Indie Running Stores Compete With Amazon Through Curation, Community, and Innovation

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Like indie bookstores and indie hardware stores, indie running stores have remained competitive against Amazon by stepping up their product selection, reaching out to their communities, and engaging in business innovation, in addition to benefitting from the convenience of being local.

RIA logoAccording to Terry Schalow, executive director of the Running Industry Association (RIA), a nonprofit organization that supports the brick-and-mortar running retail channel throughout the U.S. and Canada, some of the smarter running and sports brands are recognizing that what’s really important is not who makes the sale, but whether their product is sold at all and whether brand loyalty is created.

To this end, some brands that sell into the running retail channel are selling products through bricks-and-mortar stores via the brand’s own website. These brands feature a “buy local” button that allows bricks-and-mortar retailers to supply products; if the retailer is willing to provide their inventory feed, said Schalow, then that store can essentially become a warehouse for the brand.

“One of our partners,, does exactly that: They provide a platform that allows brands to have visibility and retail their inventories, and when consumers explore the brand’s site, the buy button gives them the option to buy from a local store,” said Schalow. “Our industry is working very closely with; they focus mostly on sporting goods, but their platform could work across virtually anything.”

Many sporting goods brands are also becoming more willing to push a sale to a bricks-and-mortar retailer because they want to make sure the consumer has a great experience, Schalow said. So, if it is more convenient for the consumer or they prefer to shop local, these brands do their best to support those types of platforms. Brand loyalty is very big in sports specialty retail, Schalow said, and a key goal is to capture that loyalty with an eye toward future sales.

RIA members are independently owned stores, the brands that sell within that channel, and the companies that provide services and support to the channel. Schalow said that while the RIA’s store members are certainly concerned about the growing dominance of Amazon, the indie running retail channel has, in fact, been effectively flat for the last few years. At the same time, big box stores are hurting because their products are all commodities that can be found online.

Like indie bookstores that order books from small or independent publishers or offer unique non-book items, like turntables or board games, many independent running stores are moving away from selling the big brands that have been commoditized in the marketplace, Schalow said. While focusing less on the hot sellers that customers can find anywhere, including online, indie running stores seek out products from newer brands that aren’t widely distributed. Having a unique product mix that can only be found in your store is very important when it comes to remaining competitive, Schalow said.

“It doesn’t matter what the product is that’s being sold, whether it’s books, hardware, or running shoes: You’re curating your product assortment to surprise and delight your customer, and that might mean that you’re offering products that may not necessarily be conventional or traditional to your type of retail,” said Schalow. “These are products that are not necessarily traditional products for runners but that certainly apply to runners, and yet apply to a lot of other customers, too.”

For example, some independent running retailers have begun selling elliptical bikes, which provide a low-impact experience like being on an elliptical machine, making them very appealing for people who can’t run due to an injury.

“It’s not a traditional product, but it translates and resonates with people who shop in running stores, so stores are starting to carry the elliptical bike and are doing really well with it,” said Schalow.

Another unique product growing popular with stores is AfterShockz headphones. Unlike ear buds, AfterShockz headphones let runners hear the ambient noise of a car or an assailant by sending music through the jawbone. This potentially life-saving product is carried by many running stores, but since it can also apply to a lot of different consumer needs, people are coming into running stores to buy it and discovering those stores, thereby creating new customers.

“By curating your store with products that resonate and help attract new customers, you become the resource of the community for that product,” said Schalow. “It’s really incumbent on stores to provide an elevated experience from both the service you provide and the particular products that you have.”

Overall, creating a community is one of the main competitive advantages independent retailers of all kinds continue hold against big box stores and online retailers like Amazon. Bookstores create community through partnerships with local businesses and create a space for customers to interact through author events, book clubs, and more. Running stores have similar opportunities; because running can be very solitary, people like to get together and create community through races and running clubs, using the retail store as a home base, said Schalow.

It’s important to make customers feel like they are part of something cool, and the face-to-face social aspect provided by races, clubs, and meetings is one experience that is unavailable online, said Schalow. Running stores, he added, also have a tremendous advantage because running is a healthy activity that people want to do.

“Most stores have fun runs or do weekly runs from their store, and what they are discovering is that it’s the same people who show up every week,” said Schalow. Like bookstores that sponsor local events in the community, many running stores organize road races with the cooperation of local government, law enforcement, and local businesses.

“That is not only a money-maker, but you can cross-promote: The store promotes the race and the race promotes the store. If the race draws 3,000 or 4,000 people, you’ve just created the potential to connect with thousands of new customers,” said Schalow. “This is a business model that goes beyond just retail.”