Bringing Beginners In
The running group Chinatown Runners at an event at Brooklyn Running Company.
Across the industry, the influx of new consumers picking up running over the past few years has generated plenty of buzz, along with plenty of new customers. At the run specialty retail level, offering a welcoming environment to newer runners is something shops each take different approaches with. Runstyle talked to several run specialty stores across the country about how they reach beginning runners, including helping them overcome any anxieties they face not just in taking up the sport but often in just walking into a run specialty shop to begin with.

Brooklyn Running’s Motto: “Beginners Are Our Specialty”

Brooklyn Running Company’s motto – “Beginners Are Our Specialty” – is printed on both of its stores in Williamsburg and Park Slope. The stores see new runners across ages and backgrounds, including those returning to the sport after a break.

“A lot of newer runners can be overwhelmed by the number of brands and types of running shoes that are available today,” said Sarah Stafford, marketing director. “When shopping online or from a brand retail shop, it can be difficult for beginners to navigate all the options and understand the technical terminology around running shoes.”

At the store level, Brooklyn Running’s staff starts every conversation with a new customer by asking questions to understand what brought them to the store, whether they’re prepping for an upcoming race, have personally set a running goal, or are dealing with any current or past injuries. Stafford said, “This helps our team to guide the conversation and understand what running experience and knowledge the customer may be bringing into the dialogue.”

All events hosted at Brooklyn Running’s stores are open to runners of all paces and experience levels. The stores also engage with running clubs and crews around the city that attracts a diverse mix of runners. Stafford added, “Age is less of a factor than running experience and goals, as we see both beginners and more advanced runners of all ages.”

Gazelle Sports is a partner in the Super Bloom run series, created as a welcoming series for all runners and walkers.

Gazelle Sports Targets Youth and Female Newbies

At Grand Rapids, MI-based Gazelle Sports, a major focus this past spring on track and field activations, including extending efforts to middle school programs, has resulted in many younger runners coming to its seven locations. The overall approach to reaching newbies, however, is breaking down barriers and meeting each customer where they are, according to Jennifer Brummitt, CEO.

“Our opportunity is to make sure we are quickly connecting with people on the human level — really listening to their needs, building a relationship and then offering products or suggestions,” said Brummitt. “At the end of the day, we are all human and crave human connection and if we can build trust and relationship that will lead to great customer experiences. This looks different for every customer but for our younger track and field athletes this might be asking about non-track related things just to get them talking (school, weekend plans, etc.) or sharing our own stories or shared connections we might have.”

Gazelle Sports is also adding more measures to help ensure women are comfortable embracing the sport. The chain moved its signature event, “She Runs Grand Rapids,” which traditionally took place in spring, to fall to accommodate a more comfortable training environment through summer months. With recent stories highlighting safety for women runners, more daylight group runs are being offered by the chain. Brummitt said, “Our ability to adapt to the evolving needs and concerns of newer female runners has made overcoming these challenges more feasible.”

To drive customer acquisition, Gazelle Sports partnered this year with a local organization called Friendship Miles to launch a run/walk series at a local female and LGBTQ+ owned café, Outside Coffee Co., through the summer.

“The purpose of this series is to create a welcoming environment for all runners and walkers, by providing diverse representation, a no-drop route, and an opportunity to meet and mingle with fellow runners and walkers afterward,” said Brummitt. “The no-drop component of this series is most important to ensure they can join with confidence that they won’t be left out on the course if they can’t keep up with a certain pace. More so than an ‘all paces welcome’ environment, the no-drop Super Bloom run series signals to participants that you don’t even have to have a ‘pace’ to know that you won’t be out there alone.”

A Runner’s Mind has increasingly been connecting with local run clubs that value the fun and social aspect of running.

A Runner’s Mind Seeing More Social Newbies

A Runner’s Mind, with two stores in San Francisco and Burlingame, CA, has long put a focus on middle schoolers and high schoolers starting cross country and track & field for the first time. Pushes include outreach to schools, but also shoe and spike fit nights at stores. Eileen Urtz, general manager, said, “What we love about having them come to the stores is that they bring their parents, and their parents do the fit process, and suddenly, you have a whole family invested in running specialty and what we do.”

Over the last two years, however, A Runner’s Mind has also seen more post-college consumers, ages 25 and slightly older, come either because they played sports in college and they’re looking to stay active, or for social reasons. Indeed, Urtz said social media has supported the arrival of a number of new run clubs geared toward those in their 20s or 30s and “very much focused on fun and social events” that complement the many traditional clubs focused on race training.

“Running can be so social, especially in a city like San Francisco,” Urtz said, “We often see it in groups where two or three friends will come together to get fit because they’re training for their first 5K or they’re gonna do a half marathon.”

One of the newer efforts for A Runner’s Mind is connecting with many of the newer run clubs, including inviting certain clubs to a store to try product in partnership with a vendor. Urtz said, “They see what we’re about, do a demo, and have a good time. We’re just trying to target ones that don’t know about us, so they see what the greater running community is all about.”

At the store level, fitters are trained to not make any assumptions about anyone’s running ability, listen for the individual’s needs and past issues around running, and particularly to convey that run specialty shops aren’t just for elite runners. She said, “It’s just really trying to make people feel at ease.”

Palmetto Running Co. offers a welcoming environment for all who enter its doors.

Palmetto Running Co. Lays Out the Welcome Mat

Palmetto Running Co. focuses first and foremost on ensuring its two stores in Hilton Head Island and Bluffton, SC, offer as much of a welcoming environment as possible.

“Lots of comfy seating, good music, good smells, and lots of beautifully merchandised products,” said co-owner Keri Straughn. “Second, we train our staff to C.A.R.E. (Connect: greet; Assess: determine the customers personality color; Relate: meet them where they’re at; Educate: what products are best for them and why). You can’t sell to everyone the same way because everyone is different. So, we have focused on how to determine peoples’ personalities to determine the type of service we provide.”

She said that since the pandemic, Palmetto Running has seen an influx of new runners, whether they’re aspiring to improve their physical and mental health, looking to enjoy the outdoors, or being attracted to the social aspects of running.

Beyond a couch to 5K program, Palmetto Running hosts a challenge at the beginning of every year where participants are asked to run or walk just one mile every day in January. It also hosts a Ladies Only event every month with some women intimidated to join co-ed group runs. Straughn said, “We make sure to talk up these events as much as possible online (especially in Facebook groups) to get the word out to beginners who may not be as familiar with us.”

One of the biggest challenges with beginners, she finds, is group runs. Straughn said, “Being sure to provide pace leaders and buddies for new members is essential.”

AppRunCo has a four-step fit model, with “listening” as step one.

AppRunCo Sees Social Media Helping Driving Youth to Running

Appalachian Running Company (AppRunCo), with six stores across Pennsylvania, has several marketing and community programs aimed specifically at newbies, including weekly walking and running clubs, group runs, couch to 5K programs, demo events, and PT-supported clinics.

“All of these efforts are designed to be inclusive and accessible, with a focus on building confidence and community,” said Lauren Klapper, marketing director at Shoe Fly Shoe, the parent of AppRunCo.

Klapper said that while AppRunCo sees a mix of age groups, a noticeable uptick in interest in running has been seen among young people, especially with the growing popularity of fitness trends/apps and social media influence. Social media, however, can present some challenges. Klapper observed, “While social media can provide new insight and inspiration, it can also overwhelm with conflicting advice and unrealistic expectations. We strive to cut through the noise by providing personalized guidance and fostering genuine connections with our customers.”

AppRunCo has a four-step fit model that emphasizes “listening” as the first step. Klapper said, “We can make sure that the shoes we’re putting on your feet are tailored to fit, style, and speed (speed in the literal sense but also in a lifestyle/activity sense).”

Indeed, Klapper said probably the biggest challenge lies in overcoming any apprehension a “newbie” may have about running stores in general. With the stores mantra being “Your Fit, Your Style, Your Speed,” AppRunCo’s fit specialists put a high value on empathy and understanding in tailoring recommendations to individual needs.

“You might look at ‘running’ in our name and feel intimidated or overwhelmed, especially if you yourself feel inexperienced or not up to a certain fitness level,” said Klapper. “Our mission is rooted in creating a non-intimidating, encouraging atmosphere where everyone feels welcome, regardless of their running background or fitness level.”

Playmakers has a diverse product mix and a diverse marketing strategy that goes beyond the “typical runner.”

Playmakers Leans on Classes and Training Programs in Targeting Beginners

At Playmakers in Okemos, MI, free weekly Good Form classes and injury clinics as well as training programs and outreach events play a big role in engaging new runners. Some of the store’s digital marketing efforts also aim to lessen any apprehension a beginner might have about walking into a run specialty shop.

“I think we still often hear ‘I’m not a runner,’ which leads me to believe they might have been intimidated to come in,” said Lindsey Mulder, co-owner. “However, the diversity of products that we carry does allow us to market to those folks who don’t consider themselves a runner. We have also really tried to provide diversity in our marketing efforts outside of the ‘typical runner’ as it relates to age, race and body size.”

Playmakers offers a variety of Team Playmakers training programs geared toward new to seasoned runners. Mulder estimates that about 27 percent of current Team Playmakers participants are new to the program with most of those new to running or walking. Mulder adds, “We make sure we have pace leaders for paces up to 15-minute miles as well as a ‘walker’ designated pace leader.”

Kids Milage Club (K-6) and Kids Run Club (3-6) programs are also offered to get youth into the sport.

At the store level, staff takes newbies through a six-step fit process, but the overall goal is to make a connection with the aspiring runner. Mulder said, “They are encouraged to take their time, ask questions and really connect with the customers and meet them wherever they are at in the journey. Personally, I think our staff LOVES a new running customer. We get so excited to be a part of their journey!”