One decade ago, as the running specialty industry ticked upward at a rather rapid clip, it would’ve been tough to predict what the 2010s would eventually deliver.
While some saw the accelerated, intensifying march of online commerce, including aggressive direct-to-consumer efforts from some of the run specialty channel’s marquee players, coming, other industry-altering winds weren’t as easy to forecast. To wit: Hoka One One was but an infant brand in 2010, while On hadn’t yet been conceived by its Swiss co-founders.
Over the last decade, technology – both on the product and digital sides – has surged; stores have opened and closed, including big-box names like The Sports Authority; and run specialty’s overall performance climbed and dipped and then steadied itself. Change was the one constant and the smart money sits on the current decade’s winds shifting just as fast.
“There is a lot that is changing and is going to change not because it needs to but simply because it is,” Saucony VP–U.S. sales Joe Toth says.
Running retailers, industry insiders and brand representatives offer their best guesses on what the run specialty retail environment will look like in 2030.
Burke Beck, co-owner, Red Coyote Running and Fitness, Oklahoma City, OK
The big challenge we’re facing is that the customer is pickier than ever. They want what they want, in the color they want, when they want it. Now, I don’t know exactly what the solutions to this will look like, but I know we’re heading down that path to personalization and trying to solve this by meeting the customer where they are. Does that mean a 3D printer in back producing customized options? It’s possible.
Brian Jones, co-owner
Playmakers, Okemos, MI
What was once considered a luxury for the store owner will become a requirement in the future. Store environments will be enhanced with technology and in-store experiences. The fixturing and details that were once reserved for branded stores and the best of retail will be common in the run specialty environment. Retail and entertainment will blend to give the consumer not only the merchandise they are looking for, but also an interactive experience. Scanning technology will help with not only insoles and footwear, but apparel as well. The level of service will be elevated, including scheduled private fittings by dedicated career-oriented staff members. Retail wages will continue to go up and the best stores will find a way to attract the best talent.
Stores will partner at a higher level with a handful of key vendors rather than what today can be upwards of 10-plus footwear vendors. Retailers will assist with online returns for these key partnerships and help to make the purchase process seamless. Vendors will support retailers with the ability to immediately replenish inventory and drop ship unique sizes and colors to the consumer on behalf of the run specialty store.
Finally, the very best stores will invest in dedicated community spaces with unique activities bringing the local community together on a daily basis [and] key vendor partnerships will help to make this happen.
Parker Karnan, GM, Karnan Associates
We’ve been talking about running specialty and online as channels. By 2030, we won’t be talking about channels, but rather retail — and there will be good retail and bad retail. For good retail, the recipe will be personalization and experience. That means running stores personalizing communication to customers; having systems – POS, email and race registration – that all talk and work together; inventory visibility and sales options that offer convenience to customers. The customer wants it today and will expect it tomorrow.
Terry Schalow, executive director
Running Industry Association
There’s little doubt in my mind that the running store of the future will possess an omni-channel element in which customers can shop with the store any way they want, whether that’s online or in the store. The running store of the future will also be big on outreach, connecting with customers whenever and however they can, offering not only purchases, but experiences that help people feel more connected to the store, such as running tourism, coaching or nutritional advice that, it should be noted, offer stores potential revenue streams as well. The best stores will create a holistic running experience that pivots around connections to the store.
Holly Wiese, founder,
3 Dots Design
“It’s pretty undeniable that stores will get smaller and will stock less inventory. With a combination of on-hand inventory, digital kiosks or online ordering portals, customers will be able to visit the store to touch and feel some items while others will be ordered. You simply don’t need as big of a store if that becomes the prevailing model, which will also be more convenient and easier to shop for customers and will require less financial outlay.
Stephanie Blozy, owner,
Fleet Feet West Hartford
West Hartford, CT
When I think of the running store of the future, I think of a store that has a workshop in lieu of backstock. As technology allows for more economical product customization, I envision specialty run stores having 3D printers that create custom insoles, midsole molds that allow for personalized or custom-injected midsoles with the preferred amount of cushioning and stability and sewing machines that weave the upper to color and fit specifications.
Customers would come to the store to get their feet scanned for length, width and girth, have their gait analyzed and preferences documented. Then, they’d pick the shoe style, including upper pattern and drop as well as midsole material depending on the ride they like and the colors they want. Then, they’ll pay for their purchase. Several days – or even hours – later, the shoe would be ready for pick-up. Completely customized and made locally and sustainably for them.
Joe Toth, VP–U.S. sales, Saucony
Not so long ago there was this ominous conversation about run specialty’s future, but I’m convinced specialty’s here to stay. In fact, given consumer habits and the desire for something unique, local and experiential, specialty is making a resurgence that will be amplified so long as we all deliver on service and experience.
We’ll see more stores doubling down on community, opening with beer taps or cafes attached so the store serves as a community center and social hub.
I see running stores providing the service of specialty with the endless aisle selection of online – only at more lightning speed. It will be a Warby Parker-like experience where if you want a color that’s not in the physical store, then the store will be able to have it at your house tomorrow. This isn’t in run specialty yet because it requires resources, but as this shopping experience becomes more accessible and the standard, it will work its way into the channel.
And I see more business integration between retailers and vendors. We’re going to become supportive in this type of seamless retail environment, getting the consumer from our social media right to the retailer.
Isaac “Ike” Alvear, head of sales,
361 Degrees USA
While we as a collective group of both vendors and retailers aspire to evolve, we will be challenged based on a simple premise that the majority of our business will depend on footwear sales to humans with no man or woman having the same size, shape of foot or gait cycle. This will require us to still understand the best method to provide fitting and proper biomechanical gait analysis.
The tug of war will still exist between leading running shoe brands, who will continue to seek growth through their own direct-to-consumer business, and leading run specialty retailers, who will be able to leverage their coveted retail floor space. The successful run specialty retailers will continue to elevate their consumer experience and expertise on all aspects of running to their community. Store associates no longer will be just sales associates, but evolve into a collection of educators, fitness training leaders and master fitters, creating opportunities to become accredited professionals.
Chris Hughes, director of retail operations and special events,
Track Shack, Orlando, FL
I see the running store becoming more tech friendly and mobile, including the process and transaction being handled directly on the floor, and product become way more advanced. I can’t even imagine what high-end marathon racing footwear will look like in a decade.
But whatever the future might bring, I don’t see the desire for personal touch going away. Service is the most crucial element for running stores today and will remain so in 2030, though we will all have to adjust to what that means, how it looks and how much technology is involved in that process. At its core, though, the running store will remain a high-touch experience rooted in a community feel, personalization of service and experience.
Dave Egan, founder,
Perpetual Motion NW
Retail is always changing – sometimes for the better, sometimes not. We should lean into innovation and creativity, but not based on needing to innovate for innovation’s sake but rather accounting for benefits.
So, I wonder about two things in the future of run specialty retail: the future of innovative product in the channel and how retailers will get outside their doors to drive the next generation of runners. In the mountain bike category, 29 and 27.5-inch wheels as well as fat tires came along as innovative solutions to minimize abuse to the body. How does running footwear find its own innovation that keeps people in the game longer?
Then, what are stores doing to cultivate new runners, especially youth, and empowering them to commit to a regular running and fitness routine every day? Time is a valuable thing we all hunger for, but the smart retailers won’t be staying within their four walls. They’ll be open to innovative solutions on the product side and will be actively working to cultivate new customers.