There is no shortage of startups that enter the wild world of direct-to-consumer (DTC) retail to address a hole in the market that leaves a massive number of consumers underserved. It is in fact one of the more common stories we encounter here at PYMNTS. But the founding story for Tracksmith about looking around the market in 2013 and realizing there was a need to be met is somewhat eye-catching simply because of the group it chose to serve: runners.
As a quick Google search will quickly demonstrate, runners do not seem to be an underserved consumer demographic, nor would they have appeared as one to most observers in 2013, given the number of large, global brands selling athletic wear at the time.
Tracksmith Founder and CEO Matt Taylor knew that as well if not better than anyone, as he was an executive at Puma at the time and had a very inside view into the global athletic wear business. He also had a very up-close view of the problems.
The first of which, he said, was that all of these big brands weren’t really focused on runners and running as of the early 21st century.
“These big brands all started off as scrappy little startups that communicated to a specific audience and type of runner. But as they got bigger and bigger and the demands for growth kept going up, it pushed them to a more generic focus on health and wellness to capture a wider share of the consumer,” Taylor said. “A lot of them moved on and out to other sports,” he noted in an interview.
And, he said, for all the brands out there, that race for the general market and basically health-focused consumer had something of a genericizing effect on the products — everything looked so much the same that if one were to pull all the logos off the average piece of athletic gear or shoes, most customers would have a very hard time guessing which brand made which (with the possible exception of Nike, he noted).
Plus the dominant design aesthetic — lots of loud, bright colors and busy patterns — just isn’t everyone’s desired look while jogging, but six years ago it was legitimately difficult to find something that didn’t make one look like “a Power Ranger,” unless they wanted to wear all black, all the time.
Boston-based Tracksmith, Taylor said, wanted to be an alternative for runners — real runners — who are looking for gear specifically focused on them and their needs. According to Taylor, there are more of these people than one might think, but they tend to fall into a donut hole in the retail market that means their needs aren’t being served.
“The way we look at it is there are two ends of the spectrum. There are uber professionals who win major marathons who are using gear that consumers can’t ever buy in most cases. On the other end there are people just getting into running for the first time or getting into jogging for general fitness. Both ends of the spectrum are great — and they are where all the attention goes. We are looking for all those people in the middle who are never going to be a pro but are very committed to training and getting faster,” Taylor explained.
Nothing Tracksmith sells will make anyone faster, he said, and any brand advertising that it can is probably stretching the truth for marketing purposes. What better textiles can do is make a garment last longer, be more comfortable, smell better or be more applicable to the situation at hand. For example, he noted, Tracksmith sells plain cotton T-shirts because someone going for a short run on a mild day doesn’t need a technical fabric. The brand also carries what it calls the “No Days Off” collection made from technical textiles manufactured in Sweden so that runners can go out and comfortably and safely train in sub-zero temperatures.
Tracksmith, Taylor said, isn’t chasing an ideal consumer demographic so much as what he calls a “psychographic.” It isn’t about how fast a person runs, how far they go or hard they are training — the community Tracksmith wants to support are the people who go out and train every day for the love of the sport. The firm’s goal, he said, is simply to have everything on offer that any kind of runner will need so when they want to go out and hit the trail or the track they can do so.
And, because the brand’s styling is based on the New England club and college running aesthetic, the palate is in muted colors, instead of a series of very bright busy patterns.
It is not a brand for everyone, and that is OK with Taylor — because building athletics brands for everyone is how the big brands drifted so far from their running-focused roots. But Tracksmith is content to continue pursuing its course of minimizing marketing and advertising spend, focusing on word of mouth and building a core cadre of running enthusiasts who loyally return to make multiple purchases.
The brand has a single physical location today — and no plans to build another just yet, though it has and still does sponsor pop-up shops nationwide to introduce consumers to the brand. And the Boston-based brand’s only shop is located right next to the finish line for the Boston Marathon. It’s not just about selling, Taylor said, but about community, which is why Tracksmith hosts free runs and other events meant to build a hub for runners in the physical world.
Because while Tracksmith is a retailer, and one that wants to thrive, it doesn’t want to take on the world — just make it a better place to go running in.