello. Eye contact is crucial–or they will likely cruise by without hardly glancing at what is on your table.
- Always ask your would-be buyer what he is looking for. You might just have it in one of your overstock bins beneath your table.
- There is arbitrage between face-to-face transactions versus Internet sales on eBay and other web sites. I know many dealers who do a brisk business online, based on their detailed knowledge of prevailing prices. So when they attend gun shows, they spend more time as “pickers” than they do selling.
- Never buy junky aftermarket magazines, or accept them in trade.
- Carry your reference books and magazine article photocopies with you.
- Always keep a pair of wire cutters (for cutting plastic cable ties), a bore inspection light , a bottle of oil, and a few bore snakes  handy.
- Carry a small kit of basic gunsmithing hand tools with you: Brass hammer, pin punches, screwdrivers, and Allen wrenches.
- If, after checking your references, you are uncertain of the value of a gun, don’t hesitate to ask a nearby dealer who is more experienced. They will count that as a compliment.
- When evaluating a gun brought in by a “walker”, point out its defects (wear, tear, or lack of originality) Those count as mental points in the dickering equation.
- Keep some dummy cartridges handy. Those are useful for checking bore erosion at the muzzle.
- If you begin to specialize in one particular type of gun (or of a particular chambering), then invest in dummy cartridges, go/no-go gauges, and perhaps even a throat erosion gauge.
- Develop a rapport and then redirect the conversation and your gaze to some of your merchandise. Their eyes will follow.
- Encourage qualified adult buyers to pick up your merchandise. I’m famous for saying: “Pick it up and bond with it!” That is much more than just a jest. Once someone holds something, they subconsciously start to think of it is as their own, and then they don’t want to walk away without it.
- Offer discounts for people who buy items in quantity.
- Generally: Don’t invest your time talking up expensive merchandise to anyone under age 30. It is the older guys who usually have the fat money clips. So talk trinkets and accessories with the young folks and “high end” with the old guys.
- Never approach some walker about buying a gun when he is talking to another dealer, at his table. That is considered “poaching”, and a big no-no.
- Don’t be shy about pointing out the bargains on your table. Get them looking. The longer they are looking at your merchandise and prices, then the more likely they are to buy.
- If a customer asks “How is the show going?” (they often do, just to be friendly), then answer with: “Busy! So my prices must be right!” That may get them looking seriously at your merchandise.
- When handing a used gun (or other merchandise) to a potential buyer, it is often good to point out a flaw. (Such as: “I have to mention that this has had sling swivels added. Those aren’t factory original.” Or: “As you can see, there is some holster wear, here at the muzzle.”) They’ll appreciate your honesty.
- But when the buyer points out a flaw on a gun you are selling, then have a positive comeback ready, such as: “And that’s why I have it priced so low.”
- Never accept a trade (or buy) any item if it is something that you wouldn’t consider keeping in your own collection. Buy the items that you are sure to re-sell. This is also important, because at some point you will want to quit doing shows, and what you have left will be in your collection.
- As a private seller, do not needlessly create paper trails. Such paperwork degrades personal privacy for both the buyer and seller. However, be prepared to provide a bill of sale , upon request.
- Trade and sell with both today’s profits and the well-being of your grandchildren in mind.
- If you label prices on your items (and you should!), then price items at retail and then be willing to negotiate down. (There is an old saying: You can negotiate down, but you can’t negotiate up from a marked price.)
- Spend most of your time standing. That will keep you alert for shoplifters and engaged with customers. If hard concrete floors bother your feet and legs, then buy a closed-cell foam floor mat, such as those used by hair stylists.
- Once you’ve established that a customer is going to buy a particular gun, then start talking bundling. (“Since you’re buying this rifle, I can let you have up to eight of these 30-round magazines for just $10 each, which is close to my cost.” Or: “Will you be looking for a sling for that?”)
- Watch your table like a hawk. Leave your smart phone in your pocket, except for emergencies or to compare prices.You are not at the gun show to play Tetris! There are shoplifting thieves wandering about, so beware.
- If you have any compact, high dollar value items such as jewelry, coins, or high-dollar handguns, then invest in one or more glass-top tabletop display cases . Add a lock hasp and lock them overnight, or whenever you are away from your table. Save the boxes that the cases come shipped in, so that you can safely carry the cases from show to show.
- If you have lots of handguns, then invest in a sturdy security cable system.
- Never leave your tables unattended. If you must leave them, then drape them. That takes just a few seconds.
- Above all: Buy low and sell high.
Tomorrow, in Part 3, I will discuss legalities, taxes, cost tagging, and accounting.
(Part 3 will conclude the series. – JWR)