Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has decided to stop selling guns in about a third of its U.S. stores in what it calls a marketing decision based on lack of demand in some places, a company spokeswoman said Friday.
The world's largest retailer decided last month to remove firearms from about 1,000 stores in favor of stocking other sporting goods, in line with a "Store of the Community" strategy for boosting sales by paying closer attention to local differences in demand.
"This decision is based on diminished customer relevancy and demand in these markets," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jolanda Stewart said. She declined to say which stores were affected.
Hunting and shooting advocates said it was surprising that Wal-Mart, which has a strong hunting and fishing tradition, would surrender the field in at least some areas to big-box outfitting stores such as Bass Pro Shops and Cabela's.
"For some folks, it will affect them as far as where they get their deer rifle or shotgun," said Gregg Patterson, spokesman for the hunting and conservation group Ducks Unlimited Inc.
The National Rifle Assn. said it was concerned that people in rural areas, where Wal-Mart may be the only purveyor, might no longer have access to guns.
"We've been told by Wal-Mart that the decision would be made on a store-by-store basis, based on demand. The NRA and our members will be watching closely to make sure they stay true to their word," NRA chief lobbyist Chris W. Cox said.
The change could be a boon for mom-and-pop hunting stores that lost business when Wal-Mart moved in, said Steve Wagner, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Wal-Mart's critics and gun control advocates welcomed the move.
"This a good first step," said Paul Blank, director of the union-funded group WakeUpWalMart.com, which contends that there is a growing public safety concern over Wal-Mart's sale of weapons contributing to violence and crime.
Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., has about 1,200 discount stores and 1,900 Supercenters, which include a full grocery section, throughout the 50 states. The retailer says it sells rifles and shotguns. In Alaska, it also sells handguns.
Wal-Mart last month opened an experimental Supercenter for more upscale shoppers in the affluent Dallas suburb of Plano; it does not carry guns.
The Plano store is a testing ground for ideas, such as trendier products and more subdued interiors, that are part of a broad effort to jump-start sluggish growth by luring more affluent shoppers away from faster-growing rivals such as Target Corp.
Chief Executive Lee Scott has said that in communities such as Plano, Wal-Mart's sports department should shift from a traditional emphasis on hunting and fishing to more home fitness and exercise products.