A sporting chance?
CHAMPAIGN — Around 2012, Dean Hazen opened a gun shop out of his garage, converting it to a storefront and taking advantage of the surge in gun sales during the Obama administration.
Once his business, called The Gun Experts, outgrew its location, Hazen had a decision to make.
"Basically, it got to the point where I was in a residential area, and my business had grown to the point where I either had to go to a commercial spot or stop," said Hazen, a retired Urbana police officer.
He decided he couldn't compete with online prices.
"I took a very serious look at going to a commercial location, but then when I saw what was happening with the online world, it kind of scared me away," Hazen said.
Instead, he became a licensed transfer agent and now works with the online retailers that made a commercial location impossible for him.
When customers buy a gun online, they select a local transfer agent, such as The Gun Experts. The online retailer then ships the gun to Hazen, where the customer picks it up after they fill out a federal firearm transaction form and Hazen runs a check on their Firearm Owner's Identification card.
As the transfer agent, Hazen charges $25 per gun he transfers, and said he transfers about 25 guns a week.
"You can't compete" with the online retailers, Hazen said. "They don't even have a storefront. They don't have all that overhead."
Customers can often save hundreds of dollars by shopping online, Hazen said.
He recently looked up the prices of a Sig Sauer handgun. Online at Buds Gun Shop, it costs $893; at Gander Mountain, the same gun costs #1,299.
Similarly, a Ruger rifle online at GrabAGun costs $1,500, while at Gander Mountain costs $1,899.
Becoming a transfer agent for these online purchases "is what I needed to do to survive," Hazen said. "It was very tough to compete."
While Gander Mountain and MC Sports sell much more than firearms, they faced some of the same pressures Hazen did. Both recently filed for bankruptcy, saying they struggled with direct-to-consumer sales and the rise of online shopping.
Gander Mountain said it would be closing 32 of its underperforming stores, including the one in Champaign, and MC Sports is expected to close all its stores.
With MC Sports and Gander Mountain leaving, Champaign-Urbana will be left with one large sporting goods retailer: the combination Dick's and Field & Stream at Market Place Mall.
Unlike Gander Mountain and MC Sports, Dick's appears to be doing relatively well. It recently reported strong year-end results showing a year-to-year increase in net income and sales, solidifying its position as the largest U.S. sporting goods retailer (besides Walmart) and one of the few remaining with a national presence.
The local market may not be big enough to support three sporting goods stores, but Champaign County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Craig Rost said the two companies' struggles probably play a bigger role.
"There probably are some shifts with people buying things online," he said.
Hazen said he wasn't surprised that the retailers are closing their stores.
"People go in there and look at it and feel it, then they go buy it online," he said. "It's just the way that the market works."