Even runners occasionally have to stop and buy gear. Fortunately, local runners have two of the best retailers in the country right here in Manatee County. Fit2Run and On A Shoestring were both ranked among the top 50 running stores in the country in 2009, according to Independent Running Retailers of America, The Competitor Group and Formula 4 Media, the producers of the Running Event, North America’s largest trade show for running stores.
The award is based on input from 1,000 consumers and a cadre of store raters (or secret shoppers) sent out to more than 200 running stores. The determination is made by The Franklin Group, a national in-store marketing and merchandising firm dedicated to the sporting goods industry. The store rater makes a $100 purchase, gauges the clerk’s response and, in true runner’s tradition, times the transaction. Along with customer service, the rater judges product awareness, space design and community involvement.
So exactly how did these two retailers run ahead of the crowd?
Parks Robinson, 28, is co-owner and general manager of Fit2Run, which opened on University Parkway in 2006 and now has two other locations in Tampa and Wellington, Fla., with 20 full-time and 50 part-time time employees.
As the son of Bill Robinson, a co-founder of Robby’s Sporting Goods, a general athletic outfitters chain headquartered in Bradenton (now rebranded as Champs Sports), Parks grew up in retail and athletics. After a college injury sidelined his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player, he went into retail sales, training at Nordstrom. Two years later, he and his father, who was looking to get back into the retail game after he left Champs, went into business together.
“It’s a perfect fit for us,” says Parks Robinson. “My dad and I have been runners our whole lives.”
Fit2Run’s business model, which is not built on volume selling, has one main goal: Give customers a reason not to shop online or at the chain stores.
After assessing the needs of area runners, the Robinsons developed unique services, such as networking opportunities for runners, both online and in the store, so runners can find training partners and groups to run with. Robinson also installed juice bars, popular watering holes for runners, where they can order a shot of wheatgrass juice or pumped-up fruit smoothies. Fit2Run also provides marathon training programs, beginners’ workshops and running and racing tips.
“Runners are constantly tweaking what they do in order to get better results,” Parks Robinson says. “Chances are they’ve already got a good running shoe; now they want something better.”
The company’s sales associates receive considerable training. “Getting customers in and out of the door isn’t our goal,” Parks Robinson says. “We develop relationships we hope will be long-lasting. You’ll never run into a clerk who doesn’t pay attention to you, or a clerk who swoops down on you and pushes a shoe you don’t really need.”
Fit2Run staff members are trained to find the right shoe for the right job, discussing particular needs, injuries, running history—and even exploring running surfaces. “We encourage customers to bring in their old shoes. That way, we can examine the wear pattern,” says Parks Robinson.
Sales associates assess the customer’s foot structure, including arch height, pressure points, width, volume and shape, using the Aetrex iStep, a digital foot scanning system that maps the customer’s feet using thousands of barometric sensors and infrared LEDs and receptors; the whole process takes less than 30 seconds.
Sales associates also observe the foot in motion and analyze the runner’s unique gait cycle. Once they’ve gathered all this data, they select a range of shoes that meets the customer’s biomechanical needs. The customer gets to test the shoes on the store’s indoor Mondo surface track or a treadmill connected to a video analysis system. “It allows us to analyze the running gait in different shoes,” Parks says. “There’s no guesswork; we do a frame-by-frame analysis.”
Because good deeds make good business sense, Parks realized he had to do more than sell shoes, and Fit2Run has partnered with the running community and the community as a whole by sponsoring local races, including the Sarasota Half Marathon (March 14) and the Robinson Preserve 5K (March 26).
Fit2Run was also the only running store out of more than 700 in the country to win the 2009 Balega Sports International Ubuntu Award in recognition of its community service. In a 2003 real estate transaction, the Robinsons allowed Manatee County to purchase 497 acres of the family’s undeveloped wilderness in northeast Bradenton at a much reduced price to create the Robinson Preserve, which has become one of the region’s most popular wildlife preserves.
Currently the company dedicates 2 percent of sales for external advertising in print and broadcast media. Parks Robinson is also a fan of the marketing possibilities of new media, including e-blasts, Twitter, Facebook and MySpace.
Parks Robinson prefers to keep the company’s revenue figures to himself. He will say that total sales have grown 500 percent since 2006. He has plans for future growth, but he wants to take it slow.
“It’s a new company,” he says. “Before we take it to the next level, we first want to establish our three existing stores. We want to make sure we have all the nuts and bolts details worked out. The worst thing a retailer can do is over-expand. You lose your service and edge with competitors. Customer loyalty is something you earn, not something you take for granted.”
Fit2Run will grow, but not at the expense of service and personal contact, he says: “The joke between my father and me is that he started Robby’s Sports, and ended up with 49 stores. My goal is to open 50 Fit2Runs. It’s a friendly competition.”—Su Byron
On A Shoestring
In 2005, after 40 years in law enforcement (holding the rank of captain with the Manatee Sheriff’s Office), Steve Litschauer, 56, was getting ready to retire and was looking for the “what’s next” in his life. Both Steve and his wife, Sharon, 53, are committed marathon runners—they have completed more than 30 half marathons, marathons, triathlons as well as 100-mile bike rides. And they also regularly coach and participate in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program. For years, there was no specialized running store in Manatee, and they were taking the people they trained to Tampa and St. Petersburg to buy their shoes.
“We decided to combine our passion with opportunity and open On a Shoestring,” he says.
Litschauer recalls that, when they opened On a Shoestring on Cortez Road West in October 2005, he and Sharon naïvely thought their only customers would be runners. They discovered their target customers include runners, walkers and nonrunners alike of all ages and abilities—from elite runners to postal workers to people with bad feet looking for a better-fitting shoe. In fact, much of their business comes from podiatrist referrals.
From personal experience and through their own coaching for 12 years, they knew that they had to offer some science in the shoe fitting process. Every customer is put through a series of tests, ranging from elementary to very technical, that helps to recommend the right type of shoe. One is a wet test that involves stepping in water and then on paper. This gives the employee an idea of the height of the foot arch. The most complex is the Aetrex iStep foot analyzer, which Fit2Run also uses. This high-tech equipment uses sensors to tell the employee everything they need to know about the customer’s foot.
Like Fit2Run, On a Shoestring’s eight employees play a critical role in the company’s success. “The first question we ask the employee is if they walk or run,” says Steve. Every employee has a passion for the sport and has been trained in proper footwear.
The Litschauers also engage them in decision-making and solicit their ideas. They have little turnaround in employees, which allows each person to become an expert at understanding the shoes and customers. At 1,600 square feet, On a Shoestring is small, but Steve feels this is an advantage. “You can’t get through the door without being greeted,” he says.
The company also makes serving the community a priority. Over the years, On a Shoestring has donated more than $29,000 worth of cash, apparel and shoes to Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches and Hope Family Services. They also offer free weekly fun runs and walks and sponsor walks for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The company was named Small Business of the Year in 2009 by the Manatee Chamber of Commerce.
With an increase in sales of 10 percent to 20 percent every year since opening, Steve says the future is looking bright for On a Shoestring. “In this economy, if you’ve seen an increase, you’re doing excellent,” he says. —Alexandra Garcia ■