The running industry has sprinted at full speed for two years as droves of people discovered the benefits of the sport.
However, as COVID-19 restrictions continue to loosen, with people returning to gyms and other indoor fitness-focused activities, market leaders must focus their attention on securing these newcomers for the long term.
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association revealed in its 2021 Topline Participation Report that 50.7 million people stateside went for a run last year. That’s a 1.2% increase over the year prior year’s 50.1 million participation.
What’s more, the SFIA report stated that core runners, or people who ran 50 or more times throughout the year, increased to 26.2 million people in 2020 from 25.1 million in 2019, a 4.5% change. And the future of running looks hopeful. According to the report, nearly every age group from 6 to 64 years old indicated that they intended to run in the next 12 months.
For the past nearly two years, running brands have made the most of this boom. According to The NPD Group Inc.’s retail tracking service, performance running shoe sales were up 19% for the first three quarters of 2021 compared with the same period in 2019, and 29% year-over-year compared with 2020.
However, the industry is facing challenges that could trip up the momentum, namely port congestion and the ongoing supply chain woes.
Below, top brand executives, retailers and analysts offer a performance running market forecast for 2022.
How Brands Continue the Momentum
MATT POWELL (Senior sports industry adviser, The NPD Group Inc.): “It’s critical that they address the entry-level [customer] and understand that so many of these people who are now running are not committed to it and don’t need an overbuilt shoe. If we sell them shoes that they don’t need, we will lose them. They are not elites, they are never going to run in an organized race. They’re running three miles a day, three days a week, if they’re running that much, and they don’t need $150 running shoe. They need a great-quality, opening-price-point style.”
BRITT OLSEN (GM of North America, On): “The running boom is just beginning and the sport is having an intense moment of cool. We will continue to meet new and long-time runners by giving them something we’ve all longed for: human connection. So many people who started running during COVID have missed a year’s worth of connection and experience with other runners in their communities. Brands will have to step it up big time in how they get into the market and meet their new fans.”
TODD DALHAUSSER (President, Altra): “The Great Recession was a period of time when a lot of new runners came to the sport, but we didn’t keep them. They came, tried a new experience and moved on. We have to look at ourselves as a community and say, ‘What did we not do that could have kept them interested?’ The consumer is coming to the sport because of mental and [physical] health, which are good reasons. That alone will give us an opportunity to sustain those customers. We’ve got to connect with the consumer differently than we ever have, and it’s not independent of brands or retailers.”
ANNE CAVASSA (President, Saucony): “Educating consumers about the benefits of innovative product technology, sharing tricks and tips to stay injury free — and bringing our communities together to share in the love of the run are all ways we, as an industry, can fuel the momentum of the running boom.”
IAN DICKINSON (VP of categories, Asics): “It is most important to be relevant to who you are focused on, whether that’s a seasoned runner or someone new to the sport. We will continue to aspire to provide experience through product, our digital ecosystem of Runkeeper, Race Roster and One Asics, along with our world-class running events such as the L.A. Marathon.”
BEKAH METZDORFF (Co-owner, Mill City Running and Saint City Running): “Getting the community to connect [is vital]. We’ve all been separated, so it is about giving people opportunities to run together, connecting those new runners to people who have already been running, bringing energy together.”
TOM CARLEO (VP of running, New Balance): “Globally, more women are integrating fitness and running into their everyday lives, and as they learn about our brand, our values and product will make that important initial connection. That opportunity is tremendously important. And as in-person marathons and road races come back to life, we [can] introduce more runners to our training and race-day product. Specifically, our partnerships with New York Road Runners and the London Marathon groups allow us a year-long platform to tell our FuelCell story.”
DAN SHERIDAN (EVP and COO, Brooks): “We feel confident that on the other side of this disruption is a huge opportunity to help even more people invest in physical and mental health. For those who have been running amid the pandemic, many are leveraging the run for its mental benefits rather than to achieve a fitness, distance or event-related goal. Brooks will continue to shine light on the importance of the mental and physical aspects of the run, while creating an inclusive environment for all to run in.”
Most Pressing Challenges
DAN FITZGERALD (Co-owner, Heartbreak Hill Running Co.): “Getting inventory. It feels like we get a daily update of COVID production issues from multiple vendors. We’re just trying to buy what we can — if we see stuff, we pounce. But we’ve been fortunate, the business hasn’t been too heavily affected by it yet. It’s still going strong.”
SHERIDAN: “COVID-19 continues to affect our community, including putting incredible pressure on the global supply chain. While challenges are not unique to Brooks, we are well positioned to manage through the disruption. Our production is geographically diverse, but our focus is singular to running. Our partners and customers will benefit from our concentration in one athletic category, as it allows us to streamline operations.”
GENIE BEAVER (Owner, West Stride): “The market for keeping and hiring good staff will continue to be tight, the pool will continue to be tight and we will need to work hard to keep our employees. There’s also a lot of choice for consumers, and as things loosen up, hopefully we’ve gained a good bit of loyalty and continue to build that loyalty with our customer base, and we can retain the new customers and not lose them to online.”
DICKINSON: “Every brand will face the challenge of meeting consumer demand in a timely manner based on the major supply chain backlog we are facing right now. There is no easy solve, but we are implementing strategic decisions and investments for the coming year and beyond to best optimize our supply chain.”
POWELL: “I think we’re going to see running footwear make a return to streetwear, something we haven’t seen since 2013. When you’re running a fashion business versus a straight-up performance business, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. Typically, if you’re doing performance running shoes, you bring out new product in the fall, three colorways for men, three colorways for women, update the number and make small tweaks. Being in fashion and streetwear requires many more introductions throughout the year and color updates. Brands have to stay fresh, so it’s a go-to-market strategy that will be the toughest thing for many brands to acclimate to.”
OLSEN: “It’s no secret that the industry will be impacted by the recent lockdowns in Vietnam. That, coupled with global supply chain issues, will mean product shortages and delayed launches. It will require a lot of open, transparent communication and patience between brands, partners and customers. We’ve all gotten through so much already that this will be just another small bump in the road, but one that brands need to manage meticulously to make sure our partners continue to have thriving businesses.”
DALHAUSSER: “It’s all about supply chain. There is demand and there’s a lack of inventory, and for the next six to 12 months, it’s going to be a challenge. The question is, what are we going to do so we can best have the supply to meet the demand that’s there right now? We’re bringing in a lot more inventory on the front side of launching a style than we historically have, looking at different methods to transit product — whether it be air or [moving] traditional containers into different ports and avoiding Long Beach, New York, New Jersey or Seattle. We don’t see a huge gap in supply for the next six to 12 months.”
Names That Will Make the Most Noise
POWELL: “Puma, who has had a very successful introduction of their performance running program. On, a company that just went public and has had two very strong years, which I expect to continue. Hoka has also had [a couple years of momentum], and I expect that to continue. And then Brooks, who continues to dominate this space. Lululemon filed for a patent on what appears to be a running shoe, so that could be interesting. They have such a strong following on their apparel side that I think the footwear introduction will be well received. It will come down to execution. Footwear is much more complicated than apparel, and we’ve seen brands struggle to take their success in apparel and leverage it into a significant shoe business.”
FITZGERALD: “Nike and On. Nike has completely redefined what racing footwear is for the marathon, and I think they will continue to do that. In terms of energy, On seems to be positioned to break out. It’s a smaller brand, a growing brand, just went public and it seems to be making good on its promises of getting an Olympian [in Joe Klecker]. They quickly put together a team and the products have good buzz. As they sharpen their run performance side, they’re going to be a force.”
METZDORFF: “On and Hoka. Hoka is already making noise, they have been hot and I don’t see any reason that would change. And On is getting their pieces of the puzzle in the right place, and their product is going in the right direction.”
BEAVER: “The brands that can get the product to us. Noise is important, but so are sales, and we can’t sell product we don’t have. But I’m pretty optimistic that this will start to become less challenging, and hopefully by the middle of 2022 products will arrive in our stores with a little less complexity.”
POWELL: “Saucony and Asics both are showing some signs of life. New Balance, I would add to that list. I think they potentially could have a much better year in 2022 than they did in ’21.”
FITZGERALD: “Puma did a lot [to relaunch the category] in 2021, and messages take a long time to break through. The brand will start to see the fruits of that work in ’22. And Adidas — the brand has changed its product range significantly and there’s energy there that we’ve never had by a significant margin. And their race shoes are fast.”
METZDORFF: “Saucony is already making a turnaround, and I believe that will continue. They’re making better choices in a lot of different areas: product-wise, customer service-wise, aesthetics.”
BEAVER: “Saucony has probably underperformed relative to other stores and we are seeing Saucony make a push and grow a little bit of share in the store. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the growth in Hoka and On. And for us, On has the run side and the style side — people buy them for both reasons, and I don’t see any slowdown in that. I have middle school and high school-aged daughters and they wear On, which I think is funny because a year-and-a-half ago they had no interest in On and now they like the shoes. We’re starting to see a little bit younger demographic for that brand.”
Brands With the Most Questions
POWELL: “Nike. They have not had a good year. They ceded the No. 1 market share in women’s to Brooks and it does not appear that there’s anything on the horizon that will reverse fortunes for them.”
FITZGERALD: “Asics. It’s always been a strong brand and has an incredibly rich history, but I think the energy is harder to capture these days.”
METZDORFF: “I don’t like to bring negative energy to any brand, but I haven’t seen a ton of innovation yet coming from Asics or Mizuno. They have great staple product, but if they’re not putting out new and interesting technology, will the customer be more interested in trying something new? And Nike. They have good product, but can they get it to us? Things have been two-plus months late, so how much can we rely on that?”
Strategies for the Future
CAVASSA: “We want everyone to experience the transformative power of running and carry that forward for the next 100 years. To do that, we are striving for swift and discernible progress on our sustainability efforts and building a more inclusive, diverse and accessible global running community.”
OLSEN: “To be strong beyond 2022, the most important things we can do will be to focus energy on being impactful with our social and environmental targets, embedding this across our growing global brand. And to continue to create the best, most premium experiences for our fans and remain committed to quality over quantity.”
CARLEO: “It is less about changes and more intensified efforts toward an always-on digital offense that enables stronger, more modern communication to consumers and omni shopping experiences.”
DALHAUSSER: “We’re growing at an incredibly high, accelerated rate. So we have to scale the organization to keep up with that, whether that’s on the supply chain side, on the forecasting side of product or with demand creation with the consumer. We also have to continue to support and make specialty special. With an increase in demand, there’s an expectation of expanded distribution, but we need to focus on our current distribution and to make it as special as we can.”
BEAVER: “I’m heavily investing in my staff and in the look and feel of our store. I’m looking to build loyalty with our base of customers through having great staff and a fantastic store. I want shopping at West Stride to be experiential, to be an enjoyable community experience.”