Make no little plans,” famed American architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham once declared.
Embracing Burnham’s enterprising spirit, running specialty retailers Matthew Rosetti and Matthew Byrne are at it again.
After entering the run specialty game in 2010 with the Scranton Running Co. in northeast Pennsylvania, Rosetti and Byrne later added the Brooklyn Running Co. in New York City (2013) and Valley Running Co. in Forty Fort, PA (2017). Last October, the former Scranton High School teammates expanded their retail portfolio with a second Brooklyn Running Co. door – this one located in the New York City borough’s Park Slope neighborhood.
Located a 5K away from their flagship Brooklyn Running Co. shop in Williamsburg, the 2000-square-foot Park Slope unit embraces a more modern aesthetic dominated by painted white brick walls, sleek lines, an illuminative skylight and a prominently branded moss wall – a stark contrast from the dark tones, reclaimed wood and whiskey bar feel of the Williamsburg showroom.
“The Park Slope location is cleaner and brighter, a blank palette, which is intentional, so that the product serves as the decorative art,” Rosetti says. “It feels more hospitable and welcoming, especially for our female customers.”
Rosetti discusses the motivation to expand, the lessons he and Byrne carried into their new endeavor and creating a sustainable, multi-door retail operation.
What prompted the opening of a second Brooklyn Running Co. location?
This move boiled down to four things. First and foremost, the strength of the Brooklyn Running Co. brand. Certain metrics – both quantifiable and anecdotal – showed that what we were doing in Brooklyn was resonating with people, so much so that we could open a new location, leverage that brand strength and it would make an impact.
Second, after years of pundit pronouncements that brick-and-mortar retail was on the path to extinction, we have seen clear evidence that the consumer preference pendulum continues to swing back in favor of supporting traditional, but evolved, multi-channel, experiential retail business models. We believe run specialty, for those executing well, is in a healthy place and part of the conversation. If you can cultivate an experience, an environment that transcends the transactional through both service and events, then there can be a place for you in the modern retail space.
Third, we felt we were getting our back of the house to a level that we could scale. We have much room for improvement in this regard, but if we didn’t believe our professional house was in sufficient enough order, then we wouldn’t have moved forward with a second Brooklyn location.
Finally, we found a great landlord with whom we could build a partnership, one who had a community and local-driven vision for his neighborhood of properties. If you’re simply going to pick a spot on a map because you feel that neighborhood is underserved, then you’re going to struggle in New York City. The Park Slope location and this landlord relationship gives us an opportunity to build our business in a manner that we hope is sustainable for years to come.
What did you learn from your first three stores, both in Pennsylvania and Brooklyn, that you applied to this second Brooklyn Running Co. door?
Above all else, how critically important the basic blocking and tackling of retail are. You have to be able to deliver for your customers time and again with professional, high-touch service, the right product mix and an engaging environment while also constantly monitoring the financial health of your business.
We’ve come to believe that 2000-2500-square feet is the right store size from both a rent perspective as well as maximizing square footage. That’s just big enough to allow for events and to provide customers some breathing room to shop, but also brings some constraints to the stockroom and forces some real physical inventory constraints beyond any GMROI (gross margin return on investment) or turn goals you may have set for yourself. It’s a bit like the tail wagging the dog.
We also saw how important it is to have flexible racking and merchandise displays. In our first store, we went with customized shelving, racks and displays. They look beautiful, but don’t function well at all and that has proven limiting. It’s better to go with the basics that are functional and flexible.
In what ways are you trying to differentiate this second Brooklyn Running Co. shop from its older retail sibling in Brooklyn?
While we initially chose our Williamsburg location as a pure retail play in a trendy and growing neighborhood, the Park Slope shop gives us a chance to host events much more efficiently and to take advantage of nearby Prospect Park, one of the borough’s best running spots. We already have five or six groups running out of the Park Slope shop every week and we designed the store with this in mind. We have artificial grass up front with PT tools and rollers to pull run groups away from the sales floor as well as a big wall of cubbies as you enter the stockroom that creates a community clubhouse feel. This provides great optics for customers, too. When you have runners hanging out doing their thing, it feels authentic, like a running shop should feel.
We’ve also created a special section for fresh product footwear drops that sits to the left of the main shoe wall. This is our way of showcasing newer, eye-popping product.
Just like the Williamsburg location, the Park Slope shop aims to be a clubhouse, yes, but also a clearinghouse of information for anyone and everyone, especially beginners and those new to the sport. Plastered on the front window of both locations is the same message: “Beginners are our specialty.” This has made a discernible difference in foot traffic and has helped to break down that invisible barrier so many see between the sidewalk and a run specialty shop entrance – the perception that running stores are just for fast people.
What early hurdles have you encountered with multiple locations in the same market and how are you addressing those challenges?
While we’ve learned from our experience with two doors in northeast Pennsylvania, we’re still adapting how to make operations efficient between two shops in a place like New York City, including even seemingly basic things like swapping stock. Buying is also a challenge because Williamsburg and Park Slope, bizarre as it might sound given their proximity, are very different markets. One is skinny jeans and well-groomed upper lip hair; the other is dad jeans and strollers. This demands constant attention, tweaking and monitoring.
Staffing, though, is the biggest challenge. Our people are our brand, so we’re continuing to professionalize how we hire and train without turning the place into a corporate drone factory. New York City offers us a continuous supply of very talented people, but they tend to turn over quicker. We have a significant employee manual, thorough training process and a long shadowing period. Even as we add new faces, we hope to create and maintain parity so we’re executing on the customer experience every time.
Even though these stores are only three miles apart, we didn’t expect much customer cannibalization and running a zip code model gave us hope that we’d be tapping, mostly, an entirely new market. We’re already seeing that hold true with encouraging numbers.
As you move forward with four running stores in your portfolio, what specific elements are you most closely monitoring?
Financial liquidity and/or appropriate capitalization to accommodate our working capital growth. Companies go out of business because they run out of cash, first and foremost, not necessarily because of profitability problems.
We’re also dabbling with e-commerce and will continue to do so. Most people hit the shop button on our website simply to pre-shop the store — to see what we have, the price points and product mix. Not having a robust e-commerce platform, even if it doesn’t generate material direct sales, hurts us because people go elsewhere or don’t go anywhere at all and just buy online.
Outreach is something we’re looking to improve as well. We’re very good “in the box.” Customers come in and we nail it, but we need to strengthen outreach. Who’s going to leave the store to visit the podiatrists, the physical therapists and other professionals who can be partners and advocates for our brand? We’re pushing to change this behavior and set more clear outreach plans and goals as we grow the staff.