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What Does A Gun Debate Mean For Retailers?


Companies that make firearms are facing some tough choices, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Yesterday, the private equity group Cerberus Capital Management said it's getting out of the gun business. And one of the largest outlets for firearms, Dick's Sporting Goods, said it is suspending sales of certain kinds of rifles. Wal-Mart has removed a website listing for a rifle similar to the one used by the gunman in Connecticut.

NPR's Sonari Glinton looks at what the gun debate could mean for big business and big retail.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: It's just under a week before Christmas. And in a strip mall in Ann Arbor, Michigan, there's a Best Buy, a Big Lots and a newly opened Dick's Sporting Goods. The parking lot was on the verge of being full with shoppers like Paul Caesar. He's a gun owner.

PAUL CAESAR: I have shotguns. I have rifles. I have handguns. You know, they're for target practice; they're for protection.

GLINTON: Caesar is from Dexter, Michigan, which is about 45 minutes west of Detroit. He says he's disappointed that retailers are feeling pressure not to sell certain kinds of guns.

CAESAR: It's a step of taking them away. If big retailers are taking the guns away, the government sees that. And then maybe they'll want to change some laws that way.

GLINTON: Meanwhile, Pam Silva says she's glad to see companies taking moves to get more guns out of stores.

PAM SILVA: The more we get off the street, the more we limit access to them, the better. I just think they fall into the - even doing it legally they fall into the wrong hands. We have such a proliferation of guns in our society, in our country, that I think it's just overwhelming.

GLINTON: Adam Schlecte lives in Ann Arbor. He grew up in a hunting family. But he says...

ADAM SCHLECTE: There's no reason to have the ability to walk into Dick's Sporting Goods or Dunhams, or any of these other places, and come out with a - assault rifle, or something that high- calibered.

GLINTON: Executives at Dick's Sporting Goods feel the same way, for now. The company announced they've suspended the sale of modern sporting rifles in all of their stores. The Pennsylvania-based company says it's making the move out of, quote, "respect for the victims and their families."

MARSHAL COHEN: There's all kinds of ways that brands, and retailers, have to evaluate what happens when something catastrophic occurs.

GLINTON: Marshal Cohen is a retail analyst with the NPD Group.

COHEN: Even when a retailer can't be held responsible for the misuse of product, they don't want to contribute to the availability of that product. They don't even want to be perceived as being part of the situation; that they try to remove that connection as quickly, and as effectively, as possible.

GLINTON: Cohen says retail has changed a lot, especially in the last two years. Social media has changed how retailers react to problems, small and large. And Cohen says the eroding retail landscape means that companies are much more sensitive to bad press.

COHEN: One of the biggest changes is the voice of the consumer being very much a part of the equation. In today's world, not only does media have the ability to communicate broad-based information; but so does the public, so do consumers.

GLINTON: Cohen says retailers have gotten better and more nimble over the years, dealing with problem products. But, he says, as everyone can see, there's no rulebook on how to handle this one.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.

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