Why North America's Top Drone Seller Is Betting You Won't Buy Drones Online

Drones Plus is doing something no one expected: embracing brick and mortar.

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Drones Plus claims plausibly to be the largest drone retailer in North America. Like the market it operates in, the company is young; founder Mike Thorpe began offering drones online in 2013 then opened his first brick-and-mortar store in 2014. In doing so, he was swimming against the online-only retail trend. His reasoning was simple: Test drives are a thing and test flights should be as well.

Thorpe’s strategy worked pretty damn well. Drones Plus currently operates 15 locations in 10 states and Canada. And the company is still expanding to meet demand. Thorpe chatted with Inverse about why a physical location makes sense for drones, and where retailers fit in with the growing drone hobby.

What prompted the decision to switch from online to a physical seller? It seems sort of strange at a time when so many physical stores — like RadioShack, or Barnes and Noble — are struggling?

How do you take the unconventional route to brick and mortar, when everyone is transitioning to online? We looked at the metrics, at what the customers were asking for, and the difference was that the retail store has to make it tangible.

When we were an online business, our customers kept wanting flight training: How do I fly? Or somebody needs to fix it. Or, can you come in and show me how to upgrade my firmware? People were actually coming to our corporate office at the time, instead of having them shipped. We thought, why don’t we just have a retail store? We gambled — we’re in Las Vegas — so we wanted to take a gamble, to make sure our concept worked.

Looking back at the history of model aircraft and helicopters, these were hobbies supported by local shops — you could go and talk to someone who knew how to fly. Was that missing from the drone purchasing experience?

When we opened our stores in 2014, no big store like Best Buy or Walmart or Sam’s Club carried drones. No one really knew what it was. People wanted to come in and touch it and feel it. To understand it and see what it was all about.

You also want to have someone know they can come back with a problem, and one of our technicians can fix it. Kind of like a dealership. If you buy a BMW you want to be able to take it back to the dealer and have him help you with it, fix it, and replace parts.

It’s also something that flies. It’s a high-tech product that you need a little bit more understanding, a little bit more time with it, than your normal consumer product purchase.

How many customers are buying their first drone from you?

I’d say about 70 to 80 percent of our customers are first time drone buyers. We really market to the novice, beginner, just stepping in.

As a retailer, what’s your role in making sure that the drones you sell are flown safely?

For the past year we were handing out a one-page pamphlet of the rules of the road, the do’s and don’ts, and letting it train our customers. It hurts everybody when a person buys a drone and causes some sort of public relations nightmare, like landing in the White House or doing something crazy. We want to be able to make sure that anyone who buys our drones does so in a responsible and fun manner. Making sure it’s flying in sight, making sure you’re flying during the day, making sure you don’t go past 400 feet, not flying near airports and over military situations, stadiums, and restricted airspace. And just have fun. Make sure you do it in a safe way, don’t fly over lots of people, just be responsible with it.

We also make them sign a liability waver with every purchase, just for the fact they understand it’s a responsibility. What you’re flying is not just a toy. Especially if you get into some of the heavier drones, you really need to take it on a bit more seriously.

This is new technology. People need to know that when you fly one of these things — just like driving a car — you need to have some sense of responsibility. Because you could hurt or injure somebody or worse. It’s like a baseball. You wouldn’t throw a baseball over the side of a freeway, where it falls and hits a car. You shouldn’t fly a drone into areas that could cause damage. Or crazy stuff — use common sense. Most people do, but it’s always those few people who really spoil it for everyone.

The FAA was estimating that these drones were going to be so hot this holiday season.

Four hundred thousands, 700 thousand, or up to a million — that’s what they’ve been projecting.

Are the FAA’s new regulations affecting your sales?

I’ll say that we sell millions of dollars in drones a month and I’ll leave it at that. We’ve seen an exponential increase from last Christmas. We’re enjoying the drone wave.

A lot of people were on the sidelines and, now that there’s concrete rules, it’s really going to bring them in. We were in the Wild West for the fact that no one really knew regulation; no one really knew what you could do, what you couldn’t. Some people didn’t have common sense and were causing problems over the wildfires in California or near airports. People not using their heads.

A lot of people disagree, but think about it: When you know what you can or can’t do, it’s a lot better than being in this vague area. People think, Should I do this? Should I buy this? And people get concerned and it brings out an uneasiness. Now that that’s gone away, it’s going to drive sales. We are going to see more drones than we do now.

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