Bill Carter was born in a small North Carolina town in 1934, and his wife Ellen was born in New York City. Bill’s love of firearms began at age eleven when he purchased his first gun, a used Winchester 22 pump, with paper route money. His love for guns and hunting continued to grow from there! A veteran of the North Carolina National Guard and the Marine Corps reconnaissance unit, he was sent to Korea about the time of the cease-fire and end to the conflict. He liked the marines and considered a career there. But he couldn’t become an officer because of his lack of education. So he left the Marine Corps in 1956 to get a couple years of college, but he never went back. He spent time as a seaman on merchant ships. “I found myself coming to Houston a lot.” The magic was there “because you could always get a job in Houston,” Carter said. “I never say that word that I don’t still get that special feeling.” Bill met his future wife in New Jersey, the other end of his shipping route. “I finally talked her into marrying me, and said, “Hey, let’s go to Houston.” Carter got a job as an ironworker, and he made more money than he had ever made before. Ellen Carter worked at Hermann Hospital’s emergency room. When they got settled, he started doing work for his fellow ironworkers – his company based out of his garage, was called Custom Guns. He produced bolt-action rifles using barreled actions and custom stocks.
He tested weapons at Weaver Rifle & Gun Club on Aldine-Westfield about a mile north of FM1960, which was a desolate 2-lane road at that time, arriving at daylight on most weekends. Finally, the owner offered to sell him the place since Carter seemed to be there all the time anyway. The seed was planted…. He wanted $15,000 down for the gun club and the 15 acres of land he insisted on selling with it. “We scraped and scraped, and got the $15,000, with about 75 cents to spare, and closed the deal,” Carter said. They opened a small retail operation in a 10 by 10-foot metal building. Both kept their day jobs – he as an ironworker and she as a registered nurse. Sales that first-year were very slow, grossing only about $32,000. The gun club slowly became profitable. Bill’s extensive knowledge of guns was appreciated and was becoming more well known in the Houston area. He saw a lot of mistakes and solved them-mismatched rifles and scopes, for example-that people had bought elsewhere.
By 1969, the business had grown to the point where they needed to move to a larger site. At this time, Ellen was drafted from the nursing profession to play a much more active role in the business, skillfully managing the finances over the years, while Bill continued to grow his customer base with his expert knowledge, great service and total dedication to guns, ammo and hunting equipment. The Carter “kids” are Billy and Lori and have grown up in the business. Billy is now managing the Spring Location and has many shooting accomplishments, including a world record 2-mile shot! Lori is running the back office and helping get the website and online store off the ground. Together, the Carter family has expanded Carter’s Country Outdoor Stores sales areas to 4 beautiful retail stores with a total of 50,000 square feet, a warehouse and distribution center, a full-service gun repair shop, a public shooting facility (shooting range Houston) adjacent to the North Houston store, and commercial hunting and guiding operations in three main hunting areas of Texas and Colorado.
By Greg Staunton
It’s August and firearms dealers should have a clear hunting season sales strategy — at least through the end of this year — in place. The importance of hunting to a dealer’s profitability is substantial. Hunting accounted for nearly 43 percent of last November and December’s firearm and related purchases, according to Southwick Associates’ Hunter Survey. How much of that business will be conducted in your store this year?
To provide dealers with long-learned business tips, Shooting Industry enlisted one of the country’s leading hunting experts, and seasoned business veterans, Bill Carter. The founder of Carter’s Country Guns & Ammo in the Houston metro area is eager to share 50 years worth of insights.
“Hunting is one of the main outdoor objectives in Texas,” Carter said. “The first season starts in September with dove hunting. Then deer bowhunting season comes in October, followed by general rifle hunting in November. What we call our peak hunting time is during school holidays, and Christmas sales are the final jump.”
Carter says the upward trend in his hunting business even continues through the third or fourth week in January.
“We spend eight months getting ready for four months. We have to be very well prepared and make sure we have the proper amount of inventory, plus enough staff in place,” he added.
Today, with four thriving retail outlets, a gun range and elk and whitetail hunting ranches, Carter’s Country is one of the Lone Star State’s gems and “Ol’ Bill” remains a fixture at the center. Continuing the family tradition, Carter’s son Billy now manages the anchor store in Spring, Texas. Earlier this year, Carter’s Country was honored as Ruger’s 2012 Retailer of the Year.
“The fact that Carter’s Country is celebrating 50 years is validation of their successful business practices, and we are proud to recognize them for their accomplishments,” said Mike Fifer, Ruger president, and CEO.
“We do several things in getting ready for hunting season. One of the first is to have a preseason, free financing sale in July,” Carter said. “We buy quite a bit of extra advertising. We’ve been doing this so many years, our customers depend on it to buy some of their fall hunting needs and get ahead of the crowd. We follow that up in September with another free finance sale. We step up our advertising — in newspaper, TV, and radio — even more.”
Despite reports that print readership is on a downward trend, Carter says his newspaper ads drive more sales than any other form of advertising. “Ol’ Bill Sez” is one of Carter’s trademarks, his shtick and it endears him to his customers. “We’ve been prominent in the sports section of the paper for 40 years. Believe it or not, they want to hear what Ol’ Bill has to say, and I’ll never understand that,” Carter said.
During the July and September pre–hunting season sales, customers who make a minimum $500 purchase enjoy free financing for 12 months. Carter says the business of his stores’ during these sales probably doubles. He and his team make sure they have extra hunting products inventory on hand, and they hire seasonal, part–time staff to handle the customers who crowd the stores.
Even though smaller dealers may not be able to offer free financing, there are other creative options to lessen the purchasing bite for their customers and still increase sales. One example is a seasonal or Christmas layaway program. The main objective is to find what works for you, and let your customers know they can count on it every year. Then promote the program through advertising — print, radio, TV and Internet — and in–store signage and flyers.
In addition, are you utilizing your manufacturer’s reps to help boost your hunting sales? Bill Carter does.
“During these sales, we have a lot of help from the various factory representatives who come in to demonstrate their products. We get treated really well by all of our manufacturers,” Carter said.
Companies representing different segments of firearm-related markets want to help dealers increase their sales. Contact your sales representatives to learn how they can help you boost your hunting sales at in–store special events.
The September free financing sale at Carter’s Country coincides with National Hunting and Fishing Day (NHFD); it’s an event dealers can tie into to promote the fall hunting season. The NHFD website (www.nhfday.org) has free, downloadable promotional materials and lots of helpful information.
“We don’t take advantage of the day the way we should,” Carter said. “It draws a lot of attention, so we need to do a lot better to promote around it.” NHFD is a great way to introduce more families to hunting.
“Texas has always been a family hunting state, but it’s even more so now. And we see a lot of lady hunters. That requires us to stock special lady-friendly firearms. We try to do a good job in that area. It’s always been our policy to introduce as many people as we can to our sport, and especially hunting,” Carter said.
Every region offers opportunities for dealers to give back to their community while supporting the nation’s hunting and firearm heritage. These efforts, in addition to “doing the right thing,” boost a firearms dealer’s standing in the community, and will naturally draw in more customers.
“We do all we can to support and promote local organizations. We donate scholarships to high school graduates who are going to pursue a career in the outdoors. We also hold youth hunts on our ranches and we host wounded warrior hunts,” Carter said.
Are you sponsoring local hunting workshops, utilizing one or more of your seasoned hunters — staff or local experts —to share their hunting and safety expertise with your customers? These workshops, when properly promoted, draw crowds and sales. A prominent hunter, Carter formerly taught such seminars. Today, he lets his younger staff do the teaching, with a special focus on hunter safety.
“We promote safety at every opportunity we have,” Carter said.
When hunting sales have been good in the past, perhaps even great, it can be tempting for dealers to fall into a comfort zone when preparing for hunting season. Even Carter says his company has stayed mostly with what has worked well for them in the past. However, as younger people come into the business, Carter sees that beginning to change.
“We’ve been a price industry for so long. There is now a whole new generation of gun-buyers and hunters,” Carter said. “People are not as price-conscious now as they are quality-conscious. We are giving the consumers what they need, and that’s a bunch of calibers and gear based on quality, not price.”
Carter says, these new consumers, who have embraced firearm ownership and hunting in ever-increasing numbers, have created a strong business opportunity for dealers.
“The market is there, we just have to make the adjustment. With the Internet, customers can recognize quality and that’s part of their buying decision,” Carter said.
Hunters also rely on social media for a lot of their information, and Carter’s Country maintains a very active Facebook page to stay in contact with more than 7,000 followers. As expected, his “Ol’ Bill Sez” feature is popular on Facebook, as it is on the company’s website. Carter’s Country began promoting hunting on its Facebook page as early as Memorial Day this year.
What are some of the top lessons Carter has learned in his 50 years of business? How can that help boost your hunting sales?
“One of the things I’ve learned is not to sell merchandise you don’t have and don’t depend on special orders. We’ve cultivated good distributor relationships over the years, and now with computers, products are only a day away. We don’t depend on that, but we use it to fill the gaps,” Carter said.
Bottom Line: Hunting customers will find another retail outlet if you shortchange them in inventory. However, you can be their hero with the occasional rush order.
That leads to Carter’s second major lesson: Good customer service is vital.
“If you have one dissatisfied customer, he’ll tell 20 guys. If you have a bunch of happy folks, they just take it for granted. We are very service-oriented. We listen to our customers, and we train our associates,” Carter said. “We are blessed with some of the most wonderful associates we could have. When customers talk with a Carter’s Country associate — and our tenure is probably some of the best in the industry — they feel they are getting good advice.” By Greg Staunton “Shooting Industry Magazine”
Serving Houston, Tx For Over 57 Great Years!
In 1989, and continuing through the present, we put together the first ever Y.O. Ranch youth hunt. Showing the future generations the magic of the outdoors.
In 1995, Bill and Ellen Carter were recognized by the 104th Congress for their personification of the Texas spirit in their hard work, initiative, and dedication in building the Carter’s Country brand into what it is today.
Below is a retailer profile published in the January 2004 issue of Shot Business.