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A Change Would Do You Good

What to do when the outlook is unclear? Shake things up.

The last decade brought change in spades to independent retail. The relentless rise of online and mobile shopping, massive growth in vendor DTC and seismic shifts in the way shoppers consume media and promotions have all shifted the landscape. And last year especially, new concerns on tariffs and pricing, as well as renewed concerns about the sustainability and ecological impacts of product, further complicated the picture.

It’s no wonder that when we spoke with retailers at the dawn of 2020 that the word that came up again and again was “uncertainty.” No matter the particular geographic demographic or category mix of the store, uncertainty about the future could bring in pricing, about business, about staffing challenges and about the long-term health of the channel was top-of-mind for most store owners.

But far from feeling paralyzed, we were struck by how energized stores are to tackle changes head-on. Faced with the unknown, shops across the country are planning new tactics, fresh approaches and innovative measures to shake things up, double down on successes and start chipping away at problems. Below, we’ve included some (but certainly not all) of the mold-breaking plans smart independent retailers shared with us for the year ahead.

Strategic Shifts

Some shops are starting at the very beginning, giving their selling strategies an overhaul for the new year.

Adam White, owner of RC Outfitters in Peoria, IL, said trend lines at his store have been clear: apparel has been the only growth area for more than three years in both revenue and units. And that, he said, calls for a new approach.

“Historically, our industry is accustomed to asking, ‘How do I sell off the footwear bench?’” he said. “That’s where we’ve sold PT equipment, apparel, reflective gear and hydration. Now we have to figure out, ‘How do we sell shoes, PT equipment, reflective gear  and hydration out of the fitting room?’”

White said he will be working with his staff on reworking the dressing room area to spark conversations with shoppers trying on clothes about other needs. Trips to regional shows in other markets have given him ideas on new ways to look at key categories (seeing performance socks as an impulse add-on buy like in outdoor instead of an integral part of the sale like in running, for example) that change the buying, pricing and merchandising strategy for the items they bring in.

“My job is to react to the trends and get the systems and processes we need to set my team up for success,” he said.

Other shops are turning the whole idea of competition on its head.

Stephanie Blozy, owner of Fleet Feet Hartford in West Hartford, CT, said she’s hosting a launch event  for Brooks’ new running bra collection in February — but for the women who work at other local run shops, not customers. “People may think it’s weird to invite your ‘competitors’ to help them sell bras better, but I think we stores need to work together to grow our market share as a whole so we don’t keep losing sales to Amazon, discounters and big-box stores,” she said.

“We stores need to work together to grow our market share as a whole so we don’t keep losing sales to Amazon, discounters and big-box stores.” — Stephanie Blozy, Fleet Feet Hartford

Event Overhauls

Ross Martinson, owner of the five Philadelphia Runner stores in and around Philadelphia, PA, said that he was looking to expand on a solid growth year. And one path, he said, will be making a bigger deal of new styles coming in store.  

“Product launches were a source of traffic and sales in 2019, and we will expand our support in both buys and marketing,” he said. “Consumers are so in tune with what is new and coming out. If they know we have something, they are coming in.”

Another tactic for the year, he added, would be leveraging his staff’s insights into the consumer and what they want. “A couple of our best events last year were staff ideas, a ‘can I do this?’” he said. “We want to do a better job supporting that creativity, and we are budgeting for it.”

Staffing Solutions

Taking advantage of staff expertise is a theme that came up again and again.

“For us, when uncertainty hits — things like tariffs and the state of the running market — what we really try to do is focus on what we do best, and make sure that we’re presenting that to staff and customers,” said Sonya Estes, owner of Lakewood, CO’s Runners Roost. “Are we giving them a reason to come back, are we treating them well, are we giving them a place they can come to get education on running and training?”

To do that in 2020, she said, the store will be making a point of going over customer-service expectations with staff — and, she said, looking to bring some of their eight part-time workers (about half the staff) in more often with additional hours.

“Our customers, they like to see a familiar face, so we’re going to work on staff retention, and making sure they’re here,” she said.

Customer Care

Ahh Comfort Shoes in Arlington Heights, IL, is planning a new program — kicked off with a special event — to reward its very best customers.

Owner Jeffrey Seidman says his shop’s “royalty” event will reward its top 50 customers with a year-long discount as well as a thank-you event in-store with wine, cheese, food and giveaways.

“We have found, as most people have, that we get 80 percent of our business from 20 percent of our clientele, and that our top 1 percent is worth a staggering amount of those dollars,” he said. “We want to create a better relationship with those people we know already work with us.”

Efforts to reward loyal customers while bringing in new faces is top of the agenda for Steven Rueda, owner of Turnpike Comfort Shoes in Flushing, NY.

Rueda said that after taking a look at the numbers, he’s borrowing an idea from a fellow owner to bring new customers into his door.

Knowing that 32 percent of his customers — the largest share— come through word of mouth, he’s making referral cards to hand out to customers. The cards offer a $10 discount for new shoppers, and gives the referring customer a $25 store credit.

“I got this idea from Sue Orischak at Foot Solutions Scottsdale, and I think this is a no-brainer,” he said. “A print ad can cost me $300 to $500 and maybe you get one or two new customers, if you are lucky. Spending $35 to obtain a new customer and rewarding the referring customer is very clever.”

Rueda is pairing the cards, he said, with some digital plans.

Not only will the referral cards leave information on leaving reviews for the store online (“getting more reviews, and making sure they are 5 star reviews, is very important,” he stressed), he’s adding outreach. “I’ve hired a digital marketing firm to increase my SEO and social media presences. Though we have a selling website, my goal here is to get more customers into the store, not necessarily to buy on my site,” he said. “Because what we do best is fit.”

What’s on your agenda for this year? If you’re pursuing a new strategy or trying a new tactic, let us know at