Now it is 15 months into the pandemic and I find myself stuck in a paradox to which many of us in run specialty can relate the post-COVID challenges facing our industry feel more tangible and significant than ever before, yet the opportunities in our industry feel exciting in a way that we haven’t seen in years.

For better or worse, the pandemic has rapidly accelerated several trends that were gradually playing out prior to March of last year. Consumers flocked more heavily into online shopping, the home began replacing the gym and communities migrated online in the form of Peloton leaderboards, Facebook groups, Instagram Live sessions and Zoom breakout rooms.

The fear, of course, is that this shift, the “Amazon-ing” of our economy and digitizing of our communities, is permanent and represents an ongoing threat to our channel. Simply put, people are worried that the gap has gotten too big and the playing field too unequal Ð for us to keep up.

I see it differently.

Opportunities Aplenty

For the first time since the online shopping boom began in the 2000s, there is an opportunity for run specialty retail to catch back up as the barrier to entry for quality e-commerce has been dramatically lowered. Technology is getting better and cheaper, data tools are getting more robust and user-friendly and small businesses are able to create high-quality, traffic-driving content for minimal cost.

At Pacers Running, we see this confluence of trends as a major opportunity for run specialty retailers. We believe that we are entering a new era where we can finally go wherever the customer is and compete with larger companies and create a new generation of running customers.

To get there will still require an investment in time, education and resources, along with a dedication to the values that make us so successful in our local communities. But we believe the opportunity is within reach for nearly everyone in the channel and will be built on three pillars.

1. Technology

For the first time, small businesses can build an A to Z strategy for online selling that doesn’t require a six-figure web design firm, a complicated inventory management system, a dedicated marketing team or a sophisticated understanding of how to leverage data to target new customers and increase ROI from existing customers.

Using online e-commerce platforms or integrating a service like Fitted is making it increasingly easier for stores to have a robust e-commerce that integrates with their inventory and allows them to seamlessly sell online. If you tried e-commerce years ago and found it to be too complicated and time consuming, try again. The ability to build and support an e-commerce site today is light years ahead of where it was just five years ago.

On the marketing front, tools such as Mailchimp and Zaius let you send dynamic e-mails to customers that look and feel like they were professionally designed without the need to code or graphic design, while social media continues to give us direct access to our consumers 24/7.

Even things we take for granted like the iPhones in our pockets have become incredibly powerful tools for shooting professional-looking videos and photography with a few YouTube tutorials and some trial and error.

Essentially, every major roadblock that was either too time consuming, technical or expensive is now within reach for most stores to take advantage of at a fraction of the time and cost it would have required in the past.

2. Data

Thanks to a variety of tools from Google and Facebook, quality audience targeting has never been easier. With a few online tutorials or some simple trial and error, stores can quickly target highly desirable consumers anywhere in the country. Agencies such as Upper Quadrant are also providing cost-effective services in the channel that allow retailers to punch above their weight and find new customers for their online store.

And now that you have beautiful looking e-mails to work with, you can also run fairly robust funnels and automated e-mail campaigns with the ability to track ROI in real time without a background in data science.

Depending on what you are using for point of sale, it is also becoming much easier to merge online and in-store customers, giving you more opportunities to better target your audience and understand their shopping behavior.

3. The Specialty Touch

Just because we are moving into more channels and broadening our reach with e-commerce doesn’t mean we need to forget who we are and why we are all here.

One hesitation run specialty retailers often cite for not taking the plunge and building a bigger e-commerce presence is that the “special” of run “specialty” has always been the in-store customer experience, the community run and the customized fit process.

Community, local and customer experience will always be at the core of who we are, but instead of seeing a move into e-commerce as an afterthought or a hindrance to what we can offer our customers, we see it as an amplifier.

Thanks to the ubiquity of social media, the ease for us to connect with consumers after they leave our stores and the ability to finally build affordable brand experiences online, we believe that not only can run specialty finally embrace the e-commerce future, but we can also be innovators and develop new ways of providing services for our customers.

Reaching The New Runner

How can we use these tools to amplify what makes us special and reach new customers? How can we build a bigger community and increase our diversity efforts? How can we give those consumers who “aren’t runners” or are “too intimidated to go into that store” a way to get into running that is more on their terms and from the comforts of their homes?

From quality social content that inspires to tools like virtual fittings, ask-the-expert and online training services, we can build out our brand values and reach more people without sacrificing what makes us really good at what we do.

Unexpected Competition?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that a greater shift to online could create a new type of turf war between fellow running stores. Not surprisingly, we see this differently as well.

We believe that a more robust network of run specialty e-commerce players will lead to more wins over the big guys and we also believe that there are a lot of gaps, or “running deserts,” out there where consumers wish they could shop at a more specialized retailer but don’t have the access. We see e-commerce as a growth opportunity for the channel.

But none of this will be easy. While the tools are more user-friendly than ever before, simply opening an e-commerce store and waiting for customers to arrive will not work. We have to make run specialty e-commerce special as well.

But I believe consumers want this from us and will reward those who put in the effort. We all got a peek of what the world would look like without our beloved local businesses during the pandemic and most of us didn’t like what we saw.

The next great boom in retail is here and this time it’s going to be the local retailers that are going to lead the way.


Ryan Callahan is the Brand Director at Pacers Running. He can be reached at [email protected]