The running industry has seen substantial growth during the pandemic — particularly in the women’s category as more consumers get outdoors and discover the health benefits. The active trend has presented a fresh opportunity for brands and specialty retail to connect with their customers, and meet a growing demand for women-specific running product.
To explore this growing market, FN gathered senior executives from the industry’s leading running and retail companies in its latest webinar, “Community Spirit: A New Inclusive Era in Women’s Running.” The roundtable, presented by Klarna, Saucony and Altra, was moderated by FN’s Peter Verry.
Joining Verry in the conversation was Anne Cavassa, president at Saucony; Shanna Burnette, community and partnerships manager at Altra; and Raji Behal, head of merchant success at Klarna, the payments platform. The execs discussed how brands can meet their runners where they are; the importance of inclusivity and women leadership; and what the future of women’s running might look like.
Highlights of the conversation are below.
On the Changing Role of Women in Run
Anne Cavassa: “Historically speaking, running brands have been very solution-oriented and prioritized function in product above anything else, especially in footwear. And we’re tech-focused: We love technology and we geek out over it. We talk about how it improves the running experience and how it’s all encompassing. But what we’re forgetting is that women value style and design equally to function. They want a product to look as good as it performs and what you see first on the footwear wall or online is critical. The aesthetic is critical for her in in her purchase journey and if we truly want to connect with her on product I think we have to pay attention to both – and we haven’t historically done that as well as we could.”
Shanna Burnette: “Going back to our running roots, you have Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile, then we saw Kipchoge breaking the 2 hours in the marathon. So these barriers and all of this in running has been catered towards men. I think we have been catching up. [But] it was only in 1967 that Kathrine Switzer was thrown off the Boston Marathon running course. It was my mum who was running outside of Mammoth, California, she was getting rocks thrown at her because little girls weren’t meant to be running. I think about 10 years ago, brands were starting to take shape and see that women are driving a lot of the purchasing power but we were seeing a lot of “shrink it and pink it” marketing. When brands really put the women first and their genuine connection to women, and really want to see women succeed and meet them where they’re at, we can better serve the woman consumer from a more authentic and holistic space, which is what I think we’re seeing now. I think we’ve really made awesome progress and we’re seeing that with the woman consumer.”
How to Serve the Female Consumer
AC: “[It’s about] addressing her in her many life stages — the impact that a woman’s body goes through and her shape goes through is very different to a man. Pre-baby, pregnancy, post-baby recovery and beyond – nursing runners certainly need something different than the male runner. That requires not just different product, but how we speak to her and what we talk to her about. There’s also an incredible opportunity for inclusivity: Women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and communities. We know that minority women have access challenges to running for numerous reasons, so being a part of their community and partnerships with groups like Black Girls Run are important as we try to reach a broader audience and expand the running community. That really requires different content, communication and a commitment to diverse community partnerships.”
SB: “The biggest opportunity with women is genuine connection and meeting the woman where she’s at. Women have multiple stages of life, from pregnancy to post partum, from getting into performance run to just wanting to get on the hiking trails. I think we need to lift up women voices both internally and externally, that’s a big opportunity to champion each other, just like everyone here at this roundtable. And I think a really big opportunity and difference is seeing women drive the marketing, drive the product. You see it and you feel it when women have a say at the table internally and you can’t have any more “Me Too” products. Real representation – women really want to be seen in size and ethnicity, we need to be inclusive of all different forms of sizes and running abilities.”
Running’s Recent Growth
Raji Behal: “Looking at our data from our shopping app, which allows someone to shop at any store, not just those integrated with Klarna, we’ve seen a 2000% increase in spend among females in the footwear category. When we compare this to growth from December 2020, which was our highest peak, to an average month pre-COVID, it’s just tremendous. If we look at the term running shoes specifically, that term has been searched more than 1800 times in Jan 2021 alone; that’s compared to an average of about 180 times just a few months prior to that. A lot of that is partly just due to New Year’s resolutions, wanting to work out more, but even in February and March we’ve seen significantly higher searches than we have a year ago – it’s convenient, it’s accessible and COVID has really changed the way that people live their lives. It’s hard to imagine going back and spending $35 on a Barry’s Bootcamp class when I can just put on my running sneakers and go run by the water.”
The Mass Benefits of a Running Lifestyle
AC: “Running is easily accessible and it’s not just about your fitness, it’s about your mental health. With COVID, just understanding something and needing something that’s that easy, that you can control, that you can just get up and go and return, mentally you’re in a much better place. All of those women coming into running through COVID, I think the majority of them — if you don’t fall in love with it and get hooked for the love of running, well you’re going to get hooked because of the convenience, the accessibility and the get up and go.”
SB: “We can all agree that COVID took running to a different place and it was more about mental health than it was about performance. Last year, during Giving Tuesday, we partnered with a woman-owned company called Still I Run which is all about breaking the stigma around mental health and really championed her and her organization by doing a virtual 5K on New Year’s Day which was really awesome to see. We got to raise good money for that organization and I would love to continue to see us breaking down that stigma of mental health, especially women who are carrying a lot of the load from family to work. Going out and saying, ‘I’m going out to have a run for my mental health’ should be something you can say and fully engage with. I have one time a friend when I meet with a woman friend to run and I call it my therapy situation.”
RB: “Especially with COVID, people seeing people close to them going through sickness, people are changing their entire lifestyle, everything from the way they eat to everything. We were in such a fast paced lifestyle before and people are really starting to slow down and see the value of things, take our health a lot more seriously. So I think you’re going to see a lot of people actively take up a hobby like running, which is so easy, and just realize that there needs to be a serious mental mind shift change for society.”
The Importance of Having Women in Top Leadership Roles
AC: “I think there are more women leaders and women-led organizations than there have ever been and we sometimes feel like it’s a given that they will be successful – but it’s actually really hard. And engagement and participation are key to that. It’s really incumbent on all of us who feel passionate about this to really play a part, to lean in, to participate, to be relevant with these partners and engage with them in a really authentic way. I also think it starts at home. Saucony is owned by Wolverine, we’re part of 12 brands and there are 1950 women in our organization globally. So we have a women’s resources group that helps support women in our organization and I’m one of the co-chairs. We really focus on mentorship and networking and career development. I think it’s critically important and the more you talk to women, the more you realize how much it’s needed.”
SB: “We’re really blessed to be a part of VF, it’s really important to VF and all the brands at VF. Our hiring process has really made us make sure that we always have a good candidate of every gender, race, ethnicity – but you’re seeking it out. You have to want it. We’re lucky with our product director and our president that want these women represented at all levels of our company. So you have to want it, you have to seek it out and you have to do your part.”
A Bright Future Ahead
RB: “All of our data consistently shows that this is a surge that’s here to stay for a while, there are no signs of slowing down. Especially as the country opens up, people are getting vaccinated, the weather is getting warmer – people want to be getting out. I definitely see positive signs for spending and for running in particular. I spent my entire career in footwear and just seeing the growth and changes in leadership, whether that’s in flexibility for working from home and adjusting for your kids schedules. Especially being in technology now, where women were underrepresented, we’re seeing a lot of growth. We’re really excited to see the momentum of women supporting women, women mentoring women, and I definitely think that in general that women doing that is something that’s here to stay as well.”
AC: “What’s here to stay is the running boom and the importance of getting outside. I think we’re in for multi-year growth and momentum. And I think that reinforces the need and desire for our physical running communities. It’s been a long time now since we gathered to run together so I think when we can do it again, there’s going to be a renaissance there and it’s going to be all about coming together and celebrating the love of the run.”