While she was in college studying to be a graphic designer Jennifer Henderson worked at Tortoise & Hare Running Center in Ann Arbor, MI. While her early career included working as a graphic designer for an advertising agency and newspaper she eventually stayed home to raise her kids — until about five years ago when she and her husband, Bob Dyer, started kicking around the idea of opening a running store, much like Tortoise & Hare. Now, four years into being co-owners of Running Niche in St. Louis, MO, Jennifer and Bob are a single-door, mom-and-pop shop where she does a little of most things — working on the floor, buying and merchandising, social media and marketing. Running Niche recently moved to a larger space, so she took the lead on store design, meeting with contractors and generally setting up the new store.
The new, bigger store is now open. What’s a typical day like in the new spot?
First things first, I run in the morning.
Of course. Then what?
Then usually I take care of a chore before heading to the store. Depending on the day, and if we have an employee on hand I work with customers, ordering, social media, merchandising and vendor meetings. Primarily it's my husband and I in the store. Every day I wear many hats.
Which is your favorite hat?
It's working with the people who walk through that front door. They are always the best part of the work day. Helping someone achieve their running goals or find more comfort is extremely rewarding. Almost every day I meet someone who inspires me or reminds me this is a great business to be in. The people we coach, the regular customers and the visitors from out of town all make this so much fun. Also, our regular customers have become our friends.
What is your running routine like?
I run five days a week following a Lydiard Method training plan. Depending upon what I am training for, I run between 30 and 50 miles per week. Occasionally I run with friends, but I really enjoy running solo.
What makes your local running community unique?
St. Louis has a nice size running community. I feel like at Running Niche we have a little community within that.
Our Running Niche group is amazing. We did not create this community. All of these wonderful people have adopted us as their running family. Most of them are younger than our children. Their passion for community equals their passion for running.
Any examples you can share?
Sure, they are always willing to help a fellow runner prepare for a race and after races they always stick around to cheer on fellow runners. They don't seem to care if you are a fast, slow, long distance or short distance runner, they just want to support each other and be part of something positive.
Did they help you with your recent move to the larger space?
Oh yes. During our move many volunteered to move us and set up our store — their store. They moved boxes, drove the moving truck, set up our POS, brought us meals and helped arrange the store.
How about your employees?
Our four part-time employees are also part of our community. They did extra shifts, got their friends to help and did whatever they could to help, to get us moved in two days. We are extremely lucky to have these people in our lives.
Moving in the middle of a pandemic was surely a challenge. How has the past year been for you, personally in dealing with the pandemic?
Personally, it made it harder to visit my family and friends. But as a 61-year old I haven't had to deal with taking care of children at home while running a business.
How about at work?
Professionally it has made me much more focused on what is important, such as service and connection to customers. We did Zoom fittings, home deliveries and even dropped off multiple pairs of shoes to customers' homes to try on before buying. The stuff like masks, distancing, having maximum occupancy restrictions, private fittings all worked out much better than expected. It's been challenging, but has made me better at my job. We also did a Facebook Live every day during eight weeks of shut down. We shared our day and reassured people that we were going to survive.
Is that something you continue to do?
We still do this once a week. We let people know about races, runners' accomplishments and what we're having for dinner; it's basically "a show about nothing."
Sounds like a Seinfeld episode. Switching gears a bit, do you view yourself as a woman in the run specialty business or simply a professional in the run specialty business?
I consider myself a professional first. It's very important to me to keep an open and curious mind about everyone regardless of gender. And I hope people view me the same way.
Do you agree that run specialty is actually more equal in gender participation than many other businesses.
Yes, I agree. Running is an extremely inclusive sport and offers many opportunities for girls and women. So it should follow that it would do the same for the run specialty industry. What we are seeing is women following their passion into their career.
What do you think you bring to your business with a woman’s perspective as compared to your male colleagues?
This is a hard one for me to put my finger on. The obvious answer is I understand some of the needs of women from an experience standpoint, but men can learn this and be very good at it. At the store level there is comfort in having a woman help with bras, apparel or discussing some of the realities of training and racing as a woman.
How about from the standpoint of running a small business?
I think it's important to have many viewpoints in the room, not just in regard to gender. We learn so much more by getting the input from people whose experiences are different from ours.
So do you think having a woman in the business has helped your store reach more female customers?
Yes. Especially when it comes to shopping for bras. It's such an important piece of equipment and a great opportunity to build relationships with female customers.
What advice would you give to other run specialty retailers about reaching out and merchandising to female runners?
Talk to women. Ask them what is most important to them when it comes to everything running. I suggest you offer a good bra for support, a pair of shorts or a bra that has a pocket for a phone, tampon and keys. Women are looking for functionality.
The challenge of selling run bras comes up often in our conversations with retailers. How do you handle it at Running Niche?
It's key to have one person who really knows how to fit someone properly for a bra. Make sure your staff knows how to point out the features of these items. And try to keep your bras away from the shoe wall and as close to a dressing room as possible. It makes many women and girls more comfortable to have privacy. Having a little awareness and sensitivity goes a long way.
You took an interesting career path to get where you are. What advice would you give to any other women considering following a similar path in the run business?
My biggest piece of advice is to reach out to others in the business, men and women, for advice and direction. It's such a welcoming group of people that share your passion for people and a running lifestyle. Talk to others who own stores and work at stores. I've gotten so much valuable advice from other store owners as well as from people who have worked on the floor at running stores.
Yes, work at a running store – everyone is hiring – to see if this is for you. Get involved and learn all you can.
Finally, what are you expecting for you and your store going into 2022 and what is it going to take to achieve that?
As a fairly young store, I'm expecting and hoping for continued growth. One of the ways we are going to achieve this is by our recent move to a larger space. After only a few days of being open it has allowed us to more comfortably help our customers and increase our offerings.
What else will you be focusing on?
Some of the things are our social media presence, marketing and, like many other stores, hiring a few more great sales people in the store.