When 33-year-old Paige Biglin moved to Columbus, Ohio, one of the first things she did was get in touch with the Columbus Running Company to find people like her. “From my first run, I felt connected to the group,” she says. “I often attend the store’s Saturday morning run, and before my son was born, I usually stayed for breakfast after. I’ve hung out there as late as 1 p.m. post-run.”
In a market where specialty running stores have to fight harder for business each year, these words are welcome. Running USA statistics show that online running shoe sales have grown from just more than 12 percent of the market in 2010 to 27 percent in 2015. Local retailers usually cannot compete on price, so they get inventive.
Terry Schalow, executive director of the International Running Retailers Association (IRRA), says stores need to “brand,” much like the shoes they sell. “Retailers today need to ensure runners get a unique experience every time they come in the door,” he says. “The smart ones are setting themselves apart by creating value runners can’t get online.”
More Than a Run
Charlotte Walsh opened Boston-based Charles River Running just four years ago and has managed to grow her customer base every year. “I knew I’d need to come into the business with a creative perspective,” she says, “so I came at it as a woman and a lifelong runner. What experiences would I want from my local store?”
She developed several ideas that have proven popular, especially with women. A Thursday run with varying distance options began with 25 runners and has grown to 80. Every third week, she combines the run with an activity or event. “We’ve visited a local boxing studio, a spinning studio and made a trip to a new Wegmans with a registered dietitian to help learn about smart food choices,” Walsh explains. “You form relationships with customers and the local community, and your business grows.”
Mill City Running in Minneapolis has adopted a similar approach. It offers three weekly runs, one of which involves a pancake breakfast afterward at the store. Other events have included fashion shows, trivia night, doughnut runs and partnering with a local brewery. “We also offer monthly challenges and log customer miles on a big public chalkboard,” says manager Mishka Vertin. “We give prizes to everyone hitting 50 miles and 100 miles in a month.”
While both stores have plenty of perks for their regular customers, they say it’s the human connections that really set them apart from the web-based retailers. “We’re concerned about online competition,” says Vertin, “but they can’t beat the community we offer.”
Schalow agrees that community is key. “People are looking for a level of connection these days,” he says. “They’re going to get a custom fit with their shoes, plus relationship building they can’t find online.”
That’s what keeps 44-year-old Malinda Ann Hill loyal to her local store, Philadelphia Runner. “They always remember you by name or race time,” she says. “While it is tempting to purchase running items online for a reduced cost, I’m committed to supporting my local running store, because they continue to give back to the running community as well as the city at large.”
Wine, Dine and Run
As competition for runners’ dollars grows, one California-based running store has taken advantage of its lovely location to build a unique experience and a strong reputation in the community. The Healdsburg Running Company, in the heart of wine country, offers running camps and tours. “This is something the industry needs,” explains owner Skip Brand. “Cycling stores have done this successfully for years, so we took a page from their books.”
Brand launched his first camp last fall, a three-day affair that combined trail running, local wine sampling and meals with some of the area’s top chefs. Ten campers attended while 17 staff members and volunteers from the area ensured a top-notch experience. “The runners get an epic trip, and we get loyal customers in the process,” he says.
This year Brand expanded the offerings to include tours, one of which will give runners the chance to run chunks of the Western States 100 course. While Brand has an optimum location from which to launch camps and tours, it’s an approach he says most running stores can pull off. “Every town has something to share and be proud of,” he says.
Where My Girls At?
With women now comprising a full 57 percent of all runners, according to Running USA, running shoe retailers recognize the importance of catering to their needs. Enter the growing popularity of ladies’ nights.
These events combine a casual atmosphere, shopping, socializing and lots of perks, such as wine and cheese, massages and bra sizing. Female runners can grab some friends and make a fun night out of it.
The Baltimore area’s Charm City Run, with five stores, sees anywhere from 10 to 50 runners in attendance at its quarterly female-focused events. Rich Levi, store manager, says the events provide a less intimidating way for women to get to know their store. “It’s a different atmosphere than walking into a running shoe store for a shoe fitting, which might be intimidating to some,” he says. “It’s a great way to bring women together.”