New report hacks the interests, hunting patterns millennials

PITTSBURGH (AP) — They’re “indoorsmen” quick with a hash-tag quip and safely anonymous snark, demanding instant gratification, high pay and comfortable lifestyle; too tech-dependent to function without electricity, too fragile to tolerate a politically incorrect word or action or thought.

That’s the millennial myth, as much a pejorative caricature as any stereotype of a large and complex social group. Born before 2000, young adults comprise the largest generation of Americans alive today, totaling 75 million in 2015. Whenever a population that big comes of age, it brings new ideas and preferences. It brings change.

Afflicted with what best-selling author Richard Louv famously referred to as “nature deficit disorder,” the generation that grew up without outdoors mentors has started buying guns. Their purchases are generally used for hunting, shooting and self-defense, but in starkly different proportions than their predecessors.

A new report conducted by Southwick Associates, a market research firm specializing in outdoor products, analyses their firearm interests and buying habits.

“Millennial hunters and shooters are often viewed as an elusive group, challenging conventional industry beliefs on how sportsmen respond to traditional marketing messages and make the purchase decisions they do,” said Southwick president Rob Southwick, in a statement. “By identifying their motivations to participate in hunting and shooting, as well as how they make key purchases, companies and organizations can improve not only their messaging but also how and when they deliver those messages for maximum benefit to the bottom line.”

Southwick Associates sells its custom and syndicated reports to trade associations and manufacturers of shooting, hunting, fishing and outdoor sporting products. The data is used to inform businesses on branding, product development and retail placement, while government outdoor recreation agencies and media find other uses. Southwick’s Nancy Bacon said details of the report are proprietary, but a summary released to media suggests that the inevitable impact of millennials on traditional hunting and shooting sports may rock long-held conventional wisdom.

“We’re getting a lot of questions about millennials,” she said. “In the industry, we know the market is changing. New people are coming in and the data is changing. We looked at our existing data and did a new online survey.”

Cultural touchstones and motivations are clearly different for baby boomers (born in the years following World War II), Generation X (born between the early 1960s and mid-1970s) and millennials. Bacon said the report found that two key differences are the ages at which the generations first fired a gun or went hunting, and the first animals they pursued.

“The thing that struck me is that millennials were a little older — 18 to 24 — when introduced to hunting or shooting. Non-millennials had a higher propensity to have been 13 to 17,” she said. “Also interesting to me is the first species pursued by millennials was deer, while research has shown that the older generations started with small game and worked their way up to deer.”

The Southwick survey found that millennials are predictably likely to research firearms online, but less likely than their parents’ generation to purchase online, preferring to buy hunting and shooting gear at specialty shops. The report didn’t chart gender differences.

“We don’t speculate in our reports, but you can make a lot of guesses as to what’s behind the data,” said Bacon. “It could be that millennials typically were brought up in families where guns had a negative stigma, so they didn’t get started until they were adults.”

It is likely, she suggested, that millennials’ youth experience with guns, or lack it, influences their adult interests and purchasing patterns. Without outdoors mentors to teach tactics and ethics, they may skip the educational small game hunts using .22s and shotguns and rush to high-powered deer rifles.

“Our guess is that millennials need to touch and feel it before they buy it,” said Bacon. “The outdoors specialty store could be part of their preferred shopping experience.”

Wayne Lykens, owner of Island Firearms, said some of Southwick’s data points are reflected in his shop on Neville Island.

“I sell to a great deal of young adults, especially when they turn 18 and want to buy a shotgun or rifle, or turn 21 and want a handgun,” he said. “The kids do a lot of research online and then they might go to three or four stores to get opinions before they buy.”

When Lykens opened his shop, he sold mostly sporting arms for hunting. Now, he said, nine out of 10 sales are weapons for self-defense. A former deputy game protector with the state Game Commission, Lykens said he saw the cultural change moving away from hunting in the early 1980s.

“I’m changing what I buy and sell here. They want handguns more than anything else,” he said.

Where a kid grows up might have much to do with whether he or she embraces the hunting culture. But self-defense weapons continue to set new sales records, and millennials from rural and urban areas are among the most prolific buyers.

Joe Levdansky, 22, was raised in a family of dedicated hunters on the rural southern tip of Allegheny County. Starting at about age 10 during squirrel hunts with his dad, he learned to safely handle guns, walk quietly in the woods, clearly identify targets, shoot straight, respect wildlife and understand hunting ethics.

A few months ago, however, when he made his first firearm purchase, it wasn’t a sporting arm. He got a 9mm Smith & Wesson M&P Shield and a concealed carry permit.

“You see the way the world is now. You have to watch your back,” he said. “I have friends who didn’t grow up with [gun ownership], but they see the hunting shows on TV and maybe that got them interested. But they start out right away with deer hunting, and I think that puts them at a disadvantage.”

As millennials change the way firearms are used in America, Levdansky said he can’t imagine learning to shoot them without the guidance of someone more experienced.

“Without someone to teach you, you’re pretty much clueless,” he said. “There are things you really can’t learn on your own.”