What’s the role of retailers after a shooting?

Last week’s announcement by Walmart in response to mass shootings in two of its stores that they are cutting out certain lines of guns and ammunition received wide coverage as a harbinger of more considered firearm retail.

But how responsible and magnanimous was this gesture really in the world’s biggest civilian firearm market?

A nation drowning in weaponry

According to Statista, in 2018 about 43 per cent of US households had at least one gun. However there is a degree of concentration; a 2016 Harvard-Northeastern study found that 3 per cent of US adults own half the country’s firearms. And according to the Journal of Injury Prevention, omitting the top 3 per cent of gun owners who have  more than 25 guns, the average number of firearms held by US gun owners is five. Which still feels like rather a lot for an individual or household.

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The US now has more civilian guns than people, the inflection point being 2008. The 2017 global Small Arms Survey revealed, unsurprisingly, the US as having the highest global per capita ratio of guns to people, at 120 guns per 100 people, more than double the ratio of second-place-getter Yemen. The same survey indicated that the US accounted for 393 million, or 46 per cent, of the worldwide total of 857 million civilian-held firearms, despite representing only 4.4 per cent of the world’s population at the time (it also houses 22 per cent of the world’s prisoners). India had the second-highest number of civilian guns at 71 million, although the penetration rate was only 5.3 guns per 100 people. For comparison, Australia had 3.5 million guns and 14.5 per 100 people.

At any rate, it therefore follows that the US retail scale of firearms is vast.

A focus on hunting

The vast majority of civilian guns are sold by specialty gun and ammunition stores, and sporting and outdoor goods chains such as Dick’s and Bass Pro Shops for hunting. About half of Walmart’s more than 4750 US stores sell firearms, or only around 2 per cent of all US firearms. The latest move will leave Walmart focused on weapons for hunting, including deer rifles, shotguns and related ammunition. 

However, Walmart sells around 20 per cent of the US’s civilian ammunition. By CEO Doug McMillon’s estimation, discontinuing sales of short-barrel rifle ammunition such as .223 calibre and other sizes that can be used on assault-style weapons (once it has sold through its current inventory commitments) would reduce its share of the US ammunition market to somewhere between 6 and 9 per cent. This would mean a theoretical loss of US$200 million in annual revenue, down from US$418 million to under US$200 million.

But they may more than make up for it in other areas.

If not guns, maybe toys?

According to a 2013 CNS news article, hunters constituted only 16 to 18 per cent of the estimated 70 to 80 million gun owners in the US in 2011. However, Strategic Resources Group points to a decline in the number of people hunting and fishing, and firearm sales have similarly declined.

In response, Dick’s Sporting Goods removed all guns and other hunting products out of a number of its stores. In the initial test of 10 stores without guns, it found overall sales improved from allocating the floor space to other products. Depending on the results from the other 125 stores from which it has since removed guns, it may pull the hunting business from the chain altogether.

Since the demise of Toys R Us, there has been pressure on Walmart to allocate more space in-store for toys, one of Walmart’s fastest growing segments. It can reasonably be assumed that firearm and ammunition space would be given over to toys to leverage this trend.

Late to the party

It could be argued that it took shootings in its own backyard to get Walmart to react. It had made some moves previously, such as removing displays of violent video games, the cessation of sale of toys that look like assault rifles, and the 2015 halt to sales of modern sporting rifles such as the AR-15, and it had stopped selling handguns everywhere but in Alaska in 1993. It is now asking customers not to bring “open carry” weapons into its stores, although concealed weapons are OK when allowed by state law.

Two of Walmart’s largest competitors, Target and Amazon, do not sell firearms. Kroger exited the firearms and ammunition business altogether in 2018 when its Fred Meyer stores ceased category sales due to a combination of customer feedback and declining sales, and at the same time the retailer requested, perhaps hypocritically, customers not to bring guns into stores even when allowed by local laws following similar initiatives by Starbucks, Target and Wendy’s. Levi Strauss began such requests in 2016, along with donating $1 million to activists working to end gun violence.

In 2018 Walmart raised the minimum age for gun purchases to 21 from 18, although it was hardly the first to do so and only after pressure by activists in the wake of the 2018 Parkland, Florida, high school shootings. That year a number of corporations including Hertz, Delta Airlines, United Airlines and Metlife announced discontinuation of discount programs for the estimated five million NRA members. The insurer Chubb said it would stop underwriting NRA-branded insurance policies for gun owners which cover legal costs in self-defence shootings.

Walmart is treading a fine line between embracing its hunting heritage and behaving as a responsible retail citizen. Supporters of stricter gun laws believe that as the US’s largest retailer (even if only 2 per cent of the firearm sales), Walmart can wield considerable influence on the gun debate, and send a strong message to Congress and other corporations to take action. However, to date, it has mostly responded to political and consumer feedback and pressure rather than taking proactive steps.

With anticipated channel shift from Walmart to specialty gun and ammunition stores, it is to be hoped that the prospect of increased revenue from toy sales may spur Walmart to further action in firearm retail regulation.

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