One of my key discussion themes this past year has been the challenges to the local running store culture. As a media publisher, I see local running stores as key to developing the sport, much like running clubs and school teams. As someone who has benefitted from the knowledge gained at the local running store, I see this part of our running culture as being critical in the sports’ growth.
In this discussion, I take a hard look at the challenges that have overcome the local running store business. I do this to help you realize that to solve a problem, you must realize that a problem exists.
I will be writing more about this topic over the next several months.
Robbie Andrews, taking second in the Olympic Trials 1500 meters, photo by PhotoRun.net
2016 Summer Outdoor Retailer Diary–How to survive the decline in local running store business
At the beginning of August, most summers, I find myself in Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retail trade show. I usually spend one or two days, with our footwear review editor, Cregg Weinmann, and visit many of the top running footwear brands to see what they will offer in Spring 2017 and the 2016 Holidays. Besides looking at footwear, we meet with many of our comrades in the running, adventure and trail business, to find out what the trends are, and what is the future of our business.
This is a strange time in running retail.
With The Sports Authority going out of business, many of the brands were hurt. The hurt has been going on, for many brands, for the past couple of years. But, probably the biggest challenges in running are in Running Specialty. You know, the local running store.
There are sub groups in the running specialty business now. The high point in run specialty was in 2006 and 2007, when nearly everyone was making money. Up until 2011, the business continued to grow, but over the past four to five years, the run specialty business went from making money to breaking even, to loosing a bit, and now, run specialty is loosing five percent to seven percent if you are lucky, with some stores loosing as much as twenty percent in their sales.
Why? Many reasons.
Running participation is still pretty good, but many runners, and women are in this particular demographic, are seeing running as no longer the be all or end all, but part of a training and fitness program where running is important, but not the focus of their training. Brands like ASICS were noticing this six or seven years ago. New Balance calls this group Metropolitans, where running is important, but part of their dynamic fitness program.
And more than anything, it is how the runner purchases products that is changing. And how they are looking at that product. Brands like Nike and adidas have created online experiences that are embraced by many young adult runners. While high school and college cross country and track are thriving, many local running stores have no relationships with local schools, clubs and universities. How did it get to this?
Online is the key to the growth in running over the past two years. There are several that are kicking proverbial butt on line, selling real running shoes at near suggested retail prices. The retail experience online varies, but some of them are quite good. While Amazon is responsible for much of the growth, each major brand has strong online sales, and online stores like Runnerswarehouse have embraced online sales, and see strong growth because they have figured out how to communicate with the online consumer and provide them the content and assets that they need. And they can not be ignored anymore, as they are doing a very good job retailing to the running community.
How do brick and mortar running stores survive?
Many are looking at adventure, trail, recovery, apparel, training devices, training programs with clubs. They find out what works, through trial and error in their local communities and employ focused, enthusiastic people to champion their stores and their brands.
And they work on their social and digital presence as well. We see that most of the top stores have great newsletters, and social media and are constantly in communication with their consumer.
Brick and mortar running stores will survive, and many of them will thrive, but it will be through strong leadership, and understanding of the local market, understanding the mixture of brands and products that are needed locally, and how to reach out to the local running community.
Many of my key contacts in the business are concerned. They think that running may have not hit bottom yet. Over the past two to three years, running retail has been losing sales, and that has continued. Some see this as a negative, but the savvy manager and marketer can learn, and use this market as a benefit. Running participation is strong, but, like the rest of society, it is balkanizing, or breaking into more and more interest groups.
The first thing to do? Realize that there are challenges and minefields in the business right now, and ask questions. Ask your readers of your newsletter and social media how they are purchasing, what products they like, what they don’t. Business intelligence is key. Publications like Running Insight, produced by our friends at Formula 4 media are a must read. Work with brands that will support you. Realize that all brands are online, but for you to succeed, the brands you champion need to support you in all media platforms, social, digital, and yes, print. Runners tend to have higher educations and higher incomes, and if you forget print, you are giving your competition a way to outrun you.
If you are not paying attention to your newsletter online, then find someone who will. Go to the local high school, or college and find a bright young runner who lives on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram among others. Build your mailing list. Work with local running media to get content and use the newsletter and social media to develop your brand, your friendly hyper local running store.
If you have not already, develop relationships with local high schools, junior highs, community colleges and university programs. Find out who the coaches are, offer to hold XC and Track nights. Provide a night where local coaches can speak on training. Help at a local cross country meet, or track meet. Take the time to develop the relationships.
Reach out to the local running clubs and health clubs. If the clubs offer a running class, offer to help and provide discounts. Provide info on local Crossfit, and other fitness clubs in your store. Host an event in your store to promote Cross fit. Cross promotions make great sense.
You are going to have to work harder, but the process and the results are key to the success of your store. You are going to have to invest more in your staff, and showing them, by your example, how important the business truly is to you, and to the community.
In the late 1970’s, 1980’s, and early 1990s the local running store was THE place to be if you were a runner. As society fractures, local training groups are even more important. Running stores that provide more options, more services and make a runner feel valued are the ones that runners will use. Developing your online presence also gives the runner an option outside of your store that still is local and still gives you value.
I do not pretend to have most of the answers, but, in order to assess a problem, you need to at least recognize that a problem exists.
Purchasing behavior is changing and local running stores have many more challenges than three years ago. Embrace those challenges and try some ways to reach out to your current, potential and past consumers.
And, good luck….
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