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The COVID-19 Crisis: A Running Brand Leans on Community Building

As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts all businesses, the founders of the apparel brand Rabbit remain optimistic.

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Editor’s note: This is part three of a six-part series about how the running industry is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll investigate several aspects of the sport through the experiences of the women who are navigating and leading the industry.

Part One: How Racing Will Rebound
Part Two: Helping Running Clubs Get Back on Track

It was March 19 when Monica DeVreese’s two young sons came home from school in Santa Barbara, California. They were told classes would be on hold for two weeks, just until COVID-19 was under control. Even so, it set off some alarms for DeVreese about the business she co-founded, the running apparel brand, Rabbit.

As it turned out, her gut instinct was correct—an outbreak turned into a COVID-19 pandemic, which is entering its fifth month in the U.S. DeVreese started Rabbit in 2014 with her co-founder Jill Deering. The brand is still quite new, so the anxiety about a shutdown was real.

“We’re in start-up mode still,” DeVreese says. “The part of the business I stress about, like any business owner, is the financial piece. My first thoughts were, ‘The economy is going to tank, nobody is going to spend, everybody’s going to be scared.’”

But a positive outcome of COVID-19 is that running remains a safe activity. As gyms and studios across the country struggle to reopen, public health experts have encouraged people to get outdoors to exercise. Newcomers to walking and running, combined with established participants, also seem willing to purchase apparel and gear.

According to the NPD Group, a market research company, the running market is on the upswing after decline in March. Brands like Brooks, Hoka One One, and On Running showed double- and triple-digit growth in June, compared to 2019. Brooks recently told Fortune that it expects to see a 20 percent increase in sales for the year.

“We are seeing a renewed interest in and commitment to health and fitness take hold and I expect performance running will be a real beneficiary in today’s COVID-19 world,” says Matt Powell, NPD’s sports industry advisor, in a written statement. “With sales declining on an annual basis and athleisure becoming the driving force in footwear, it has been a mixed bag for the performance running footwear market, however the current environment could work in its favor.”

For DeVreese, the immediate concern in March and April was making sure Rabbit could still operate as a business under the California rules. Then the attention focused on creating a safe environment for employees to work, outlining protocols for sanitation and mitigating any risk of spreading COVID-19.

Early in the pandemic, many people also worried that the virus could spread on surfaces, like packages. Public health officials have since said that it’s mainly spread person-to-person through respiratory droplets.

“So, we also wanted to make sure that our consumers felt comfortable with the packages they were receiving from us,” DeVreese says.

As it turned out, Rabbit’s sales followed the pattern of those other running-specific brands. Online sales have steadily increased during the pandemic, to some of the company’s best-ever results, even launching two new product lines amid mayhem. DeVreese has been relieved—if not a bit surprised.

“If you want to call it a running boom or not, it just seems like people can’t go out with their friends, so maybe they think, ‘I’m going to forgo that cute pair of jeans, but maybe I’ll buy a new running outfit instead,’” DeVreese says. “I’m not 100 percent sure that’s what’s happening, but it’s been interesting. I feel blessed and fortunate.”

Early on, DeVreese and the Rabbit team decided it’d be important to focus on messaging and tone as long as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on. They knew that as races were cancelled for the year and goals continued to slip away, the brand wanted to serve as a platform to lift spirits and motivate runners. And as part of that initiative, they launched “Operation Appreciation,” in which runners could nominate fellow runners who are also frontline healthcare workers to receive some free gear.

“Jill and I just want to keep inspiring people more than ever right now,” DeVreese says. “We tweaked our messaging a bit and we’ve also known that circumstances can change daily. Every day we talk about how we can interact with the consumer and rally our community. It seems to be working.”

DeVreese and her husband, Joe DeVreese, also own local running store Santa Barbara Running Company. As retail shops were forced to shut down, she’s been especially appreciative of how the industry has tried to help specialty retailers get through the tough times in order to make it to the other side of the pandemic.

“The bigger footwear brands have been incredible, giving automatic 60 day extensions on invoice payments, for example, or pushing product launches out so stores aren’t inundated with inventory when they reopen,” she says. “That’s taken off a huge stress.”

And while her two sons remain mostly home, DeVreese has personally decided to try to make the most of the time in which she’s not always in a rush to get on planes, go to meetings, or scramble to the kids’ activities. It may not be the best reason to slow life down, but she’ll take the opportunity while it exists.

“That can apply to running, too. Since there are no races right now, enjoy the run for what it is, enjoy the beauty of the time we have right now,” she says. “I know there have been some really dark days, but I see a glimmer of light. I’m optimistic for next year. We have to keep on keepin’ on.”