Oct 09, 2013

Boycott Spurred in Texas Restores Gun Deals to Groupon

Michael Cargill, 44, shows an AR-15 in his shop, Central Texas Gun Works, in Austin. Cargill led a boycott of Groupon after the company banned most firearm-related deals. Photo by Eva Lorraine Molina.

Michael Cargill, 44, shows an AR-15 in his shop, Central Texas Gun Works, in Austin. Cargill led a boycott of Groupon after the company banned most firearm-related deals. Photo by Eva Lorraine Molina.

By Eva Lorraine Molina

For Reporting Texas

On the same day in January that Groupon Inc., the online coupon company, abruptly terminated firearm-related deals, Michael Cargill called his Groupon sales representative.

“You’re an awesome sales rep. But I don’t like this, and I’m going to do something about it. You guys just screwed with the wrong person,” Cargill, an Austin-based concealed handgun license instructor and gun shop owner, recalls telling Groupon.

Cargill went on to show how, in the networked age, one person devoted to a cause can take on a $7.78 billion business and win.

“I wanted to hit them where it hurts,” Cargill said.

Cargill is a civil liberties advocate and is active in local and state politics. He ran in the Democratic primary for Travis County Constable Precinct 2 in 2012 and considered a run for the state Senate in the Republican primary earlier this year.

On Jan. 15, Cargill began his first (and last) joint discount on his concealed handgun license course. Groupon and Cargill had arranged a 55-45 percent split of the profits, with Cargill getting 45 percent, for a four-day deal or until 600 coupons were sold.

By Jan. 16, the deal had almost sold out. Groupon’s sales representative asked Cargill to double the number of coupons, to 1,200. Cargill agreed with two and half days left in the deal.

On Jan. 18, Cargill received another call from his Groupon representative, who told him Andrew Mason, then CEO of Groupon, had decided to suspend all firearm-related deals immediately. Mason left Groupon in February.

Mason’s decision came at the height of the nation’s renewed gun debate after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Conn., last December. The incident killed 27 people, including the shooter, who committed suicide.

“I got really upset because we’re talking about law-abiding citizens who are following the rules and following the laws to get their concealed handgun license to carry,” Cargill said.

His campaign against Groupon is more personal than political, Cargill said. He became a concealed-handgun instructor and supporter of personal protection after a 70-year-old relative was mugged and raped at a bus stop.

On Jan. 19, Cargill sent a press release to AmmoLand.com, a gun and shooting newswire, calling on the gun community to join him in a national boycott of Groupon. Ammoland published the appeal on its website, which attracts 10,000 to 20,000 unique visitors per day. It also spread the word via email and social media.

AmmoLand went on to publish two follow-up stories about Groupon’s ban on firearm-related deals.

“I’d like to think we had some influence in getting them to change their minds,” said Fredy Riehl, editor and cofounder of AmmoLand.

By Jan. 21, the boycott had caught the attention of blogs and professional media. Cargill did interviews with local TV news stations and online publications such as AOL Daily Finance. He also used Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to spread the word.

The gun community did the rest of the work. The boycott spread rapidly. Gun owners from all over the country got their friends and families to cancel Groupon accounts. They took to the Web and posted news of the boycott on gun forums and websites.

On Jan. 23, Cargill knew the boycott had gone viral after his appearance on “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” a Fox Business Network opinion program.

“Within 30 seconds of getting off the Lou Dobbs Show, I got 300 emails. I thought our website was getting spammed,” Cargill said. “I have no proof of this, but I think the boycott hurt them really bad. It was a bad business decision on their part.”

Cargill and Groupon originally had planned two more handgun-license course deals for February and March. Those lost deals alone “cost them, I’d say, hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Cargill said.

Groupon stood to make 55 percent of a potential gross sale of $445,500 if Cargill had completed the original plan.

Groupon’s public relations team did not respond to several phone calls, voice mail messages and emails seeking comment over the span of a week.

Cargill said he did not expect the boycott to grow as it did. Neither did he expect it to boost business.

“We normally do a CHL class of 30 people per class,” Cargill said. “Three weekends in a row, I had 100 people in class. And I had to move the classes to a hotel down the road.”

Many of the customers were redeeming Groupon deals, but a majority were willing to pay full price. To meet the demand, Cargill doubled his staff and hired temporary workers to help at the range. According to Cargill, for four months after the boycott, business was unusually high.

In July, Groupon brought back some firearm deals, mainly discounts at shooting ranges, in select markets including Texas, citing merchant and customer requests.

Cargill said the limited gun-related deals back on Groupon are proof the boycott worked.

“We brought the man down, brought the man down to his knees,” Cargill said.

Texans for Accountable Government, an Austin-area libertarian group, named Cargill “Activist of the Year” because of the boycott.

“We liked that he used the power of the free market to influence decision-making of a large corporation,” said Heather Fazio, TAG executive director. “It was just people getting out there and using their dollars to vote.”

Though many in the gun community are glad to see discount firearm deals return to Groupon, at least one man has mixed feelings about the company’s decision.

“This really shows the role money plays in this conversation we have about guns in this country,” said John Woods, spokesman for Texas Gun Sense, a group that supports stricter gun regulations.

“It seems strange that Groupon felt like this was something that they needed to do because of Newtown,” then changed its position, Woods said. “It seems like they might be trying to capitalize on what they perceive as people forgetting about those children dying in their classrooms.”