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Sole Man: Where Do You Buy Your Shoes?

There are a lot of places to buy running shoes, including stores where actual runners are the sales people.


There are a lot of places to buy running shoes, including stores where actual runners are the sales people.

Where do you buy your running shoes? It might say a lot about what kind of runner you are. But it also might say a lot about your shoe-buying motivations. Maybe you just want the best price possible. Or maybe you really just want a batman motorcycle helmet and wound up at a site selling running shoes, but more on that in a moment.

RELATED: Vote here for your favorite running stores in the U.S.!

There are a lot of places to buy your sneakers these days, including specialty running stores, mall running shops, brand concept shops (like Niketown or a New Balance store), outdoor shops (mostly trail shoes), large “big box” sporting goods stores, factory outlet stores and, of course, online retailers. Each offers a different experience and vastly different products. Here’s a quick breakdown of each one with a hint of which one you’re likely to visit for your running needs.

Specialty Running Shops

What it’s all about: Your local specialty running shop is usually the best place to get great service, the best shoes for running and free expertise about training, running injuries, local trails and the area’s upcoming races. In a good running shop, you’re likely to see posters of long-ago runners you’ve never heard of and will hear something that sounds like a foreign language when one shop guy says to another: “This morning I tempo’ed 10×400 in 72s and felt pretty good. I’m doing 12 easy this afternoon if you want to join.”

Often there’s a skinny guy with gray hair that just happens to look like the guy who’s shaking Bill Rodgers’ hand in the blown-up and autographed circa-1979 post-race photo that hangs behind the register. (Must be a coincidence, right?) The bottom line is that specialty running shops ooze running culture, and it’s contagious. Inside the store, you immediately realize one of the solutions to the American obesity epidemic cost less than $150 per person and the willingness to wear something in a bright neon motif for about 30 minutes a day.

Why You Shop There
Because you want to run a faster half-marathon and want/need the best gear for your needs. And when you get there you suddenly feel inspired to be more fit, almost as if you were actually running the 50 miles per week you tell the salesperson when he asks you what kind of runner you are. Plus, you know they host evening weekday funs runs and give away free stuff. And sometimes, for the adults in the crowd, free beer.

(If you need guidance, here are the Best 50 Running Shops in America from 2012 and here’s how you can vote for your favorites for next year.)

Mall Running Shops

What it’s all about: I will be careful here because there are a lot of great running stores that happen to be located in some kind of mall. For example, Eugene Running Company and Fit2Run comes to mind. In this context, the idea of a “mall” running shop is really more of a “chain” running store concept, but there are great chains, too, and/or groups of shops branded under the same name. My point is that the kind of shop I’m referring to in this reference is the store that sells running shoes, but also sells basketball shoes, flip flops, stylish urban shoes and a wide range of cotton T-shirts in a small store within a mall.

Often next to a cell phone store, a gaming store or a Victoria’s Secret shop. The typical sales person is 24-ish and doesn’t know a thing about running, but there are often big screen TVs playing skateboard videos or at least cool music playing in the background. Sometimes, apparently, referees from local high school basketball games show up and work there before or after a game.

Why You Shop There
Well, it could be that you hang around in malls quite a bit, which, apparently, most Americans do. But it could mean you don’t have a local specialty run shop nearby. (And that would be sad for you.) Or it could be that you’re 16, just got your driver’s license and you wandered in to buy a pair of Vans and walked out with a pair of high-mileage trainers and a ball cap with the logo of your favorite NFL team. (And that’s cool, too, because the NFL is into running.)

Anyway, the referee guy is there to help, but he probably can’t tell you anything about plantar flexion and thinks negative splits might have something to do with why he lost so much money playing black jack in Vegas.

RELATED: Adidas Unveils New Springblade Shoe

Brand Concept Shops

What It’s All About
Expect to drink the Kool-Aid from the moment you walk in, but don’t expect the same kind of running-specific expertise. When looking at a pair of Nike Frees at Niketown in San Francisco recently (in the temporary space while the original one on the corner of Union Square is being remodeled), I was told something like, “that’s the shoe Prefontaine runs in a lot.” Um, really? And, let me guess, Bill Bowerman made it in his wife’s waffle cone machine, right?

Why You Shop There
Because it’s cool! I’ve shopped and browsed at Niketowns in Boston, Portland and San Francisco in the past three months and have marveled at the energy and merchandising expertise. And despite the disconnect to various levels of running, it’s hard not to be reminded that Nike runs deep in running and is a big reason there have been so many technical and style innovations in running gear over the past 30 years. The same vibe is present at Puma, New Balance and The North Face concept shops I’ve been to recently. Running is cool!

Outdoor Shops

What It’s All About
Outdoor shops (both larger ones like REI and small local stores) have made a killing selling trail running shoes in the past 10-15 years or so. But most of their brands come from the hiking/mountaineering side of the industry, which means the shoes are often somewhat burlier, more durable for technical trails and mostly available in seven shades of earth tones. The salesperson (who might or might not have shaved in recent months, regardless of their gender) can usually supply good local trail knowledge in between sips of their chia-infused soy chai latte. (Or is that only a Boulder, Bend and Burlington thing?)

Why You Shop There
Because you’re a dirt-bag trail runner, you live in a mountain town, you really need a new camping stove or you really like eating freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches instead of energy gels.

Major Sporting Good Stores

What It’s All About
To their credit, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Sports Authority, Big 5 Sporting Goods and other “big box” retailers have really gotten in the game when it comes to running in recent years. (I think Wal-Mart sells running shoes, too, but I’m not sure about the 300,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World.) Service might be sketchy and real running advice is almost non-existent, however prices are typically good and you can also buy gear for soccer, step aerobics, baseball, fishing and archery while you’re there.

But know that you’re bound to see a different selection of shoes at those stores, mid-range models aimed at new runners, casual runners, not-really-a-runner runners, couch-potato-wants-to-be-a-runner runner, out-of-shape-football-watching-dad runner and, of course, the mini-van-driving-moms-who-are-runners-but-buying-other-sports-gear-for-their-kids runners. It’s also the only place you’re likely to find double-XL moisture-wicking running apparel, too.

Why You Shop There
Because one of your kids plays soccer, hockey and football and the other one has a lacrosse game in an hour and you can’t find his or her mouth guard. And coincidentally, you’re no longer within 20 pounds of the weight you weighed when you graduated from high school and you before you whip out your Visa card to pay for your kids’ stuff, you decide right-then-and-there you’re going to get in shape. Once-and-for-all. Again.

Like I’ve always said, happiness is a new pair of shoes, right?

RELATED: Ask The Coach: Which Shoes Should I Buy?

Factory Outlet Stores

What It’s All About
The prices are usually very good at these kinds of stores, but sometimes you’re buying factory “seconds” or colors that didn’t move at retail. Just as when you visit a garage sale, you’ve got to know what you’re looking for or you’ve just gotta get lucky. Depending on the store, you might find great details on socks, hats, apparel and other high-quality accessories, too. Every once in a blue moon, I stop by the Pearl Izumi and Nike stores at the Silverthorne factory outlet stores in Colorado, and come up with bags full of stuff I don’t really need or want for about thirty bucks. Not that I need more running gear or have to pay for it, but I guess you can never have too many pair of good running socks right? And who can resist a pair of soft, cozy terry cloth wristbands?

Why You Shop There
Because you’re a cheap-ass bargain hunter and can’t understand how running shoes with more minimal designs and materials can cost as much or more as the overbuilt shoes built just a few years ago. And, apparently, you’re willing to run in overbuilt shoes from a few years ago that have been dumped at the factory store after not selling at any of the aforementioned stores.

Online Retailers

What It’s All About
This is a four-letter word for most specialty running shop owners. Increasingly for the last bunch of years, there have been runners who have made a habit of checking out new models and trying on several at local running shops, only to leave and then buy the same shoes online. Sure, you can probably find someone selling the same model for $10 cheaper and offer free shipping. My practice is, whenever possible, to support my local running shops. That said, there are many running shoe brands that sell direct from their own websites and there are some great online retailers, including Running Warehouse, Run.com and Zappos.com.

Why You Shop There
Because, that’s what the interwebs have done — put you, the consumer, in charge. You know exactly what you want, you don’t have to drive anywhere to shop and you can find the best price available. But buyer beware: you certainly won’t get the knowledge about how to finish your first half-marathon, understand why your shin hurts or what kind of hydration pack you need for your next long run. However, you might find an apocalypse survival kit or a batman motorcycle helmet online at a great price, even if that’s not what you’re looking for in the first place.

Remember, click here to vote for your favorite running stores!