“Online” has become the word that shall not be said when it comes to small and locally-owned businesses. It touts immediate access and convenience. It creates volatility and inconsistency in pricing, And it sure doesn’t have to worry about shelf space – it has endless aisles.
In other words, it could be a small business owner’s nightmare. But, I have to remind myself, it isn’t.
For as loudly as “online” may scream “save money,” there are a lot of things it isn’t screaming. And it’s in those absences that we – the more than 700 locally owned running stores throughout the country-- have our greatest impact.
What drives us isn’t offering products at the lowest cost. We have never, and will never, win on price. And we don’t want to, thank you very much. That’s a race to the bottom that offers no prize.
What does drive us continues to be that customer who comes through the door in search of answers for her aching feet; the customer who comes to us looking for help in setting a new personal record; or the customer who shows up on a cold Tuesday night to his training program, ready to run a mile without stopping for the first time in his life.
It’s those moments, when our expertise, our passion, and our conviction that running is the foundation of a healthy and happy lifestyle create an in-person experience that isn’t transactional, it’s transcendental. It is, and can be, a life-changing experience.
These experiences take place not only in the store, but beyond our doors and in our communities, because we're also committed to ingraining ourselves in our communities so that we contribute to the success, health and wellness of our neighbors, friends, under-served, businesses and families.
As surely as you will encounter us at 10 a.m. on a Saturday on the store floor, you’ll find us donating hundreds of pairs of shoes to those in need because it’s the right thing to do; advocating the preservation of local running trails; leading efforts to increase the safety of our communities; or getting ready to build new running communities in our hometowns because it’s been our dream all along.
And that’s why articles that proclaim the availability of cheap shoes online cut like a knife. Because they attack our dream, undercut everything we strive to do and seem to entice customers away from the service model that we’ve stood behind for 40 years.
I understand that the customer has changed just as retail has changed. Today’s customer is much more informed, engaged, and aware of products before he ever steps foot inside a store. Even Fleet Feet Sports, with 162 locally owned and operated franchises like mine, now has an online store, which admittedly, I didn’t embrace right away. But what I realize now is that it doesn't detract from what makes local running stores so special.
It’s just one more way to connect with customers, and to do so in a way that doesn't devalue our brand, the products we sell or the sport and activity we love. It allows more people to find us without replacing our most human way of engaging with customers.
In the store, we’re a hand to shake. An eye to look into. A face to a name. In this case, our name happens to be Fleet Feet Sports, but it would mean just as much if it were Naperville Running Company, Pacers Running, Playmakers, Philadelphia Runner, Sole Sports, or several hundred others.
If you look hard enough, you will always find something cheaper. But I'll gladly pay extra for excellent customer service and human interaction. It’s what I genuinely believe, and it’s a bet I continue to make when it comes to what our customers believe, too.
They come to us for inspiration, information, and yes, insight, that can’t be accessed online. As long as we provide that insight and that transcendental experience, we’ll outlast any sale every time.
So the next time another article touting the ridiculous prices of running shoes pops up online, I’ll try hard to remind myself not to get angry. I can’t promise, but I’ll try. Because what we do matters.
And with that thought, I will sleep better tonight.
Pat Sweeney is co-owner of Fleet Feet Sports in Sacramento, Calif.