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Forward Motion

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As summer approaches, running shops across the U.S. are feeling like things are rolling forward. After the stress, strain and extraordinary adaptability required of independent shops over the past year, running store owners are bringing the next era of their shops into view. And while the effects of the past year varied — sometimes widely — from area to area, state to state and even community to community, the resilience of the run channel as a whole, and the well-documented influx of runners and walkers to the industry, has given shop owners new opportunities as they work on getting back to business. Here, four shops talk about their plans going forward.

Embracing the New Landscape

Running Wild • Pensacola, FL and Fairhope, AL
Customers are returning to events, training groups and races, according to Running Wild owner Paul Epstein.

For Paul Epstein, owner of the two Running Wild stores in Pensacola, FL and nearby Fairhope, AL, 2021 is all about capitalizing on opportunities. Having celebrated the business’ 20th anniversary during the pandemic (which is to say, the occasion wasn’t marked at all), Epstein said he’s excited to ring in Running Wild’s 21st year with a doubled-in-size Fairhope location, renewed events business and making the e-commerce operation it launched during the pandemic more efficient.

Business was significantly up last year and is trending up again this year, he said, with “pent-up demand” driving increases in transactions, sales and average ticket size. There’s been population growth in his Gulf Coast area, bringing new customers to the store as well, Epstein said.

“We’ve probably seen a 15 percent increase in new customers — some of them are new to the area; many are just people that we’ve known for years,” he said. “Since there hasn’t been as much travel, people have more disposable income and are into health and fitness as much as ever. Running and being outdoors are more important to people, and frankly, there’s some really cool choices in the footwear.”

Apparel has also been a strong performer, and he’s planning on devoting some of the additional floorspace in Fairhope to expanding the offering.

“We had a great apparel year, with a positive trend in apparel growth and margin,” he said, citing a shift to comfort and active lifestyle looks that was only accelerated by the number of people working from home. And apparel specialists have been the brands benefiting.

“For the core running brands, we’re carrying their apparel, but we’ve scaled back,” he said. “We’ve shifted to brands like Vuori, Glyder and Rabbit, which are much more resonant with the non-runner.”

While race numbers aren’t yet matching what they were at their pre-pandemic peak, Epstein added, he estimates events like the April half marathon had 80 percent of their former numbers, with strong signups for training groups.

“Our beginning training groups are much more social than technical while still feeding into our races, and I think those people are back. They’re ready to get back into that social aspect of what running is,” he said.

And Epstein himself is looking forward to a certain social event himself.

“We’re going to do our belated 20 year celebration this August,” he said. “We’ll be celebrating 20 while we turn 21. I think we’re going to go with the theme, ‘Double Down.’”

Embracing the Social Side

Bozeman Running Co. • Bozeman, MT
Buying deeper with key brands to avoid shortages is a strategy for 2021 at Bozeman Running Co.

Driven by an influx of new-to-the-area runners and outdoor enthusiasts, Bozeman Running Co. had a record year of sales in 2020 despite a six-week shutdown and curtailed event schedule. So when it comes to 2021, owner Casey Jermyn said he’s excited about the possibilities of a more normal year — especially when it comes to events and race.

“We’re still in that flux with customers,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement, but we haven’t gotten to the finish line yet.”

Jermyn said that product scarcity this year has driven him to book more key items earlier.

“This year we’re trying to work as far in advance as we can, and cleaning up the fringe items,” he said. “We’re making deeper buys on products that sell really well to lock it up rather than trying to spread things too thin.” That’s meant no new lines in the store, he said, apart from new shoes from The North Face.

But looking into spring and summer, he said, it’s the events opportunity that has him excited.

“Event registrations are looking really strong: people understand that they’re outside, that the group sizes are limited,” he said. Bozeman Running hasn’t added in-store events back into the mix yet, he said, and some things, like a popular Brew Run series that used to see 300-plus participants running to a local brewery, have been pushed back to May when the post-run drinks can be hosted in the outdoor beer garden.

“Last year introduced a lot of people to the great outdoors and running, and we’re excited to continue to capture that market as they still get out and stay active,” he said. “But the big thing those people are looking for is that they want to meet their running community. So, let’s give them that next step. You got out the door, so let’s really show you what this running community is and get you involved.”

Investing in the Collective

Finger Lakes Running Co • Ithaca, NY
The Trails Collective site offers race coverage, gear reviews and e-commerce.

In the early days of the pandemic, Finger Lakes Running Co. owner Ian Golden launched a new online trail running initiative, one he’d been planning since 2018. The Trails Collective, which went live in March 2020, was designed to bring together race information, gear reviews, event coverage and the store’s e-commerce operation.

“To highlight regional races or trail work — you can’t do that at a national scale at effectiveness,” Golden said. Media coverage of trail races, he said, was lacking at the local level, and he saw an opportunity for a site that could channel trail fans into local stores in the Northeast, benefit local races (including ones put on by Golden’s own events company) as well as earn supporters’ business via the e-commerce site. And he’s bullish about the site’s potential: Trail events in New York state were allowed to run during the past year with certain participation caps and residency restrictions, and as he’s been planning for this summer’s events, he’s seeing long waiting lists for events that he attributes to the “bottled-up demand.”

Despite the pandemic restrictions, sales at Finger Lakes Running Co. were up 14 percent last year (and an additional 1 percent up from e-commerce) driven by former gym-goers and other shoppers looking for ways to stay healthy and get into the outdoors. And the opportunity to grow the Trails Collective (possibly even outside the local area into other regions), he said, is one that could be important this year. “Our hope is to give [the site] more exposure and tie together the regional trail community,” he said.

Taking Care of What Matters

Lincoln Running Co • Lincoln, NE
Races are continuing for Lincoln Running Co., albeit with limits and precautions in place.

The staff at Lincoln Running Co. in Lincoln, NE, may have spent the last year open, but store manager Ann Ringlein said doing business through the pandemic has given her a new perspective on how she does business.

Some things haven’t — and won’t — be changing. The store’s events and training groups are continuing, albeit with permits from the health department, spacing, limits and careful consideration of safety features.

“We’re slowly and carefully moving ahead,” she said.

And Ringlein said that, driven by her young employees, the shop has seen a shift in what kinds and brands of shoes are moving. “I have some really great employees who are not afraid to bring out other shoes and really articulate and get across to customers what the shoe is,” she said. “And I listen to them.” Ringlein said the store has been doing “amazing” things with Hoka One One and that Saucony’s Endorphin series had “blown out.”  Other hits have included Under Armour’s Flow franchise and fresher Asics models like the Glideride and Dynablast.

But mostly, she said, she’s going forward with a new sense of what her store’s role is in the community.

“We’ve learned what we don’t need: We don’t need to be in everybody’s face all the time about ‘this is what we’re doing,’” she said. After taking a step back from store outreach that centered the shop and its services, and even from the amenities and extras at races and training groups that pandemic restrictions made impossible, Ringlein said she and her customers are doing fine without them. “We have to take care of each other this year. People just really take a sigh of relief when people are nice to them. I think that’s what it’s about,” she said. “It’s not about us — it’s about what we can do for you and how we can help you.”

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