How Running Brands and Retailers Are Working Together to Make the Most of the Coronavirus Running Boom

Whether they’re looking to stay in shape as gyms remain closed or take a respite from the daily barrage of news on the coronavirus, many people are lacing up their shoes to go on runs and walks — creating an opportunity for brands and retailers to cater to consumers in a meaningful way.

Industry insiders believe this begins with messaging.

“You have to market [running] in a way that seems to matter, in a way that’s creative and appropriate to get out there and run because there’s a lot more to worry about,” explained Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Sam Poser. “[Brands are] not out there saying, ‘Come buy the newest running shoe.'”

Leaders in the market, such as Nike, have carefully crafted statements that consumers have found inspirational amid the coronavirus crisis. On Sunday, the company shared an encouraging message to Instagram that read: “If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance. Play inside, play for the world.”

For Altra, meaningful social media engagement comes in the form of education and information sharing.

“Our priority is to focus on people and supplying our community with content that helps them now and in the future,” said Altra Running president Todd Dalhausser. “We have enlisted Altra athletes and doctors to talk about mental health, home exercises, family workouts. It is our goal to help motivate one other with resourceful and inspirational content.”

However, the most important message the industry needs to send at this time, according to Dalhausser, is one encouraging support of specialty run retail.

“We all need to spread the message to consumers to think about local stores first before purchasing online,” Dalhausser said. “Consumers can call ahead, see if the stores are offering curbside pickups, purchase gift cards.”

Dalhausser continued, “These are the people who host the packet pickups, weekly runs and inject spirit into the local running community, and if brands come together in different ways to support our specialty retailers during these times, we can all together help make a positive impact.”

Altra isn’t alone in this belief. On Sunday, Brooks shared suggestions on how to support local specialty run retailers on Instagram, a list that includes buying from retailers who offer curbside pickup or local delivery, giving five-star reviews online and buying gift certificates to use at a later date.

Aside from directing consumers to independents, industry insiders believe more relief to this channel is necessary during this time of economic uncertainty.

“One of the brands that I follow sent out an email to their [retailer] customers the other day saying they’re going to give a lot of additional dating, an additional 60 days [to pay for the product],” Poser said. “Independent retailers in running specialty may be in a cash crunch but [the retailers] still need to buy the new product, especially when the dust settles.”

B. Riley FBR analyst Susan Anderson said other form of relief have also been discussed between brands and specialty run retailers.

“We’re hearing more talk about markdown money or incentive to help them sell those products,” Anderson said. “I think everyone is having those conversations now and that’s going to continue a quarter or two out.”

Heartbreak Hill Running Co. co-owner Dan Fitzgerald said in addition to the extended the time period to pay debts and removing some of the minimum advertised pricing requirements, some vendor partners are now allowing their footwear to be sold online, which wasn’t the case before.

Aside from what brands are doing for Heartbreak Hill, which has stores in Boston and Chicago, the storeowner said he’s incentivizing consumers to spend their money with his business.

These efforts include selling gift cards at discounted rates and in bundles with coveted products and services, allowing people to pay memberships to its Heartbreakers running team early and offering lifetime memberships.

These changes, paired with the ability to only sell online at the moment, has provided a significant bump to the Heartbreak Hill online business. According to Fitzgerald, since March 13, the Heartbreak Hill Running Co. e-commerce business has increased by roughly 500%.

Despite this increase, Fitzgerald said his store’s e-comm presence has always represented a small portion of the overall business and he expects April sales to be down by roughly 85%. (Because of the Boston Marathon, April has been the best-performing month since the store’s inception.)

Aside from sales, Heartbreak — with an already strong digital presence — is ramping up its engagement efforts. The biggest initiative is a new programming series called Heartbreak Preseason.

“We have a team of over 1,000 runners. Many are training for Boston, many are training for other spring races. One challenge of coaching a group that large is everybody’s brain wraps around the specificity of their own race and technical needs,” Fitzgerald said. “With everybody’s race being canceled, this is an opportunity to unify our programming, to do something that on a daily basis connects with runners.”

Heartbreak Preseason, which is delivered for free via Instagram, features the workout of the day, check-ins with one of the team’s coaches and guest appearances from athletes and others.

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