Survival Of The Fittest

America’s specialty running shoe retailers continue to survive, and in many cases thrive, despite the rise of online commerce, big-box store discounts and a tough economy. How are they doing it?

On Nov. 5, the day before the 2011 ING New York City Marathon, I visited the New Balance Experience Store, which opened in August, on 5th Avenue and 20th Street. It’s a swanky establishment with theater acoustics, bleached hardwood floors, brick walls and full-spectrum lighting setting off Lifesaver-colored displays of apparel and shoes. Near the back of the store is the New Balance Testing Center, which houses a treadmill for gait analysis and a lane of synthetic track that extends through a corridor and into a crash pad.

The coolest thing: At the front of the store in what looks like an elaborate DJ booth is an operating shoe-building lab, which showcases that New Balance continues to make some of its shoes in the U.S. During my visit, a young man named Carl was making NB 880s. He would wrap fabric around a last and center it on a foam midsole, checking featherpoints to ensure the alignment was exact. From there, the shoe-in-the-making went through several machines, including one called a sole press, exposing Carl’s creation to 126 degrees F and 45 PSI. He then used a “delaster” to pop the shoe off the last and showed me the completed product. My inner shoe geek emerged; watching Carl glue the shoe together was a highlight of my day.

The New Balance Experience store is a corner running shoe store on designer steroids.

More from Once A Running Shoe Salesman

I recall how the dynamics of business in the early aughts applied plenty of pounds per square inch to specialty running shoe stores. The discounts offered by big-box retailers were one thing, but the rise of discounts on shoes sold through the Web was another. As a former specialty running shoe sales guy, I will tell you that it’s a depressing feeling to spend a half hour or more playing matchmaker with a customer and their perfect shoe only to hear them ask, “Can you write down the name of that shoe for me? And the size?” It happened to me plenty of times—at my feet would be four or five pairs of shoes that needed to be re-boxed and returned to the stock shelves. I watched customers walk out knowing they were going home to order the shoes online for a $5 discount.

There were big-box stores, mail order and then the new potential enemy: the concept store. Some time ago, when I worked at Hoy’s Sports, a running shoe store in San Francisco, Niketown came to the city. It resembled a theme park more than a shoe store. I recall the first time I stood in the running department. There was a glass case that contained six-time Ironman champion Mark Allen’s open logbook. The apparel hung sensationally in lighting that was surely done by Steven Spielberg. If you asked to try on a pair of shoes, a space-age elevator machine delivered them from the depths below the store. I descended down to the first floor on escalators, awash with music and imagery, and thought about the good old running shoe store in which I worked, where it just so happened we sold our share of Nikes. I remember thinking, “How are we going to compete with this?”

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