Retail

Shop Talk

Community is key at Charm City Run which recently added new stores in Rehoboth Beach and Gaithersburg.
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sportstyle checked in with more than a dozen U.S. running specialty retailers to capture the pulse of the running marketplace from coast-to-coast. Similar “hot button” issues emerged among them —inventory, supply chain and staffing. But there also appeared to be an overriding wish and theme — a yearning for a return to some of the old-school and “personal” practices that running shops were known for before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Several mentioned that this would contribute to an outstanding 2023 for each of them.

“We’re going back to basics,” proclaimed Tom Mansfield, president, and COO of Charm City Run which recently added new stores in Gaithersburg and Rehoboth Beach to expand its reach across Maryland to eight stores. “We’re getting out and visiting our best customers. We’ve started doing video gait analysis in store again. We are getting back to what built the (Charm City) brand.”

Like Charm City, Shu’s Idaho Running Co. in Boise, ID, operates an events business and is excited about the opportunity to again support the region’s running community that participates in these races. “We love helping people get to the starting line and keeping their feet happy,” says owner Leone Rusher. 

There are many Maryland residents who are racing for the first time this fall, post-Covid, proclaims Mansfield at Charm City, adding that customers who discovered running and walking during the pandemic are now getting into the race regiment.

“We are most optimistic that the many people who took up exercise during the pandemic will   eventually look to run that first half-marathon or marathon and realize that they can benefit from the expertise and experience obtained by working with our staff to get their training equipment,” offered up Ray Pugsley, owner of VA-based Potomac River Running.

A closer look at the key issues that emerged among our respondents:

Ray Pugsley, owner, Potomac River Running Store.
Inventory

This is the most “challenging” aspect of every run specialty shop’s operation today, according to the respondents, although all don’t see the situation in the same manner. Certain running brands are said to be working with their run specialty partners on moving release dates on key introductions to prevent margin and price-point erosions in the current inventory environment.

“With all the delays and reflows of product, orders from all over the season are showing up now (mid-October), and sometimes unannounced,” explained Brad Brown at The Complete Runner in Flint, MI. “It’s been a challenge to navigate stock levels in our stores as well as combat the endless discounts we see from manufacturers online.”

Brown also offered a positive shout-out to all run specialty retailers who have banded together and assisted each other during months of supply chain bumps in the road. “It’s been amazing that my fellow brothers and sisters in run specialty have helped keep our customers shopping local.”

Steph Blozy, co-owner of the Fleet Feet franchise in West Hartford, CT along with her sister, Carrie, sees inventory gluts as a potential positive on business.

“I hear that we’re going to go from famine to feast (in terms of inventory), but it could be a great opportunity to reach those customers who only buy shoes on sale,” she said. “Having more ‘sale shoes’ may also encourage people to replace their shoes more often since the one thing we have seen since prices have gone up — customers tend to wait longer to replace their shoes.”

Trey Vernon at the Manhattan Running Company in Manhattan, KS insists it’s vital for run specialists to “stay on top of the massive wave of discounts that are happening…to make sure we can still keep our margins up.”

Idaho Running’s Rusher admits her store’s strategy for inventory planning, delayed shipments and excess product remains “a work in progress at the moment.”

Potomac River’s Pugsley believes running shoe distribution has made much progress over the last 3 to 5 years. “With strong MAP policies and fewer rogue sellers, we (run specialists) don’t have to play the ‘price match’ game as much as we did in the past,” he offers, adding, “I hope vendors are smart and get creative with end-of-model solutions that don’t focus on deep discounting.” 

Optimism in 2023 for Seven Hills Running Shop in Seattle centers on “the big disruption in supply chain” finally being over with “life at the shop finally resembling pre-pandemic days.”

Staffing

It remains the most persistent, difficult to rectify challenge facing run specialty retailers today. 

“Not only are we constantly short-staffed, which affects the customer experience in-store, but our turnover is the highest it has ever been,” admitted Potomac River’s Pugsley. “So, we need to be very diligent with training. To make sure our staff is functioning at a high level, we have had to increase the number of people classified as ‘trainers,’ which means having a primary focus on training new employees.

Adds Blozy at Fleet Feet with a bit of sarcasm and worry, “The issue (staffing) is compounded by customers being much more demanding and extra particular — especially when there is a full moon and Mercury in retrograde. We continue to do more with less, but I worry about staff burnout.”

The Complete Runner’s Brown notes that finding qualified candidates that want to work is one of his business’s biggest challenges, adding, “It has become increasingly difficult to find associates that are enthusiastic about run specialty and/or customer service.”

Ready to run at Idaho Running Co.
What’s Hot?

It appears to depend on where your run specialty shop is located and, in some instances, what brands and products were available amidst all the supply chain hiccups. 

While Diadora and Altra have had solid success inside The Complete Runner, Fleet Feet Hartford cites Oofos and Goodr as having “stellar” years for its business that is also now “dabbling” in pickleball shoes from Diadora and Asics.

“And we look forward to ‘Craft Season’ as we call winter here in Connecticut,” asserts Steph Blozy. “It’s our goal that every runner get a Craft base layer and hybrid glove for the holidays.”

Further south in Maryland, Charm City’s Mansfield says more of its customers are requesting Hoka and On styles, with the brands generating new store traffic with the appeal trending younger and through doctor referrals. In the apparel segment, the eight-door chain is investing more in its Sky9 private label as demand for lululemon and Vuori has risen, and apparel brand Tavi Noir has gained “gained decent traction” with its female clientele.

On the pricing front, Mansfield points out that there has been “a little bit of pushback,” or sticker shock if you will, in the sock area as some brands have increased their per pair price points by as much as $3.

In Seattle, Seven Hills Running Shop’s Phil Kochik says highly cushioned trail running SKUs, led by styles from Hoka, are in high demand although other run brands are “catching up” in the segment. The business, which has been a longtime fan of the Topo brand due to its wide range of fitting and cushioning options, is “taking chances” on new brands such as Nnormal and Craft and is okay with moving on from brands not performing well in its store. Kochik says surprise “slow movers” in the trail run segment at his shop have been Salomon, La Sportiva and Scarpa.

Manhattan Running Company in Manhattan, KS.
Keeping a Positive Attitude

Always leaning into the ebbs and flows of the business and maintaining a positive attitude for staff and customers despite macroeconomic, supply chain, staffing or other nagging issues are vital keys to success in run specialty retail.

“Sure, there’s a lot of economic fear out there,” suggests Charm City’s Mansfield. “But the specialty business is somewhat insulated from its impacts. We’ve seen some of this before.”

Adds Fleet Feet’s Blozy, “Some experts say we’re headed toward a major recession but run specialty stores have always bucked that trend and are fairly recession-proof. Life post-pandemic is anything but predictable, so we all need to be quick to react…We’ve seen an uptick in event participation and engagement within the store, so I am thinking optimistically: 2023 is going to be a great year for running retail!”

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Nov 21, 2022

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