Last February, when Dick’s Sporting Goods boss Ed Stack announced he was restricting gun sales at the country’s largest sports retailer, he knew it’d be costly.
At the time, Dick’s was a major seller of firearms. Guns also drove the sale of soft goods-boots, hats, jackets. What’s more, Stack, the retailer’s chief executive officer, suspected the position could drive off some of his customers on political principle. He was right.
Dick’s estimates the policy change cost the company about $150 million in lost sales, an amount equivalent to 1.7 percent of annual revenue. Stack says it was worth it. “The system does not work,” Stack said. “It’s important that when you know there’s something that’s not working, and it’s to the detriment of the public, you have to stand up.”
The 2018 school massacre at Parkland, Florida, touched a nerve for the company. Nikolas Cruz, the shooter, had legally purchased a shotgun from Dick’s a few months before the attack. A day after Cruz was arrested, police in Vermont apprehended a teenager with plans to shoot up his high school. He, too, had legally purchased a shotgun from Dick’s.
The two incidents were a last straw for Stack, a one-time Republican donor who in 35 years had turned his father’s bait-and-tackle shop into the country’s largest sports retailer. Two weeks after those arrests, Stack announced he was pulling assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines out of all Dick’s stores. He vowed he’d never sell another firearm to anyone under 21.
The response was predictable. The National Rifle Association criticized his “strange business model.” The National Shooting Sports Foundation expelled Dick’s from its membership. Gun manufacturers like Mossberg refused to do business with him at all, and some shoppers followed suit.
Some people applauded the CEO’s decision and promised to show their appreciation with their business - a phenomenon called “buycotting” - but those people didn’t stick around. “Love is fleeting. Hate is forever,” Stack said.
What happened at Dick’s confirms new study results out of Stanford University. Respondents said they were more likely to buy a product to support a CEO’s political stance than they were to boycott in disagreement, but their actions revealed the opposite. When asked for specific examples, 69 percent could name a product they’d stopped buying, and only 21 percent could recall a product they started buying.
The 64-year-old Stack is an unlikely champion of gun reform. Earlier this decade, he helped Dick’s double-down on its outdoor roots, buying licensing rights to “Field & Stream” and launching both a private brand and a new series of stores dedicated partially to hunting. He’s a gun owner himself and insists he’s not anti-firearm, just in favor of what he likes to call “common-sense gun reform.”
No longer a go-to store for many gun-owners and hunters, Dick’s is now navigating its new reality. In August, the company announced it would remove hunting supplies and equipment entirely from 10 stores and use the space for team sports like baseball. Sales jumped in the test stores, and the company will implement the change in 125 additional stores, about 17 percent of the total fleet. After a dip in the last 12 months, the company expects same-store sales to be flat or rise a little.
Then there’s Field & Stream. The outdoor label, which includes kayaks, camo jackets and sleeping bags, is the company’s top-selling private brand. Stack acknowledged that the gun decision has hurt Field & Stream sales and that the company faces a potentially larger decision about its 35 Field & Stream stores, located mostly in the south and Northeast.
“Can they shift it to play more toward active outdoors versus bloodsport,” said Sam Poser, an analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group. “They’re big spaces, and the majority of those leases are long-term. They’ll have some decisions to make, and I think they can figure it out.”
To be fair, guns were a shrinking part of Dick’s business before Stack changed the company policy. And annual firearm sales nationwide have dropped almost 17 percent since 2016, according to research firm Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting. Parts of Dick’s policy have been matched by others, including Walmart and Kroger-owned Fred Meyer, neither of which faced similar outcry or anger.
Stack’s not finished, though. For almost a year, Dick’s has been working with Glover Park Group to lobby for gun reform. Last month, Stack was one of just four CEOs to sign a letter supporting a universal gun control bill that recently passed in the house, and he recently joined the business council of Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-profit that advocates for gun control. (Everytown was founded by Michael Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.)