The mix has changed, and so has the industry, but Michigan’s Gazelle Sports has thrived for more than 30 years by keeping its focus on the active gear customers need — and amazing service along with it.
Founded in 1985 by Chris Lampen-Crowell and former owner Bruce Johnson, Gazelle began life as an 1,800-sq.-ft. shop in downtown Kalamazoo, MI, that sold running shoes as well as fitness supplies aimed at the booming aerobics market. It also, Lampen-Crowell says, did a brisk sporting goods business, selling tennis, soccer and volleyball gear. And while the run category has always been the heart of the store (not to mention, perpetually more than 50 percent of overall sales), Gazelle has followed its consumers and their interests as it has grown to five stores across Western Michigan — and it hasn’t been afraid to go where they go.
“Runners aren’t always in running clothes or running shoes,” Lampen-Crowell says. “It gives us permission to explore these fun things.”
Quickly, too, the store embraced the possibilities of apparel. When co-owner Ken Sung came on board in 1989 (today, the store is owned by Lampen-Crowell, Sung, and Jean Sequite), he brought the knowledge he had gained as a rep for runningwear brand Hind.
“We’re not going to be a brick-and-mortar-only store, and we don’t see the future being sustainable as just brick-and-mortar.”
“Ken brought a whole new vision of what apparel could mean for Gazelle,” Lampen-Crowell says. “We were still sit and fit, but when people came in, we were also a place they could buy a Patagonia Synchilla fleece for a Christmas present for their kids.” Gazelle’s established women’s business gave the store permission to be early adopters of the boutique women’s fitness apparel lines. By the mid-2000s, Gazelle was doing three times as many sales in apparel as the average running store, as much as 30 percent of all sales at its peak. (That number has since declined — “there’s way more competition there in the past five years,” Lampen-Crowell notes.)
Today, Gazelle still does more than 50 percent of its sales in core running, but it also stocks products for swim, hike, studio and travel. Hydration, accessories, sunglasses, and fitness trackers are part of the mix, and continuing to grow the medical referral business is a priority, Lampen-Crowell says.
But Gazelle has thrived by keeping an eye on more than just sport and fashion trends. Today, he says, the team is actively working to keep the shop relevant in a constantly shifting retail environment.
“We’re not going to be a brick-and-mortar-only store, and we don’t see the future being sustainable as just brick-and-mortar,” he says.
Gazelle has leaned hard into its online storefront, which today fully mirrors its in-store inventory and availability. In 2015, web sales made up 2 percent of the retailer’s total. Today, it’s 12 percent of sales, and while sales at all five Gazelle locations are up for 2019, online is growing faster than brick and mortar.
The stores’ digital presence also serves as a new tool for associates to use serving customers face-to-face. If the store doesn’t have the size or color a customer wants, associates can process the sale on the website right there and have the item shipped to their home. It circumvents the traditional “put in a special order and cross your fingers the customer comes back” model and lets associates close the sale immediately and lets the shopper leave happy. Fully 25 percent of all the retailer’s digital sales come from the sales floor.
But aggressively marketing their website has opened the doors to new customers, too. “People find us,” Lampen-Crowell says. Looking through the packages about to go out the door, he says, were shipments going to Richardson, TX; Chubbuck, ID; and Sparta, NJ.
With its online and in-store business, Lampen-Crowell says, Gazelle has found a merchandise mix that works. “Right now, we’re not looking to add. We’re looking to get better and sharper.”