Doing More With Less

Some of America’s 50 best running stores are making the most of the barefoot running craze.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

A lot of folks in the running industry feared that the barefoot running trend instigated by the publication of Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” last year would be bad for business. It has not been. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. The numbers suggest that barefoot running has greatly increased running industry revenues.

One reason for this surprising boom is that barefoot running is a misnomer—it’s really about running in minimalist running shoes such as the Vibram Bikila. Another reason is that the running industry has been able to respond swiftly and shrewdly to the sudden public reaction against conventional running footwear. And nowhere has this response been more effectively orchestrated than at America’s 50 best running stores.

“If we had more we would sell more,” says Dave Welsh, owner of the Haddonfield Running Company in Haddonfield, N.J., which was among the first running specialty stores to begin stocking Vibrams. “We just can’t get enough product.” Welsh reports that his business’s revenues increased 20 percent in 2010 and that minimalist running footwear was the clear cause. And he’s not alone.

“We’ve just had an unbelievable response to it,” says Barbara Gubbins, co-owner of Gubbins Running Ahead in Easthampton, N.Y., who admits to having worried about whether the Vibram product would move when she placed her first order.

In creating a new category of footwear, the barefoot running trend has brought a new kind of customer into the store, instead of converting existing customers. “Everyone who’s bought the Vibrams is someone who’s never been in the store before,” says Welsh, who also notes that 70 percent of Vibram buyers are male, bucking the recent trend of female-fueled growth in the running market.

For the owners of America’s best running stores, it’s not about cashing in on a fad, however.

Ben Rosario, co-owner of the Big River Running Company in St. Louis, Mo., expresses a common sentiment when he says, “If someone comes in and has read “Born To Run” and wants to try a minimalist shoe, then we are happy to have them try one on. However, it does not end there. We make sure to educate them on the facts about the shoe. We let them know that there is a process to learn how to run in the shoe. That process includes walking in the shoe, then doing some easy jogging in the shoe and finally beginning to run in the shoe. We make them aware that they are not buying a magic shoe.”

The sales staff at Gubbins Running Ahead won’t sell Vibrams or other minimalist shoes to every single customer who comes to the store in search of them. “Our philosophy is that no one shoe is right for everybody,” says Gubbins. “So we have some people come in who we feel are not good candidates for barefoot running. Sometimes the shoe simply doesn’t fit, or they’re just not comfortable in the shoe.”

The guideline she refers to is the Fit, Feel, Ride philosophy of running footwear selection recently created by Competitor. Based on research by leading biomechanics experts showing that runners are more efficient and suffer fewer injuries when they wear the shoes they find most comfortable, Fit, Feel, Ride encourages running retailers to put runners in the shoes with the most comfortable fit, feel and ride—without preconceptions about which type of shoe will work best.

The owners of America’s best running stores believe that Fit, Feel, Ride and the minimalist footwear category are here to stay. At Road Runner Sports in San Diego, Calif., shoppers now find “Minimalist” and “Ultra-Minimalist” display tags on appropriate shoes. Gubbins plans to soon create a whole minimalist footwear section, where customers will find not only Vibrams but also the Nike Free, the New Balance Minimus and other shoes that are sure to come in this vibrant new category of products to cover and protect our bare feet.

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