The profound and unprecedented impacts of COVID-19 have hit the specialty retail running landscape particularly hard.
Running shoe sales were trending upward prior to COVID-19 becoming a full-blown crisis in the U.S.; however, as has been the fate of many industries, the pandemic hurled the running market out of its stride.

Stepping into March, running shoe sales within the sporting goods and specialty channels were growing in the U.S., up 2 percent year-over-year to $2.3 billion in the 12 months ending February 2020. Road running sales grew around 1 percent and trail running was up 14.5 percent over the course of the year. Smaller brands such as Hoka One One, On Running and Altra were all experiencing double-digit growth. The specialty brick-and-mortar retailers were gaining share in a growing market. Outdoor specialty gained a point of share, growing 20 percent, and running specialty had also gained a point of share, growing 5 percent. The wind of retail seemed to be at the back of performance running.

With sales growing in the prior 12 months, March underscores the complete devastation that this crisis has had on the market. Overall March sales declined by 40 percent compared to March 2019, with outdoor and running specialty sales down by 48 percent and 44 percent, respectively. Through the lense of NPD’s weekly data, this negative sales trend has continued; however, promising news can be found in the more recent weeks, which show some evidence of rebound. Running shoe sales between May 3 and May 16 are still down dramatically (-25 percent), but that is an improvement over the larger declines seen during the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis.

Taking Advantage of a Challenge

So, how does the specialty running market emerge from this challenge?

One key opportunity is to tap into the stronger consumer desire to be healthy at home. During March and April, home fitness equipment sales grew by 131 percent to $756 million, compared to $326 million the year prior. Cardiovascular equipment, including treadmills, has been a particularly strong category, growing by 157 percent in these two months. With stay-at-home orders forcing consumers to be homebound, gyms to be shuttered and public parks and trails to be closed, this desire to exercise on cardio equipment in the confines of our homes became a natural reaction.
Where does running fit in here? These treadmill runners are going to need the proper shoes and apparel to take full advantage of these equipment purchases.

Beyond the four walls, retailers and manufacturers may have to evolve their offerings quickly to take advantage of consumer behaviors and choices on where they choose to run, as people take their running habit outdoors. The desire for social distancing over the summer months may only increase interest in trail running, a growing category pre-COVID-19. This opportunity will be a natural fit for some brands aligned to the trail running movement, but a more challenging direction for others that are not as established in this market.

Additionally, the need to increase digital presence has only accelerated during the pandemic. Online selling as well as online training applications and smart devices were already a growing trend, but the crisis has only fast-tracked adoption. Localizing these initiatives for specialty retailers may be a smart step. Simple steps like e-mailing local customer bases may make profound differences for retail.

Finally, with most running races suspended for the summer, retailers and manufacturers will need to pivot to position running as a healthy, everyday activity with broader appeal. A focus on races and racing, whether it is a 5K or an Ultra, will need to take the backseat for this year and be replaced with new messaging to engage people on the simple pleasures that running provides.
The new reality of today does not have to be a burden for the industry; there are a number of means by which the running market can redirect the energy from the COVID-19 storm and regain lift. 

Source: The NPD Group/ U.S. Retail Tracking Service (Data spans the athletic specialty/sporting goods, running specialty, outdoor specialty and sport specialty e-commerce channels)

Dirk Sorenson, Executive Director, Industry Analyst in The NPD Group’s Sports practice, covers the bicycle, outdoor, and team sports equipment categories. Dirk travels extensively to provide insight on the U.S. sports landscape to the cycling and outdoor equipment manufacturing and retail communities. Dirk’s knowledge of data-bound product management strategies is sought after by top global manufacturers.

He has been a speaker at industry tradeshows including Outdoor Retailer, Bicycle Leadership Conference, Interbike, Paddlesports Retailer, and The Running Event.