Survival Of The Fittest

Jim Dwyer, owner and manager of Running Wild in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, talks shoes with a customer. Photo: Robert Murphy

How are we going to compete with this?

Since then, online commerce has become an even greater giant, and Nike has other concept stores to ward off, such as the New Balance Experience Store. Yet, I know for a fact that specialty retail stores continue to stay in business. My question is, how is this possible?

Back in New York City, after watching a pair of shoes being made right before my eyes, I walked downtown to Jack Rabbit Sports.

Located on 14th Street, a block and a half west of Union Square, the store’s logo, a funky yellow rabbit, bounds across a black background running, cycling and swimming. The rabbit is also cast in a yoga pose.

Just inside the door is a broad chalkboard calendar that runs to the ceiling. “Novemburrr!” is written at the top and various workouts and informational sessions for the month, such as “Marathon Info Sessions” and “Urban Trail Runs” are listed in the spaces. The chalkboard calendar is an extension of the myriad training programs, from 5K to marathon schedules to swim programs for all levels—all reminiscent of the types of clinics and programs that running specialty retail pioneer Garry Gribble instituted in his running sports stores for runners and triathletes in the Kansas City, Mo., area many years ago.

Near the rear of the Jack Rabbit store is the shoe wall and a sign-in desk if you would like help from a salesperson. Video screens and cameras are hooked up to a series of treadmills for gait analyses. The sales people are friendly and numerous. The store is busy.

Under the duress of having to compete with big-box retailers and online commerce, Jack Rabbit Sports is an example of how specialty retail running shoe stores have evolved in the last 15 years in order to survive and, in a number of cases across the country, thrive.

In 1978, as a teenager, Luke Rowe sold his first pair of running shoes at a store called Racquet and Jog in the Washington D.C. area. After serving in the U.S. Army, he returned to the specialty running retail world, eventually moving to Brooks and working his way up to vice president of sales. Since 2003, he’s worked for Fleet Feet, a national chain of specialty running shoe franchises, and is now the VP of business development. I asked Rowe about the competition facing the neighborhood running shoe store.

“These things do hurt,” he says, speaking about big-box stores and online dealers. “In tough economic times like these, the online operation can simply drop the price. Running shoe stores that have been hurt have not been prepared.”

I asked him what sort of strategy Fleet Feet has implemented to remain competitive.

“For us, it’s been about education and staff training,” Rowe said. “We look at these things as the lifeblood of our business. Four and a half years ago, we conducted a study and realized that our sales staff didn’t have the confidence in their knowledge that they wanted.” Since then, said Rowe, Fleet Feet has been aggressive about training its on-the-floor sales force in topics such as biomechanics, injury prevention and recovery—issues in which customers often want guidance. Rowe adds that successful running shoe stores take pains to make sales floors more inviting and inclusive as opposed to resonating any sort of running elitism. “We want our stores to be warm and welcoming,” he says. “We don’t want our staff talking about their 10K times.”

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