Terry Schalow is the executive director of the Running Industry Association (RIA). In addition to working toward its general mission of moving the sport and hobby forward, the RIA functions as a trade and advocacy group for independent running specialty stores, the huge majority of which are Main Street businesses.
It’s at this point that the pandemic and its associated economic issues would likely turn this story into a sad tale – but not this time.
Schalow and his members are upbeat about their prospects for the sport and for independent retailers as they reopen. Part of that optimism comes from not one, but two silver linings within the pandemic. The first is the general commitment to exercise as seen through the soaring success of Peloton. The second is the cyclical nature of running as a sport.
“We're seeing what we feel might be the genesis of a new running boom, because so many people are out there doing it for all kinds of reasons,” Schalow noted. “The running business in particular always kind of bucks the economic trend. Typically when there's an economic downtrend, and maybe people are out of work or tightening their belts a little bit, they might cut out the gym membership or trim some other expenses. One of the easiest, most inexpensive things they can do anywhere is run.”
The RIA is dialed into Main Street. It was recently among the dozen organizations that signed onto the COVID-19 recovery plan from the Institute For Local Self-Reliance advocacy group. The plan called for rapid-response grants to keep small businesses afloat during the crisis, followed by government subsidies, as well as an expansion of federal loans and loan guarantees.
At that time (mid-March), the independent running retailers were deemed nonessential and therefore closed. Given the personal nature of the running business, eCommerce was not the best option, although Schalow credits his members for opening that channel to the best of their ability.
Unlike other trade and advocacy groups, the RIA has a specific business angle: Its members are all part of a buying group. One store doesn’t place an individual order with Brooks or Saucony – instead, it joins with hundreds of other members to gain buying leverage and better pricing. And like other larger trade groups, the RIA runs a trade show that gives retailers a chance to interact with brands. This year, the show has been pushed online and will stretch throughout the month of June.
“It's just about creating higher-level brand and product connections,” Schalow said. “Buyers come in and it's a pure working show, and members can schedule to see product line presentations. What differentiates our model is that these presentations are made by the people who created the products, so they create a connection between the brand and the retailers that are buying. Specialist stores get feedback directly from the end user, so who better to tell a product or brand story than the people who created the product and built the brand?”
That connection has helped RIA members feel like they were part of the business, even during the toughest of times. The most recent RIA survey showed that 81 percent of its members have reopened, and the rest believe they will reopen soon.
“They’re cautiously optimistic,” Schalow said. “They’re stoked right now, because there's pent-up demand that provides a sense of normalcy. We don’t know if that will start to tail off, and we hope it continues. But we’re moving in the right direction.”
The running business started 2020 “on fire,” according to Schalow. He believes that fire will rekindle, mostly because the pandemic has put personal health on the front burner. And he believes the sophistication of his membership is compatible with the new focus on health.
“I hate the term ‘mom and pop,’ because I think it connotes a lack of business acumen,” he said. “That’s not the case in today's specialty retail world. In terms of this trade channel compared to others, running retailers really take the lead. They’re willing to adopt new tools. They’re just a very progressive bunch.”