ONE of Tunbridge Wells’ longest-running retail businesses passes an impressive trading milestone this month. Eileen Leahy speaks to the founder of Chris Potter Country Sports about this highly-rated gun and country pursuits shop, and the secrets behind its success.
In the current retail climate, when swathes of shops are shutting down on high streets across the country due to the double-pronged problem of fierce online competition and ever increasing business rates, it’s something of a rarity for an independent store with a niche market to be thriving. Not just locally, but nationally and globally, too.
Which is why Chris Potter, who runs his eponymously-named shop in Tunbridge Wells, and his loyal, long-serving staff are quite rightly celebrating this month after 40 years of trading.
Chris opened his shop, which is now one of the UK’s leading retailers of sporting guns and accessories, in August 1978 in Camden Road. He traded there for 20 years before moving to the business’s current premises in nearby Grover Street – a shop which he says has ‘the perfect layout’.
‘I never knew there was such a long gallery here,’ says Chris, who uses it to house an amazing gun collection.
‘I thought I was buying three furniture shops, and when I saw it I thought ‘I don’t care what the price is, I have to have this’. It’s all steel lined now, and at night when we lock up a big shutter comes down, so it’s a totally secure area.’
As well as selling one of the largest collections of new and second-hand shotguns, rifles and airguns in the country, Chris Potter is the purveyor of plenty of high-end pastoral pursuits clothing and essential accessories by brands that include Aigle, Barbour, Dubarry and Le Chameau.
The shop is also the British agent for Briley multichoke shotguns and High Scorers shooting glasses.
Quite the destination, then, for anyone keen on game or clay pigeon shooting, but also a great find if you’re in the market for quality specialist and exterior clothing when walking the dogs or going birdwatching. In short, Chris Potter aims to appeal to all those who love nothing more than spending time in the great outdoors.
It was Chris’s personal love of game and clay pigeon shooting that led him to launch his own retail business, and over the years he has steadily built up the store’s reputation as being a must-visit – and not only for those local to the area.
‘If you look at our gun register, you’ll see people on it from places like Norfolk, the Isle of Wight and Isle of Man,’ explains Chris.
‘We also have an export side with buyers from Scandinavia, America and Italy, but local business is also very important to us, so I’d say it’s a 50/50 mix. And of course I employ ten or 11 local staff, too.’
During our conversation it becomes clear that although the shop has Chris’s name above the door, this successful enterprise is very much a team effort. Various members of staff drift in and out while we chat and Chris has nothing but the highest of praise for them – both in and out of earshot. ‘The staff are family. Maybe it’s because I’m too nice or soft with them as they all tend to stay a while,’ he chuckles.
The admirable length of service the Chris Potter team boast – 34, 17 and 15 years for three of them, for example – illustrates they are just as passionate about traditional pastoral pursuits as he is.
‘Everybody in this shop is a shooter, so we can really talk to clients and spend time with them. You’re not just walking in and buying off the shelf here. We’re giving customers knowledge. We won’t just try and sell guns; we make sure it fits and is correct for the type of shooting you want to do.’
Although Chris sold the business in 2002 to fellow hunter, fisherman and retail expert Charlie Harris, he is still very much the face of the store – and that’s just how Charlie likes it.
‘I knew Chris from shooting,’ says Charlie. ‘He told me he wanted to take his staff to a game fair, and he knew my background was in retail, so he asked if I would look after the shop for the day.
‘I then started coming in two to three days a week and really enjoyed it.
‘Knowing that none of Chris’s own family were interested in taking over, I could see the potential of the shop, and started talking to Chris about having some equity in the business. Then we came to a deal where I bought it outright.’
This convivial setup also gives Chris time for his other role – managing one of the British Shooting teams, which sees him travelling extensively. This year alone, he has been to Bologna, Cairo and America so far.
So has the combination of offering a quality bespoke service and vital ‘in the field ‘experience also contributed to the business’s longevity?
‘Well, it is a niche market,’ Chris responds. ‘When I first started, all the other local gun shops concentrated on the game shooter, whereas I concentrated on the competition clay pigeon shooter. Fortunately for my business, the clay shooters tend to change their guns quite often, unlike the game shooter who might change theirs once every ten years.
‘Clay pigeon shooters are consumers, they fire more cartridges and are always looking for something else – it’s never them that’s wrong, it’s always the gun!
‘In the space of one month they will shoot more than game shooters will in a year, so that has definitely helped.’
Chris adds that if I personally wanted to don my Blenheim tweeds and go clay pigeon shooting, the Chris Potter team would ensure I was fitted with a lady gun.
‘Sometimes women will pick up their husband or boyfriend’s gun to shoot with and it will hurt and then they never want to do it again. I think sometimes the men do that deliberately!
‘But a lot of our ladies actually shoot better. Dionne, who has worked with us for 34 years, is seven times World Champion.
‘We’ve got another member of staff who’s European Champion and I’m a World Champion, so there’s a wealth of experience gained over the years. But then you’re always learning, too.’
In addition to the impressive gun gallery, in the main part of the Tardis-like shop there is also a Pairs collection room. The plush space – which neatly displays rows of gleaming wood and silver handled Perazzi, Piotti and Beretta models as well as vintage British designs – is the only one of its kind in the country.
The entry level price in there for gun is approximately £3,950, going up to £72,000.
Then there’s the Executive gunroom, located in a smart building over the road where clients can store their weapons or browse the exquisitely crafted offerings from the likes of Purdey, Bosis and Famars.
‘For the first ten years in business we were very frugal,’ Chris reveals. ‘But we kept building up on stock and were eventually generating a destination for people.
‘If you go into a normal gun shop they will have 60 models, but we have 450 guns on display and people do travel quite a long way to see this.’
Most, he says, are sourced from Italy, Germany and, more recently, Turkey.
And in a world where social media is such a key marketing tool, Chris says that it’s good old fashioned word of mouth which continues to drive his business.
‘Recommendations from people are certainly our biggest selling feature. Obviously we are now on social media, but you cannot sell a gun on the internet. You can put pictures up, but you will have to come to the shop with a licence. It’s a face-to-face experience and we always give good customer service – we’re very fair and honest. If you buy a gun from us and don’t get on with it we’ll change it and find out why it doesn’t work. We’re nice people.
‘We keep saying we cannot keep selling guns at this rate, but we do. I mean they don’t wear out or go wrong, and if you clean one it will last you a lifetime.
‘One of the old guns I shoot game with was built in 1873 and it’s still going.’
With pretty hefty price tags, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Chris Potter establishment is a place strictly for the super wealthy or elite. But that’s not the case, claims Chris.
‘You can start by buying a gun for around £750, and someone who comes in to do that has probably saved up for six months, so it’s important we treat them very well as we want them to be our customer.
‘We show each one the same amount of respect and time, irrespective of their budget.’
And now, four decades on, can Chris tell me what has been his most memorable highlight of being in business?
He pauses a while before responding…
‘Every day has been a highlight, especially meeting people with the interest of shooting. They’re just terrific. I suppose I just enjoy making people happy and helping them.’
PICTURE: TOP GUN: World champion Chris Potter with his range of weapons