Specialty running stores feeling the pain amid coronavirus response

The response to COVID-19 has been wide reaching, affecting the lives of millions of Americans and shuttering businesses nationwide. The pandemic is affecting businesses in all sectors, and the running community is not exempt. D.C.-area specialty running stores are closing their sales floors, canceling events and working to find ways to virtually connect with patrons in an industry that thrives on face-to-face interactions.

Most specialty running stores rely on business in the spring to help set them up for a successful year. It’s when many runners hit the streets again and think of their apparel and footwear needs, said Potomac River Running Owner Ray Pugsley.

Most years his stores see an uptick in sales in March, and sales stay strong through the Marine Corps Marathon in October. However, the novel coronavirus has been a gut punch to his business and has him concerned about what the future could hold. Potomac River Running’s Virginia stores have reduced hours; the D.C. store closed last week after Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses.

“If businesses like us are shut down for two months, we can’t recover … It’s so grave I can’t even wrap my brain around it. I can’t even wrap my arms around how bad this can get so fast,” Pugsley said. “… As long as you’re selling stuff every day, it’s not a problem. But when you pull the sales out, everything stops. We can’t do anything; we’re paralized.”

There are more than 101,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States and hundreds of deaths are reported each day, including Arlington County’s first. The US now has the most confirmed cases worldwide. The D.C. area has more than 2,500 coronavirus cases as of Sunday.

Small businesses around the country are grappling with how to staff their locations, compensate their employees and pay their bills while looking out for the health and safety of their employees and customers. The full extent of COVID-19’s economic impact is not yet clear, but last week’s U.S. Department of Labor figures showed unemployment claims soared to 3.3 million, shattering the record for the greatest number of new claims filed in a single week.

Potomac River Running, much like other small businesses, has bills, vendor payments and other fixed costs. Cost-cutting measures often come from limiting hours or reducing staff. Potomac River Running employs about 86 people across its nine stores. Pugsley said he and his store managers are giving people hours where they can, “and that’s few and far between.” 

“We asked for volunteers who would mind not working. As sales dropped off we had to have fewer [employees],” he said. “Is it best to have that person off the schedule? Or best for people to go the unemployment route? We are trying to take that into account … This has nothing to do with their job performance — it’s for the health of the business so that they can come back to a job.”

An online store is helping keep the business afloat, but it’s not bringing in anywhere near the amount the store usually makes, Pugsley said. Sales are down about 78 percent compared to any other year, he said, and admitted that if sales go down much more it may not make financial sense to have the doors open at all and instead rely only on online sales.

“This is like nothing I’ve ever seen. There’s no script for this. We don’t know what to do. We want to do the best by our employees. Not only do we not know because this is uncharted territory, but the rules keep changing,” Pugsley said of the uncertain nature of laws and directives from state and local leaders. “We don’t even know what the best move is, and we need to be very careful with what we are doing with our available dollars.”


Online stores are open

Summit to Soul, an athleisure boutique, closed its D.C. location on March 15.

“At the end of the day it wasn’t a difficult decision [to close the store], it was the right decision to make sure we had the health and safety of our employees and customers in mind,” said Summit to Soul founder Kim Wattrick. “The greater good extends beyond the extent of keeping the store open. At the end of the day, I knew it was right.”

Wattrick is pointing her patrons to Summit to Soul’s online store, which has understandably seen an uptick in traffic and online orders. People are heading to the site to order everything from leggings to gift cards.

“Every order we get means so much to us. We know it’s an uncertain time for everyone. It means so much to us that they are choosing us for their purchases,” Wattrick said.

Every online order means so much to local businesses that are trying to navigate through this troubling time, Pugsley said.

“Please, please, please, whichever one of us local stores you can shop online from, please do it and know that every single sale is a celebration and it is very meaningful,” he said. “I look at the names of the people who buy things … and imagine that customer coming in and shopping with us. I personally see those sales and smile and say a little thank you to that person.”


Virtual world: businesses are changing how they run

Specialty running stores thrive on face-to-face interactions with customers. They have skilled employees who can analyze gait and fit runners with shoes or apparel that suit their needs. Stores host clinics and running groups and employees pride themselves on being local running experts. Running stores are a hub for those looking for an immersive experience. 

Social distancing and quarantine recommendations have deterred many people from shopping in the stores that are open. Potomac River Running is not allowing more than 10 people in a store at a time — including employees.

The shift from connecting with customers so intimately to going digital has been a challenge, said Kelly O’Cadiz, the director of purchasing at Pacers Running — where online business has increased 10 fold, she said.

Running stores are coming up with creative ways to branch into the online world to help boost business. Many offer curbside pickup or delivery of items purchased online. This past week, Pacers introduced virtual fittings where employees will video chat with a customer to help them pick the best shoe.

“These crises are giving us opportunity to pivot and we are confident that while we will have hopefully short term pain, necessity is definitely the mother of invention and our team is engaged in creative problem solving. We believe some of these solutions (eg. virtual fittings) have staying power past this crisis,” Pacers CEO Kathy Dalby said in an email to Run Washington. Dalby is also RunWashington’s publisher.

Running stores have cancelled their running groups because of coronavirus and social distancing guidelines. Now, those groups are going online. Summit to Soul’s participants are connecting through a Strava group; Potomac River Running’s coaches are emailing workouts to participants and connecting virtually; Pacers has canceled its group runs and leaders are reaching out to keep participants motivated.

Georgetown Running Company Store Manager Andrew Benfer acknowledges health and safety are paramount, however the cancellation of events can ultimately affect the store’s place in the community and its bottom line.

“We wanted to strengthen our community presence and it sucks we can’t partner with other stores or other gyms and we can’t hold clinics. That’s a bummer, and to be honest I’m not sure when that’s going to start up again,” Benfer said.

Social media has become an outlet for stores to connect with customers and let them know they are still there to help answer their running questions, or just be a person to talk to.

“Our social media presence is a strong point of ours to let people know we are still there for them,” Benfer said. “If they have a question or are looking for a particular item, I’m happy to help them order or talk through options over social media.”


What’s in store for the future

No matter the industry, one of the more daunting aspects of the coronavirus response is the unknown. It’s not clear how long COVID-19 will be a threat and thus business owners are not sure how long their stores will need to shut down or make adjustments. 

Wattrick said her biggest challenge with the coronavirus response is the uncertainty. Not knowing when things will improve makes it more difficult to plan and understand the effect on Summit to Soul’s bottom line. Wattrick is operating under the assumption this will be a long-term reality for her business.

Georgetown Running Company has a corporate parent company, JackRabbit, that is softening the economic blow, but Benfer said it will be difficult to get back on track and achieve sales goals for the D.C. store. Still, he said he is remaining optimistic and taking it one day at a time.

Pacers has postponed its impending events: Crystal City 5K Fridays, PNC Parkway Classic and the Novo Nordisk New Jersey Marathon and Half Marathon. The postponements “sting quite a bit” because it affects revenue Pacers sees through registration and retail sales from pack pick up traffic, Dalby said in an email.

“Many events are moving to fall, which will be a strain on event companies across the country competing for consumer dollars, municipality permits and event production support. It’ll be interesting to see how everything shakes out,” Dalby said.

During a trying time for specialty running stores, there is a silver lining as more people head outside to exercise as a result of gym and fitness center closures.

“I think more people are taking up running through this. All the gyms have closed, so I think running over the longer term, this is bringing more people to the sport, so I think that will be a positive outcome,” Wattrick said.

Through all of this, Pugsley wants people to remember that they can use their purchasing power to help support their neighbors and invest in businesses’ futures.

“People may not understand the gravity of the situation, and people are really making a difference when they are supporting small businesses and buying local.”


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