The mood at Runchella was upbeat. Held in Chicago May 16-19, Runchella, hosted by the Running industry Association (RIA), brought together running brands and retailers for an event focused on sharing insights and knowledge across the run specialty industry. It was a chance to see old friends, meet new ones, talk with business partners, discuss key issues, and see the latest and greatest new products.
Did I mention friends? That’s what keeps running specialty special. Brands that support retailers. Retailers that support brands. Candid conversations at breakfast, lunch and receptions to share experiences and ideas. And that’s before you go to the presentations. Like any industry gathering, those impromptu conversations help us make mental notes, trigger new ideas and confirm (or reject) strategies that are currently in place.
Chatting with Ross Martinson, the newly elected board president of the RIA, he expressed that business is good and he is optimistic. There are new board members creating new initiatives all with the goal of helping to guide the running specialty channel and its members. The Mastermind Groups, as one example, leverages industry data and peer wisdom to take advantage of new opportunities and to help overcome challenges that stores may be experiencing. I also had the chance to learn about the RIA’s partnership with the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC) and meet Kiera Smalls, Executive Director. RIDC’s mission is to help unite the running industry and to improve inclusion, visibility and access for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in employment, leadership and ownership positions united by a passion and commitment to running.
Other topics of conversation at Runchella revolved around the staffing challenges which continue to weigh on the minds of the store owners. How to hire, who to hire, and once you hire them, how to keep them. The process has changed a bit. There are new ground rules and new expectations — some reasonable, some not so much. What do employees (or potential employees) want from their store owners? What do store owners expect from their employees? Quality of life versus income. Tough questions with no easy answers. As Josh Levinson from Charm City Run put it: “Employee retention is key. Don’t lose good people.”
On the topic of “how’s business?” The consensus was that the pandemic was “good” for run specialty, if you can call anything about it good. It changed people’s fitness habits, and in many cases brought new first-time customers into running stores. As fitness clubs were forced to close, people went outside, deciding to walk or run for fitness. New customers equal new business. And those new customers need guidance as they go from a casual walker to a fitness walker or from a casual runner to a more avid runner. They want to shop local, support the community and be a part of the social experience that specialty stores offer.
Yes, supply chain challenges continue to be an issue. They will most likely continue for the near future with transit delays, longer lead times and delivery snafus to name just a few. From my conversations, the consensus is that it’s all about managing expectations and the importance of communication between brands and retailers is key.
I came away from Runchella with a new appreciation for the retail tech that has been developed by Upper Quadrant, which provides data sharing allowing participating retailers to get a snapshot of how their sales track against other specialty stores. It also provides customized reports that show what brands are selling and to whom (new customers vs. existing). Digging a little deeper, you can see if those new customers come back to buy the same brand shoe the next time. And deeper still…. your store’s sock-to-shoe sold ratio, your insole-to-shoe sold ratio, your new customer ratio, data points that paint a picture of how your individual store’s sales are compared to the larger national group, and more. It’s a “how am I doing?” report card. These reports can help retailers increase sales. The presentation by Upper Quadrant highlighted the power of data sharing by specialty retailers. It can rival the largest big box retailers by giving the collective specialty retailers as a group the loudest voice in the room, and a true force to be reckoned with. We all know the power of the run specialty channel.
Thank you to Terry Schalow, RIA executive director, and all the members and sponsors of the RIA, for coordinating and hosting an informative and productive conference.