Running Retail

Running Power

Major players in run retail strive to deliver in a competitive market.

Fleet Feet Sports Chicago storefront in the city’s Old Town neighborhood.

Fleet Feet, JackRabbit and Road Runner Sports are all racing to keep up with today’s consumer. Combined, they have more than 270 stores, about 22 percent of the total doors in the run retail marketplace.

They share common challenges and opportunities. And all of the biggest retailers in the running business are striving to deliver a consistent experience to their shoppers in their stores and online as they battle for market share in a crowded competitive marketplace.

Executives at all three retailers say business in the category is stable. All forecast single digit growth in the coming year, but admit they will have to earn it by altering their merchandise mix, their store strategies and the way they do business.

“It’s going to be extremely tough for running stores to grow by continuing to do the same things that have gotten them to this point,” says Michael Gotfredson, founder and CEO of Road Runner Sports, the catalog and online giant that also has more than 40 stores.

Road Runner was among the first pure-play running stores to add a significant assortment of casual and lifestyle footwear to its product mix, with an assortment it merchandises as 24/7 footwear. The mix includes shoes from major running brands such as Adidas, New Balance, On, Nike and Saucony with shoes from Sperry and Timberland, as well.

JackRabbit is also branching out from its core running assortment in an effort to capture dollars that its shoppers may have been spending in other fitness retailers.

“Our business is rooted in running, but our consumer is doing other things, too,” says Bill Kirkendall, CEO of JackRabbit Sports, which has 63 stores. “We see this as an opportunity for growth to serve our customer with the other categories they are buying, such as training. We can sell them what they need for classes at Orange Theory or when they go to the Y.”

JackRabbit’s “training mix” includes stretch bands, weights and swim goggles.

Earlier this spring, JackRabbit converted four stores in Ohio to its JackRabbit doors, bringing to 25 the total number of stores that carry the nameplate.

Kirkendall says the unified branding allows JackRabbit to gain advertising and promotional efficiencies in markets where stores all have the same name. He also said it is paying dividends in online sales. “When we changed the names of all our New Jersey stores to JackRabbit, online sales increased by 400 percent in the state.”

“Fit id is another tool in our arsenal to understand customers in a more unique way and also show them something unique and different as well.”

— Victor Ornelas, Fleet Feet senior brand manager

As part of its efforts to improve customer service, JackRabbit has stepped up the use of its website in its own stores to ensure customers can get a broader range of colors and sizes than the store has in stock. Kirkendall says 13 percent of all JRS online orders come from shoppers in stores and that overall web sales are up almost 20 percent over last year and running well ahead of brick-and-mortar growth.  

Such is the battle among the big three players in running as JackRabbit and Fleet Feet look to expand their online business to better compete against Road Runner while at the same time upgrading the in-store experience they offer shoppers.

Fleet Feet is betting heavily on Fit id, the company’s new 3D foot scanning technology currently present in about 90 percent of all Fleet Feet storefronts.

Road Runner Sports Craft Classic Race Series.

Described by Fleet Feet senior brand manager Victor Ornelas as “a revolutionary way of understanding foot shape,” the fit id device – developed in partnership with Sweden-based Volumental – uses infrared cameras to capture a full 3D scan of the foot in a static position. Customers stand on the device for three-to-five seconds before a scan appears on a tablet and shares various data points, including U.S. foot size, heel-to-toe length, ball width, instep height, heel width and ball girth.

Fit id, Ornelas continues, is not a replacement, but rather a complement to the traditional gait analysis staff will continue to perform by assessing a customer’s feet, ankles, knees, hips and personal history.

“Fit id is another tool in our arsenal to understand customers in a more unique way and also show them something unique and different as well,” says Ornelas, who calls fit id a customer acquisition and engagement tool that “brings the wow.”

Fleet Feet CEO Joey Pointer says the motivation to launch fit id, a process that began in earnest at the start of 2017, was to “invent from the eyes of consumers.” Thus far, Fleet Feet has captured almost 300,000 foot scans from shoppers who have gone through the process. And Pointer says those scans will contribute to the design of the Karhu Ikoni Ortix, which will be introduced exclusively in Fleet Feet stores later this year.

“Our business is rooted in running, but our consumer is doing other things, too.”

— Bill Kirkendall, CEO of JackRabbit

The Karhu brand is sold exclusively through Fleet Feet stores and Pointer says “the Ikoni Ortix offers us an amazing advantage regarding understanding customer reception to a product partially informed by 3D scan data. The Ikoni Ortix epitomizes that commitment to working together and allows us to create a first not just for our brands, but for the industry.”

Later this year, Fleet Feet will introduce a new logo that includes the addition of a distinctive and recognizable “icon” to the word mark, which Pointer says will be the retailer’s version of “the Starbucks Mermaid, Nike’s Swoosh, or even, staying on the theme here, Prince’s iconic, unpronounceable symbol.

“The new logo marks just the tip of the iceberg, as we will also unveil a new loyalty program, an initiative more than a year in the making, and one that promises to evolve the customer experience in an exciting and impactful way.”

While all three major players in the running retail business are working on enhancing the in-store experience, none are willing to commit to aggressive expansion of door count in the coming year.

Fleet Feet has 174 stores and Pointer says they’ll end the year with the “right number.”

Kirkendall says JackRabbit will be focused on three key regions: New York City, Colorado and Texas.

“Our strategy for acquisitions and new stores has been to focus, come in and dominate and have scale,” he says.

Road Runner seems content with its current number, but Gotfredson indicates he is open to expansion or acquisition in the right markets.

All three executives indicate that it’s a competitive marketplace, further complicated by brands selling directly to consumers on their websites.

“Suppliers are the biggest competitors we have,” Gotfredson says. “It’s not Amazon. Vendors going direct is a fact of life. Brands just want to open as many channels as possible. Everybody has a different policy and they’re going to do what they want to do.”

To improve customer service, JackRabbit has stepped up the use of its website in its own stores so customers can get a broader range of colors and sizes than the store has in stock.

Kirkendall of JRS is also concerned about over-distribution by brands.

“More doors do not always mean better business for the brands. I’ve worked on the branded side of the business,” says the former Etonic-Tretorn-Puma boss. “Brands don’t need more stores to do more business if they control their assortments and sell the right shoes to the right retailers.”

Going forward, Kirkendall says he sees brand-retailer relationships as a critical element to growing the channel and sustaining its profitability. “As long as we see innovation and controlled distribution by vendors, we’ll be fine,” he says. “And as retailers we must give the consumer the opportunity to buy in-store and online and amplify the store experience.”