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Running shops and communities

July 22, 2013

As I set off for an easy loop through Finsbury Park, up Woodland Walk, through Highgate Wood and Alexandra Palace, before dropping back down to Wood Green and winding my way back to Seven Sisters, I got to thinking about running shops.

Granted, it’s a random topic for a musing, but I’d been thinking a bit about the impact of disruptive business models. (Context: I work in educational publishing, a sector bubbling with disruptive innovations, from trendy MOOCs and apps, through to good old-fashioned print-to-digital and product-to-service switches.) Disruption is happening in most industries in some way or another, and across the UK high streets are struggling with empty units as consumers take their business online. Again, sticking to publishing for the minute, Amazon’s doing a good job of putting Barnes & Noble out of the fight, and Waterstones’s concession to sell the Kindle in its shops is either a subtle masterstroke of strategic genius or as heart-stoppingly stupid as it sounds. Independent bookshops (like the excellent Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green, or Mostly Books in Abingdon) are innovating to differentiate themselves from the online offering, and turning themselves into part of the local community by using their space to arrange events (be it author talks, comedy nights or book groups).

There are a few national running shop chains in the UK, the largest of which being Sweatshop. Sweatshop operates both online and physical shops, and being in a specialist niche, this presumably protects it to an extent from the ‘showrooming’ that’s been nailing the high street bookshops (i.e. customers go into a shop, browse, then promptly order the books that interest them from a cheaper online competitor). Not that there aren’t other retailers keen to take your business – Runners’ Need and Up and Running are smaller high street chains, and there’s any number of discount online clothing running shops that will sell you shoes, nutrition and technical running gear. Yes, even Amazon’s in on the game.

By about the time I hit Finsbury Park I was thinking about what a local, independent running shop could learn from one of the good independent bookshops. Some of the bigger chains already make an effort to bed themselves into the community, for example each Sweatshop branch runs a free Sweatshop Running Community with weekly organised runs and Runners’ Need regularly hold evening talks on topics of interest to runners. But the more I thought about it, there’s more that an independent shop can do to make themselves a more central part of the local community.

  • Make sure the shop is convenient for runners. Location is always important in retail (footfall, casual custom, etc.), although that’s arguably less of a consideration for specialist/niche high-ticket retailers. But what about if the shop offered free water to runners to encourage them to pop in mid-run, or arrange their long run around the shop. It might not bring custom in the short-term, but it’s all part of building awareness.
  • Work with the local running club. Most clubs have a couple of nights of the week without club runs, so pick one of those and have a free informal guided run from the shop. End the run at the shop and make sure there’s plenty of tea, coffee, flapjack, individual sachets of recovery products, etc., that can be purchased for a reasonable price at the post-run mingle. Perhaps also run a beginners running group that acts as a feeder programme for the local running club – charge a nominal fee for a five-week programme, perhaps, since it’s closer to group coaching.
  • Organise a series of races – a four-seasons series of half-marathons, for example, timed to hit the build-up race phase for the major spring and autumn marathons (and also because there’s never enough half-marathons). Make sure they’re properly measured and accredited, so in due course they can be slotted into the local clubs’ league fixtures. Probably not a massive revenue earner, but a net better return than sponsoring a race, and it’s an opportunity to get other local businesses involved (for example, have a market-style spectators’ village with beer from a local brewery and a couple of food stalls).
  • Rent out high-ticket items. So, at the races the shop organises, let runners pay a small fee (plus a returnable deposit) to take a Garmin with them on the run. That fee can then be offered as a discount on GPS equipment purchased within the next week, for example.
  • If you’ve got space, do up an area of the shop as a physio room. This could be rented out to a sports physio (there might not be enough demand to employ a physio at the shop, and renting a room for a day a week would reduce the physio’s exposure to commercial rents), which is a boon to them because you’re in touch with their market.
  • Maintain an events calendar and a community noticeboard. Make an active attempt to list all planned events in the area (say within a 30-mile radius) and carry registration forms – most shops do at least part of this already – but also link it to a noticeboard. The noticeboard can be used to match runners to paces for informal pace-making groups, identifying training buddies, or planning lift shares. Ideally this should be electronic, so it can either be emailed to email subscribers, or posted on the shop’s website.
  • Take advantage of the big televised events with ballots. Every year something like 110,000 people enter the London Marathon ballot, but don’t get in – and behind that is a wave of people who didn’t get the chance to enter the ballot before it filled up. So why not organise a fun way of watching the marathon unfold? For example, arrange a relay marathon timed to coincide with the start of the marathon, tracking the relay runners’ progress against the actual marathon being run.
  • Random as it may sound, there may be some synergies to be had with any good local independent bookshops. There have been several non-fiction running books that have achieved mass appeal in recent years, and most areas have a local athletics celebrity who might be willing to talk on a topic related to a book new or old. The running shop should have access to a highly engaged and motivated audience, while the bookshop is likely to have the publisher relations and facilities for holding the event.

And then I got home all sweaty, because the sun had come out and it was another scorcher. I’m sure some of this is over-simplified and there’s actually a great deal of work involved in bringing any of it to fruition, but I’d definitely like a running shop that did some of those things close to where I live.

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