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50 Best Running Retailers in America—The Big 4

What makes these running stores the best in America?

images-16What makes these running stores the best in America?

Written by: Bob Babbitt

What makes Fleet Feet Sports (Syracuse, N.Y.) Playmakers (Okemos, Mich.), A Snail’s Pace (4 Southern California stores) and Luke’s Locker (9 Texas stores) the cream of a great crop? Every one of these stores operates a little bit differently. But there is one connection that comes across loud and clear: Everyone in these stores, from the owner on down, is passionate about running and passionate about taking care of their customers.

At the end of the day, that is what really counts.

Playmakers

2299 West Grand River Avenue | Okemos, MI | 517-349-3803 | playmakers.com

Curt Munson ran originally to stay in shape for football at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S. D. He enjoyed the running so much he gave up football to focus on cross-country. He bought the Playmakers store in Okemos, Mich., back in 1981. “When we first bought the store it was 1,500 square feet,” he recalls. “Over time we expanded to 2,000, 4,600 and finally 6,400 square feet.”

Eventually it was time to really go big. When Barnes and Noble moved out of a 15,000-square-foot former grocery store location in 2001, Munson and Playmakers snatched it up.

Playmakers makes an effort to showcase great customer service. They put on entry-level running clinics every Wednesday evening and partner with more than 100 local events each year. And the fact that 20 of their 55 employees have been on board for at least 10 years shows how well they treat their staff.

Which translates to a great relationship with their customers. “Our Team Playmakers motto is ‘Any distance, any pace,’” says co-owner Brian Jones. “We work with high school cross-country and track athletes as well as the 50-year-old looking to run his first 5K. Our goal is to help everyone and anyone reach their running goals. In October we launched our ‘From the Couch to a 5K’ training program for women over 50,” Jones says.

Seventy-five percent of their business is in shoes and 15 percent is in accessories. “Running is our core business,” says Jones. “But we also carry the comfort brands and sandals from Ugg, Keen and Merrell.”

Curt Munson, who is in the Running Retailers Hall of Fame, is a firm believer in creating a great shopping experience. His new store showcases 28-foot-high ceilings, 24 skylights, a waterfall and three aquariums. “When it comes to the shopping environment, the product is important, our people are important and the look and feel of the store is important,” insists Munson.

With the success of the book “Born to Run,” people wanted to know more about barefoot running. Munson was right there at the cutting edge. He is the perfect example of teaching an old runner new tricks. “Our Good Form Running clinic has been amazing,” says the 59 year old. “We are doing three classes a week for runners and one for walkers. New Balance is rolling out Good Form Running nationally this spring. This is definitely the most revolutionary time in the history of our industry. Running is truly all about form.”

When it comes to success at retail and at Playmakers, it’s obviously all about form as well.

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Fleet Feet Sports, Syracuse

5800 Bridge Street | East Syracuse, NY | 315-446-1444 | fleetfeetsyracuse.com

Ed Griffin and his wife Ellen were never what you would call hardcore runners. Which is one of the reasons Ed feels they have been so successful with Fleet Feet Sports in Syracuse. “The key for us is that we weren’t competitive runners,” he says. “We came from a business background and were just recreational runners. I think that allowed us to be more inclusive and more in touch with the average person when we opened our store.”

With 35 employees and a 10,000-square-foot building that they purchased a year ago, Fleet Feet Sports is on a major roll. With a population base of less than a million, Ed, Ellen and their team feel it’s important to reach out to everyone in the community to enhance the growth of running. Local running clubs and charities, corporations and high school teams all look at Fleet Feet Sports as their go-to running and comfort shoe headquarters. They also work with a number of medical professionals to make sure their patients are well taken care of. “Our medical market is huge,” Griffin continues. “We work with the orthopedists, podiatrists and chiropractors, and every fall we host a clinic at the store to show the medical professionals what we do and how we can work together.” About 120 medical professionals attend each year and gather in the Fleet Feet Sports Community Room. Not surprisingly, that outreach has paid huge dividends. “We get 10-15 referrals from the medical community every day,” Griffin says.

The Griffins’ business background has suited them well. They have great marketing programs, great financial management and a major focus on staff development. “We also have made a conscious effort to grow our database,” says Griffin. “We’re up to about 16,000 people on our newsletter list, and we add about 3,000 new names per year. We send out a newsletter to the list every Monday, and we make sure the content in it is second to none.”

At the end of the day, Griffin doesn’t feel that they are in the running or retail business. “We’re in the business of helping people feel better about themselves,” he says.

“What I love,” says Griffin, “is to see that look in someone’s eyes after he has finished his first-ever 5K. That’s when I know I’m in the right business.”

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A Snail’s Pace

4 locations in Southern California | runasnailspace.com

When Eddie Johnson first started working at A Snail’s Pace he was also waiting tables, bartending and attending the fire academy. But it didn’t take him long to realize that he had found a home. “I fell in love with it right away,” he insists. Before he knew it, he had partnered with the store’s founder Dave Reynolds, and the 1,400-square-foot outlet in Fountain Valley was doubling in size. “We started a grassroots marketing program and went to small running events every week,” he says. “Then we created a triathlon club and added swim, bike and run workouts.”

Johnson has run 30 marathons and completed four Ironman triathlon races, but he still remembers his first triathlon vividly. The former baseball and football player started running during his first year in college and did his first triathlon on a dare at UC Irvine. “It was a short run, bike and swim event,” he says. “When I got out of the pool at the end, I remember thinking that the sport was insane and all I wanted to do was puke.” He laughs. “Two weeks later I signed up for another one.”

There are now four A Snail’s Pace stores in Southern California (Fountain Valley, Laguna Hills, Brea and Pasadena), and Johnson feels he knows the reasons for their success. Number one: He got into running by trying to make it once around the block, then twice around the block—just like so many of his customers. “I can totally relate to anyone just getting started and so can our staff. It’s tear-jerking when people who have gone through our training programs come back to the store to show us their bib number after they finish their first-ever 5K, 10K or marathon. What could be better than that?”

Their Running Academy 100 Program, Snail Steps, teaches runners the basics. Over time their customers graduate to Running Academy 101, 201 and, eventually, 301. “Each one of our stores has a running club,” says Johnson. “It’s for everyone and each one has a weekly training run. Once a month we have a club race, and we set up the A Snail’s Pace canopy and have everyone wear a uniform. The support for each other is amazing.”

There are now 70 employees, and this year alone six are celebrating their 10-year anniversaries with A Snail’s Pace.

The day we chatted, Johnson had spent two hours that morning helping a 93-year-old woman find comfortable shoes. “She comes in once a year and was literally in tears because she was so happy,” says Johnson. “She kept thanking me over and over again for taking so much time with her, but the fact is that I appreciate her more than she knows. I love it. Those are the moments that I’ll never forget.”

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Luke’s Locker

9 locations in Texas | lukeslocker.com

Thirty-five years. That’s how long Luke’s Locker has been around. Don Lucas started running in the late 1960s and early 1970s at a time when it was hard to find running shoes. He tracked down shoes for himself and his buddies from a company called Blue Ribbon Sports up in the northwest that eventually became Nike. So many of his friends in the growing Dallas running community wanted shoes that Lucas eventually started selling them out of the trunk of his car. Lucas and his wife Sharon then opened up their first Luke’s Locker store, which was 4,500 square feet. With the help of their three sons—Matt, Andy and Mike—Luke’s Locker, the ultimate family business, has expanded to nine locations in Texas (Allen, Colleyville, Fort Worth, Houston, Katy, Plano, The Woodlands, Dallas and Austin).

Matt Lucas is the youngest of the boys and he remembers getting into running when he was about 5 years old. “I’ve pretty much run all my life,” says Matt. “Even when I got into basketball, running was still at the heart of everything I did.”

Matt admits that managing multiple locations is not easy. “We are very hands-on, and we still go to all of the stores as often as possible,” he says. “But with nine stores I just can’t be there all the time. I have to count on good people to be successful.”

The running marketplace has specialty retailers, big box retailers and online retailers. “People can buy shoes from just about anywhere,” says Matt. “There is more competition than ever before. We really consider ourselves more than just a running store.”

Luke’s Locker has training programs based out of their stores year-round. One of their employees came up with the idea of the 9-5 Program. Basically, it’s a nine-week program to complete your first 5K. “We pride ourselves on the fact that we train a lot of people who really didn’t know how to exercise,” says Matt.

Their half-marathon training program is 26 weeks long, and they have expanded beyond running to Pilates, yoga and cross-training. “We find that a healthy mix of fitness options is better for the body,” says Matt.

At the end of the day, though, for Luke’s Locker it’s all about taking care of the customer. “It’s important to us that everyone feels welcome at Luke’s Locker,” says Matt. “From the time they walk into the store until the time they walk out, that experience has to be great. We are very passionate about our customer experience as well as supporting our community.”

Speaking of community, consider the case of Chris Greene. He was overweight and signed up for a training program at Luke’s Locker. He made it through the training; fitness became a huge part of his lifestyle and the next thing he knew he was working for Luke’s Locker. “Chris now runs a half-marathon training program for us and is a great yoga instructor,” says Matt. “Those are the stories that I really enjoy.”