It's a great time to be a hired gun. That was the clear message coming from this year's SHOT Show held Jan. 11-14 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. The show's "law enforcement" section rattled with energy, and this segment of the shooting market is growing faster than a speeding bullet.
About 2 million contract security personnel work for U.S. corporations, according to a Washington Post story published this month. Meanwhile, the U.S. military continues to outsource jobs previously done by government soldiers, and in Iraq, there are now about 20,000 contract security workers employed by private companies. Together, the contract security and law enforcement markets represent tens of billions of dollars. And it's only going to get bigger. According to Freedonia, a market research group, "U.S. demand for private contracted security services will grow 4.3 percent annually through 2010."
The SHOT Show is enjoying direct benefits from this trend. Consider that in 1999, when the show created a military/police section, it occupied 7,000 square feet, according to the SHOT Daily newspaper. In 2007, this segment, renamed "law enforcement," occupies 100,000 square feet. That's not just "growth," man, that's an invasion.
As we walked the aisles of the law enforcement area, it reminded us of cruising through the SIA show in the early days of the snowboard market. OK, not exactly. We didn't see anybody in the SHOT show passed out in the aisle wearing a sombrero. But, there were countless little companies displaying just one or two products, maybe a single gun or just a bipod for a gun. We wondered if, like the snowboard market, many of these small players would soon be gobbled up due to consolidation. After all, how many 50-caliber sniper rifles do we need in the world?
While the trade show producers are jazzed about the hired-gun craze, companies that cross over into the outdoor specialty market are also enjoying some benefits. Though the CamelBak booth was tucked into a far corner of the law enforcement hall, it was getting a steady barrage of walk-by traffic. In a span of 30 minutes, we saw dozens of people drop in to see product demonstrations from Dana Gleason, whose Mystery Ranch company now partners with CamelBak to produce backpacks for the outdoor, shooting and hunting markets.
This year marked the fifth SHOT Show for High Gear, and its company management said it hopes to have a booth on the edge of the law enforcement section next year, when SHOT moves back to Las Vegas. Though High Gear originally offered the shooting and hunting market the same products it sells into the outdoor specialty world, it just launched a Tactical line, which has electronic devices made with materials that better suit the Jack Bauers of the world. "The tactical line will make a huge difference for us," Clay Hardin of High Gear told SNEWS®. "Most of our competitors don't make a separate line for the tactical market."
While High Gear's participation in the show has been consistent, we're seeing a continuing trend where outdoor companies experiment with the shooting and hunting market, exhibiting occasionally. Companies such as Black Diamond and Backpacker's Pantry have had booths in past years, but they weren't exhibiting this year. "It's been a couple of years since we've been (to SHOT)," said L. Penn Burris of American Outdoor Products Outdoor Division (parent company of Backpacker's Pantry.) Backpacker's Pantry first exhibited at SHOT in 2003, and saw good response initially. "But after a year, a lot of the accounts trickled off, and a lot of them defaulted," said Burris. "There were a lot of mom-and-pops, and even some chains, that didn't pay their bills. And the number (of defaults) was higher than the average we see in other markets."
Adventure Medical Kits is in the midst of its second go at the market. It first exhibited seven years ago, dropped out for a while, and returned in 2004. Then, in the fall of 2005, AMK targeted the shooting and hunting markets with a new Sportsman series, and sales took off. With this market-specific product, the company has made a real connection with SHOT buyers, and the show has been a big success.
For the outdoor companies we visited, traffic looked good, and Peter Sachs, general manager of Lowa Boots, was surprised at how much new business the show was generating. As a whole the SHOT Show is very healthy. This year it included 656,000 square feet of exhibit space (40,000 more than last year), with 1,870 exhibiting companies, compared to 1,846 last year. The show attracted about 20,390 buyers, 1,342 media members, 19,990 exhibiting personnel and 494 guests for a total attendance of 42,216.
The question is whether the hunting portion of the market is growing, and several folks we talked with indicated that it's flat. Still, there are opportunities at SHOT, especially for companies that have technologies not widely available. For example, Primaloft has exhibited in an attempt to take market share from Thinsulate, which is the only insulation brand that seriously blankets the hunting market. "This is not a growing market, but if we can take market share from others, it's growth for us," said Eileen Berner, director of sales for Primaloft. To heighten awareness of Primaloft, the company has partnered with Scent-Lok, a big daddy in the hunting world, to make insulated, odor-eliminating hunting apparel.
Still, some outdoor brands serve the hunting market but choose not to exhibit at the SHOT Show. Three years ago, Kelty launched camouflage and military-oriented products, but it didn't have a booth this year. "While we can't justify the expense of setting up a booth, we absolutely want to walk the floors to stay in touch with the market, the vendors and the customer base," said Kenny Ballard, president of Kelty.
Coolest thing we saw: Garmin has introduced a GPS-enabled dog-tracking system, called the Astro, so people can prevent their hunting dogs from wandering off and getting lost. The Astro system includes a GPS receiver with specific dog-tracking functions, plus a transmitter that fits into a neoprene harness for the dog. The GPS receiver not only shows a dog's path, distance and heading, but also, when a dog stops for a certain period of time, it indicates that the dog has spied something and is in "pointing" mode.
Different slice of life: After querying several companies, we got the sense that the cutlery segment is flat in the shooting and hunting world. Certainly that's why Gerber moved beyond blade tools through acquisitions to enter the hydration pack and headlamp market (and the line looks pretty nice, by the way). Also, it seems the multi-tool trend has passed its peak because Leatherman has launched a wide variety of single-blade folding knives. Many models, such as the e304x, look great and would be right at home in an outdoor specialty store. Plus, they seem well built, with helpful features like a carabiner clip that can be tucked away, and Blade Launcher technology, which allows blades to swing out quickly with little effort.
Sign of the times: We're always hearing that hunters are becoming more and more open-minded about less-traditional technologies. As proof, Rocky is expanding its offering of boots that use the Boa lacing system, first introduced in snowboard boots back in the day. (If you're not familiar with Boa, it includes thin wires that run through the guts of a shoe, and a ratchet wheel that you turn to pull the wires and secure a shoe.) Rocky introduced Boa in its ProHunter Revolver boot last year and not only received a Field & Stream award but also great response from consumers. So this year it added a lighter version of the boot, the Bucklight Boa.
Write this down: At SHOT we came across the company Rite in the Rain, which makes high-quality, all-weather writing paper, a wide assortment of notepads and all-weather copier paper. The Rite in the Rain folks told us they have not exhibited at the Outdoor Retailer trade shows, but their products seem well-suited for the outdoor market. Available in solid yellow and green colors, Rite in the Rain's perfect-bound, spiral-bound and stapled pads are used by environmental professionals, engineers and others who work in the field. Plus, the company supplies products for the military. The brand has actually been around since the 1920s and originally served the timber industry. For info, check out www.riteintherain.com.