On Target

By Edward Cone Print this article Print

Gun buyers want more than just information. They want a relationship. So Remington Arms went online and triggered more response than anticipated.

Happiness is a warm gun, said the Beatles, but what people really want is a warm gun maker.

"Firearms are a lifestyle product," says Sam Grecco, vice president of e-business and e-commerce at Remington Arms, the world's largest manufacturer of rifles and shotguns. "There is sentiment, passion—things passed on from father to son."

To nurture this relationship, Remington must respond to endless customer queries about its products: which gun to use, what to load it with for different types of game, how to operate it safely, how to repair it. The pool of information is deep and broad. Privately held Remington, with 2002 sales of $403 million, makes dozens of different models—there are 16 versions of its 700 series center-fire rifle alone—and people expect the company to continue servicing guns that may last for generations.

"We get phone calls from hunters in duck blinds, wanting to know how to fix something," says Ned Moore, Remington's director of e-business development.

There are an estimated 27 million people in the U.S. involved in hunting and shooting sports, a market of some $1.7 billion, but Remington, squeezed for cash after a leveraged buyout and focused on huge national accounts like Wal-Mart, allowed its support for gun owners and small retailers to languish in the late '90s. "As we cut back marketing budgets and focused our distribution around larger customers, we basically lost touch with these two extremely important groups," Moore says. The disconnect did not immediately have a quantifiable impact on revenue, but the danger was real. "Over the long run, indifference towards these relationships could certainly become a significant business risk," Moore says.

One of the oldest companies in the United States and the only large manufacturer of both guns and ammunition, Remington traces its lineage to Eliphalet Remington II, who built his first gun in Ilion Gulch, N.Y., in 1816. The company, which also makes hunting and sport-shooting accessories, was owned by DuPont for much of the 20th century. (Until February, when it sold its Stren division for $44 million, it also made fishing line.) Acquired for about $300 million by the investment firm Clayton, Dubillier and Rice in late 1993, Remington moved in 1996 to Madison, N.C., where vintage hunting prints and outdoor scenes line the hallways of its unassuming headquarters building. A holiday wreath on the lobby door is decorated with bright orange clay targets.

The solution to its customer- and consumer-relationship needs is a Web site that provides detailed information and makes it easier to buy and operate a Remington firearm. At the same time, the site also cuts marketing and customer-service costs. It's an online strategy more about knowledge management for complex products than e-commerce. Remington does not sell guns online. Its products are highly regulated, expensive—the average Remington costs about $450—and available in multiple configurations.

Savings come from staffing cuts enabled by more-efficient service, and from reduced production costs for marketing materials. As employee headcount in the commerce-service group has dropped 20% since 1999, printing, production and distribution costs have decreased as well: The number of total downloads from the site has increased, reaching about 2.9 million in 2003. Visitors requested fewer than 4,000 paper catalogs last year, versus 23,604 in 2000, with requests for owner's manuals dropping to 4,841 from 13,539 in the same period; meanwhile, the number of manuals downloaded went from 62,731 to 802,660. Remington Quarterly, a glossy magazine that used to cost about $100,000 per issue to produce for a print run of 200,000, is now published online where it's read by roughly the same number of registered members. Almost 440,000 video clips, including safety and operating instructions and promotional footage, were downloaded last year, so the company didn't have to spend the $1.50 to $2.00 per VHS tape, excluding production costs, to stock the videos.

Last year, about 28,000 users per day came to the Remington site, staying an average of more than 11 minutes and hitting about 6.6 pages per visit. With about 4,000 product or product-related pages, the site is far richer and more polished than those offered by rivals such as Mossberg and Browning.

"We have people who spend hours on the site, wanting to know about barrel twist and powder type, and they would spend hours on the phone if we let them," Moore says. The site offers up dynamic pages of frequently asked questions—say, the suggested load for deer hunting—that used to be handled by e-mail or phone, and lets users track their service and support records.

The site is a place to bask in hunting culture, where firearms fetishists can take apart and reassemble 3-D models of their favorite guns and hunters can find new recipes for venison. Building the 3-D models brought its own unique challenge: the developer, Viewpoint Corp., is located in New York City, where a permit is required to possess a firearm. For the first two guns getting the 3-D treatment, Remington ended up shipping them to a dealer across the Hudson River in New Jersey, where the designers went to photograph them; later, the design team flew to North Carolina to see other products. "The actual technology end of it was by far the easiest part of the entire project," Moore says.

This article was originally published on 2004-03-01
Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.
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