Having worked as a “Running Specialist” at a big box sporting goods chain I can tell you that not much thought goes into properly serving the runner. For one thing, you’ll be lucky to be helped by someone who actually runs and knows what you’re talking about. As a devoted runner and fan of the sport I always felt guilty working for this place. I support specialty running stores and preferred to work in one, but timing was bad and I settled for what I thought would be a position where I could utilize my skills and knowledge as a competitive runner to help others. What I found myself doing was everything but what I had envisioned.
Big box chains are at a disadvantage because the lack enthusiasm for the sport of running. Sure, you’ll see merchandising of running products, but there is no commitment to serve and understand the runner. This is where specialty run stores have the advantage. They take the time to understand the needs of the runner and offer options, whereas chain store staff have multiple sport focus (baseball season, football season, etc.) and are limited in variety based on inventory suggested by software programs rather than an understanding of the demographic.
During the course of my time at the store I suggested a few things to management that would increase customer satisfaction and sales. I suggested a winter run seminar at the store. My idea was to invite new and veteran runners to the store so we can discuss winter running essentials; from proper clothing and nutrition to how to properly run in snow. This would have been a good time for the store to partner with brand reps to highlight winter running apparel, accessories, and shoes. After the idea was relayed to the Community Marketing Manager, the idea was nixed because of liability issues (and a general lack of enthusiasm and support by upper management, I suspect).
Another time, I suggested a dry erase board be placed in the footwear department counting down the weeks/days left to the Monumental Marathon with training and nutritional tips for the runner. Along with the tips, I wanted to include a product recommendation (a hydration belt or socks); something to help the runner and increase our “unit-per-transaction.” My suggestion was not taken and the store missed a great opportunity to leverage the Monumental Marathon excitement and build their client base.
Given a second opportunity to leverage race events, the Mini Marathon, the store has not taken advantage of race events. A simple conversation with anyone looking to buy quality running shoes will reveal they are preparing to run their first Mini. The same customers looking for new shoes also have many questions regarding training, nutrition, and clothing. One woman complained of blisters and was in the store to buy compression socks because a friend suggested it would help. Her shoe was the right size and she was putting up minimal mileage, so I saved her a lot of money by pointing her to some good pair of socks instead of the 2XU. She wrote an email a few days later thanking me and outlining the service that was provided. A printout was then hung in the company lunchroom with the manager writing “Good for you Choy.” I was ticked. Instead of using that email as a teachable moment for recognizing the needs of a customer, it was reduced to being a piece of paper that no one cared about. That letter should have been validation that focused customer service for runners is needed. Nothing I did at the store was for the sake of getting mentioned in a survey, it was to help the runner enjoy the sport. The store puts itself in an unfortunate circumstance as runners are the main sales drivers yet are often neglected.
At the store where I previously worked, “completely satisfied” customers were the goal and I thought services such as the winter running seminar and dry erase boards went above and beyond in satisfying customer expectations from a big box store. The thoughtfulness of the proposed ideas would have done much to elevate the stores standing among runners as well as potentially cultivating loyal customers.
Big chain stores have a lot to gain by following the model set out by their smaller competitors. Treating the running footwear and apparel departments as their own stores within the store will project to the customer a feeling of specialized, thoughtful, and genuine service.
Not to worry small running retailers, the big box stores are too rigid and out of focus to implement anything worth threatening your unparalleled customer service, just don’t slack off in that regard and you’ll always be the runner’s preference.