Sole Man: Can Running Specialty Shops Survive?

The Competitive Foot in Western Springs, Ill., was the first athletic shoe store in Illinois when it opened in 1974.

Some small running shops are fighting for survival as consolidation, national expansion and online sales grow.

When I was a freshman in high school and just starting to become a running geek, I found my way into a running specialty shop for the first time. Although I had been running cross country and track for a few years before that, my mom typically took me to a traditional shoe store or big sporting goods store to buy running shoes.

Back then, the running shoe industry was still in its infancy (and so was shoe design), but there was still a world of difference between the massive sporting goods stores and the small specialty run shops that began popping up in the Chicago-area. Sure, big box stores like Sportmart or Herman’s Sporting Goods or Morrie Mages Sports had loads of product, good prices and huge sales, but no one knew a thing about running. Certainly no one at those places knew the difference between the original Adidas Oregon lightweight trainers and a pair of Nike American Eagle racing flats.

As soon as I set foot inside the Competitive Foot in Western Springs, Ill., a whole new world opened up to me. First, most of the store was dedicated to running—shoes, socks, wind jackets, skimpy nylon split shorts and accessories—and the people who worked there were actually runners. This was before any hydration accessories, running tights, compression socks or energy gels existed, but I remember always seeing race entry forms for local events like the Western Springs Tower Trot, a few running magazines and one of those famous “There Is No Finish Line” posters from Nike hanging on the walls.

When I was a kid, that was my candy store.

The store was owned by Tim and Tyna Eggert, who opened it in 1974 as the first athletic footwear store in Illinois. Three years later, they added a second shop a few towns away in Oak Park. As the original running boom of the 1970s and 1980s took off, so too did their stores. They got most of my business in the 1980s because they offered high school runners a 10 percent discount, but it wasn’t like I needed my arm twisted to go there.

But times have changed quite a bit in the world of running retail and, after 40 years, the Eggerts are ready for retirement. They closed down the Western Springs shop last year and will be closing the Oak Park location on July 20. They had a few feelers to sell the business, but the numbers didn’t add up so they’ll walk away after 40 years with bare shelves and the satisfaction of having worked with great people and customers for four decades.

“It’s been a good run, but retail can be a tough grind. You have to pound it out seven days a week,” Tim Eggert says. “It’s a little bittersweet, but we’re ready. We weathered a lot of storms and worked with great people in the community and our staff through the years and that’s a big part of what’s made this so enjoyable.”

As a recreational runner and someone who has been invested in the local community, Eggert, 65, says he’s had the best job in the world, but he also admits operating a small running shop is mostly a labor of love. For years, his typical week has included displaying new running shoes and apparel, ordering new running gear, talking to customers about their training and injuries, joining the shop’s fun runs with local runners and generally creating an enjoyable place for runners and walkers to visit and be inspired about their health and fitness.

The labor of love is shared by roughly 800 small, privately owned running shops across the U.S.—including nearly 40 in the Chicago area—and has been since the late 1970s when the first running boom led to the advent of  running specialty stores. Those running shops have been the lifeblood of the running industry and the sport for more than 35 years, providing a sense of community and spreading the knowledge and passion to all levels of runners.

Yes, many have had a runner-geek quirkiness to them—sometimes more than merchandising, marketing or business sense—but that’s the culture of running that has thrived for decades.

But now that foundation is being challenged on many levels. Eggert believes catalog sales and online sales put a big crimp into his business in recent years, and now consolidation, expansion and other forms of competition are posing a threat to many other small running shops around the U.S.

“[Catalog and online sales] are tough to beat, especially when they offer free shipping and the chance to try shoes at home, wear them for 60 days and return them,” Eggert says. “That’s tough, but that’s competition for you and you have to work through it. It’s a different world than when we opened in the 1970s. Times have changed.”

RELATED: 10 Reasons To Shop At Running Specialty Stores

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