With the very real potential that run specialty stores in certain parts of the country will be re-opening in the next two, four, six or eight weeks – the potential date definitely depends on the region, and some report they have already re-opened – the Running Specialty Virtual Town Hall organized by Running Insight and The Running Event this week provided some insider tips on taking the necessary steps towards this potential Big Day.

With more than 100 retailers from around the country attending the online gathering, Ryan Callahan and Rita Carroll, co-founders of Runhouse, a creative agency that focuses on the running industry, urged store owners and managers to prepare now for their inevitable re-opening.

“You can’t wait until your mayor or governor says it is okay to open, you have to prepare a plan now,” Callahan urged, emphasizing that “there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to planning a relaunch strategy for your store.”

But, he added, “we are in an industry where there is a competition, but we are all in this together and what is good for one of us is good enough for all. It’s great to see this collaboration.”

Having endured more than six weeks of anxiety and uncertainty, there is now the opportunity to, as Callahan said, “focus on fun and exciting stuff ­and how do we anticipate this moment in time that is about to happen? This should be a pretty big celebration.”

The good news is that run retailers are used to building up to big moments — whether it is a marathon or local race weekend or a big sale. “Only this one is super unique and, hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of moment,” he said.


Two-Step Approach to Re-Opening

In order to prepare for that moment, Callahan suggested a two-pronged approach that needs to be done in advance of any re-opening.

Step 1 is determining the message you want to be sending and then sticking to it — how do you want to talk to your audience through your social media channels, store windows and any other touch points.

“You want to say a lot of things to a lot of people right now – new walkers, old customers, healthcare workers, people who haven’t shopped you in a long time – but you have to focus on the message that you want to send,” he urged. “What is your over-arching message that you can use over all your channels?”

Also to be determined is the tone of that message. Are you celebrating? Or are you just “cautiously” celebrating? Is it a message of gratitude to your customers and community? Something specific to run specialty? Welcoming new customers? Each has its own guidelines and requirements.

  • Celebration: Keep the message as positive as possible. It has been a tough time, but your customers are going to want to hear a positive message.
  • Gratitude: Who showed up for you over the last six weeks, who bought gift cards, who shopped online. Focus something specifically on them. Or tell your whole community that they inspired you and you are glad to be back serving them again.
  • Run Specialty Special Touches: Maybe give out handwritten cards, or some extra swag.
  • Welcome to Running: There are going to be new runners. Do you want to be sending some kind of message to those people — an message of acceptance such as “our community welcomes you.”

Step 2 is to then identify how that message is going to be delivered — e-mail, Facebook, Instagram, advertising, signage, perhaps a special event.

The challenge, brought up by Kris Hartner, of Naperville Running in Illinois, is that stores are going to be re-opening into an extremely challenging, not very customer-centric environment. They are going to have to limit the number of people allowed inside, customers are going to have to wear face masks and there are going to be some very specific safety precautions.

“We have to send the message that we know things are different, that it is going to be hard, so please have patience,” Hartner said.

Callahan agreed, pointing out that retailers can talk about excitement and celebration, but they have to realize they are going to be opening up into a totally new reality. “We can’t just invite everyone in and the promise and expectation don’t match the reality,” he said.

His advice: “As best as we can, embrace it. Lean into it, be irreverent. Make the most of the situation. Be honest and transparent with your audience. Design goofy masks, poke fun at how ridiculous we have to be at this time. Let them know that behind the plastic guard and the Purell, you are the same passionate people that have been here for years.

“You need to find balance. At the end of the day all you can be is you,” he added. “Don’t venture into places where you don’t feel comfortable or have an authentic connection to. Continue to be the most authentic version of you. Celebration and empathy go a long way.”
And, importantly: “If you make a mistake, own up to it.”

The key is to send a positive message without being insensitive to customers who have been through a lot and maybe are a little hesitant to be in your store.


The Palmetto Experience

Keri Straughn, whose Palmetto Running Co. in South Carolina just re-opened this week in time for its Earth Day Eco Initiative, shared her experiences with the big moment, which wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“We were very unprepared because we didn’t think it would be happening so soon in South Carolina,” she said, urging her fellow retailers to follow Callahan’s advice and start to prepare now, no matter how far away you think a re-opening is. Take care of the little things, like purchasing all of the cleaning supplies you are going to need once people start coming through the door.

“A lot more people come into our stores than we expected,” Straughn said, explaining that there is still a “weird vibe” in South Carolina between people who are eager to go out and others who want to stay home. In fact, Palmetto was still doing a lot of virtual fittings while its two stores were fairly active.

“We are trying to convey a message of safety,” Straughn added, with only two customers at a time allowed in and a sign on door asking people to wait outside. “We made sure our customers see the efforts we are making to keep them safe,” she said.

This safety message is essential, offered Holly Wiese, of 3Dots Design, who relayed a message she heard from other big-box retailers that safety is, hands down, the most important factor in getting people to shop in a store again.

“If your customer doesn’t feel entirely safe before they get to your store, they aren’t coming in,” Wiese said. “Your customer needs to come in and feel they are safe. You have to communicate that and also communicate how you are keeping your staff safe.”

Callahan agreed that the safety factor is vital and it is a challenge for stores to get the message out that, to put in bluntly, they only want people who are actually interested in buying something to be coming into the store.

He recommended a store’s messaging should tell people that in the nicest way possible – tell them you are scheduling fittings as a safety precaution and that on the interest of safety maybe they should plan their visit during slower hours. Have your message say, “Hey, we’re open for fittings and for people looking for running gear.”

With a target date of May 11, Runhouse and The Running Event are developing a host of creative assets retailers will be able to use to help re-open their stores — digital and social media messaging, artwork, etc. There will be a free asset portal on runhouse.com where retailers can download these assets.