Learn Now, Buy Later

The 50 Best Running Stores In America are doing good (and doing well) by educating runners.

Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

images-16The 50 Best Running Stores In America are doing good (and doing well) by educating runners.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

During the first running boom of the 1970s, running retailers started offering weekly group runs to meet a rising demand for social workout opportunities and to increase contact with their local markets. Nowadays, virtually every running store in America has at least one weekly group run. It takes more to stand out in today’s running retail environment, and America’s best running stores are doing that by providing a variety of educational services to runners.

Suzanne Taylor, co-owner of Fleet Feet Sports in Huntsville, Ala., has watched this trend emerge over the past decade—and has made sure her store stays ahead of it. “When we opened our doors six and a half years ago we had educational seminars once a month,” she says. “Now it seems like we have something at the store almost every night. We have seminars on running form, nutrition, psychology, stretching, Garmins, yoga, you name it.”

One of the benefits of moving beyond selling merchandise to provide free education for runners is transparent: It brings customers into the store. But there are other, less tangible benefits. “It lends us authenticity as a running specialty retailer and separates us from the big boxes, where you’re not going to get that kind of individual attention,” says Barbara Gubbins, co-owner of Gubbins Running Ahead in East Hampton, N.Y.

It seems the more a store’s ownership is willing to invest in educational offerings, the bigger the return. Big River Running Company in St. Louis, Mo., raised the bar in 2006 by launching summer cross-country camps and winter distance camps for high school runners. Each camp attracts hundreds of young athletes from dozens of schools, many of them outside the local area.

“These programs bolster our reputation in the community,” says Ben Rosario, one of the store’s owners (along with Matt Helbig). “The folks who participate have a great time and they tell all of their friends, family and neighbors. Those conversations turn into business for us down the road.”

The stores that provide educational services to runners are not the only winners. The runners served by such programs benefit even more. “We truly want to assist our community with becoming more active and healthier, and we want to deepen our relationship with our customers since we all benefit from people who are healthier and happier,” says Lori Dreiling, co-owner (along with husband Tim) of Fleet Feet Sports in Tulsa, Okla. “It may sound corny, but changing people’s lives is truly rewarding beyond description.”

Many of America’s best running stores partner with local race organizers, charity-based training programs, local sports medicine doctors and other professionals, and even manufacturers to create win/win/win scenarios where customers, retailers and their partners all benefit. The Runner’s Depot in Davie, Fla., recently hosted a triathlon clinic featuring 2009 Ford Ironman World Championship runner-up Chris Lieto and sponsored by Lieto’s shoe sponsor, K-Swiss. The event was a great branding opportunity for K-Swiss and, according to store founder Reneé Grant, “Most of the 100 or so people who attended left with purchases.”

Of course, the Runner’s Depot still hosts group runs too. There’s nothing wrong with them; they’re just no longer enough.[sgi:MattFitzgerald]