Milestone: Secret Sales Tactics From Brooks

Go where the runners are.

That simple rule has been a crucial building block in Brooks Running Co.’s transformation over the past decade into a serious athletic brand. And it has paid off: in 2011 the company captured the coveted spot as the top-selling brand in specialty running retail as measured by Leisure Trends, and revenue is expected to near the $500 million mark by the end of the year — halfway to the firm’s $1 billion sales target for 2020. Brooks also reported a 16 percent increase in net domestic revenue in 2013 and this year anticipates growth of around 15 percent.

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But while Brooks has homed in on the specialty channel to reach the modern runner, the brand is tweaking its retail playbook to be where the runner is now: online, in every athletic space and all over North America.

“There is a balance in everyone’s business of being a leader in the most discerning channel and continuing to grow profitably. We will always make a decision around what is right for runners,” said Dan Sheridan, SVP and GM for North America. “Our challenge is where do we grow and how do we grow. We watched a lot of brands do this over the years, and we’re making decisions about what is right for our brand and runners.”

But the firm still sees its home being in the running independent channel.

“Our No. 1 initiative is to be the leader in specialty run,” Sheridan said.

“The best specialty running stores connect with their communities,” added Rick Wilhelm, VP of specialty retail accounts. “The way we can continue to grow is to invest in the channel. As we grow and have more money to invest, we’re looking at how can we help [specialty running stores] to be better businesses and invest in their own running communities.”

Jeanine Sylvester, owner of Runners Alley in Portsmouth, N.H., said the brand has continued to improve in the 17 years she’s worked with it.

“Since the beginning, being customer centric has been important to their success. But over the years, I have seen them become much more dialed-in and more running specialty focused,” Sylvester said. “They know there are channels out there that they certainly could be after, but they’re willing to sacrifice some other markets to stay focused. People in run specialty appreciate that.”

But even as Brooks doubles down on the independent channel, Sheridan said, the company is looking to serve its customers wherever they shop.

The brand has had a long-standing presence in sporting-goods chains and select online accounts, and it’s been working hard to make sure its channels grow in harmony, Sheridan said.

Brooks credits its team of 40 U.S. sales representatives and Brooks “gurus” (the brand’s marketing reps) for driving growth and expansion.

The firm also has made a commitment to leveling the playing field for independent stores through a strict policy that enforces MAAP, the minimum allowable advertised price.

“Brooks thinks long term. They’re protective of their brand and they’re willing to give up market share to protect their brand and pricing for the long term,” said Myles Matias, a buyer at Zappos.com. “Brooks is perceived as a premium brand and they protect that, but they’re also very youthful. They’re an exciting brand that wants to have fun.”

And, retailers said, the fact that Brooks stays focused on creating relevant and desirable product helps.

“One of the things that makes any brand great is that they have a deep understanding of their customer. They know they’re a running-focused company and they are aware of new trends and ideas … but they are very deliberate with product creation,” said Jeff Morrell, SVP and GMM of Indianapolis-based athletic retailer Finish Line.

Going forward, Sheridan said, Brooks is looking at what role its e-commerce site can play in serving both customers and retail partners. While runners often need to be fit in-store, they buy online, too, especially apparel, accessories and shoes that they know will work.

“Runners aren’t just shopping specialty stores. They’re shopping other places and going other places for resources,” Sheridan said. “We have e-commerce, but [the site] is also a place for a Brooks enthusiast to go. We’re investing a lot in content and resources for the Web.”

This summer Brooks will make its first foray into retail, with a new concept shop set to open on the ground floor of its new headquarters.

The “un-retail store,” as the Brooks team calls it, is about the brand experience and showing athletes the “Run Happy” mantra, Sheridan explained.

And while the team expects the store’s location — directly on Seattle’s popular Burke-Gilman Trail — to draw crowds, they don’t plan to add more doors anytime soon.

“Retail isn’t part of our strategy now. We’re a wholesaler,” Sheridan said. “There is so much room to grow on the wholesale and market-share level, so we’re focused on that.”

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