March was mild, which is usually a good thing for local running, biking and outdoor stores. This is the time of year when many enjoy their biggest volume of sales. It’s the time when people need new shoes or decide to take up a new outdoor activity and need to get some appropriate gear.
But the coronavirus outbreak has changed all that.
With heavy restrictions on retail as social distancing practices have shuttered many businesses, local shops have looked for ways to comply with the regulations and still stay afloat.
“Hopefully we get through this,” said Rob Fox, co-owner of Runner’s Roost in Orchard Park with is wife, Michelle. “We don’t want to see anyone go out of business, competitor or not. It’s hard to wrap your mind around, to be honest. We’re not the only one in this boat. I talked to a customer on the phone and we just talked about how she was doing.”
Local shops have worked to still serve their customers. Fox is at his store Monday through Saturday, fielding phone calls. Some loyal customers have bought gift cards. Some people are able to order shoes through Runner's Roost and have them shipped to their homes. While he works to open his own web store, he has connected with locally.com, a site to help customers shop and support them.
Every little bit helps, but Fox estimates he’s doing only about 10% of his normal business. While people can still buy shoes from Runner’s Roost – either by calling the store or going online – much of his business relies on foot traffic. People go to a running-specific store to find the best shoes for them, which involves a fitting by store personnel and test runs around the block.
“About 90% of the people that walk in the door will buy something,” Fox said.
But all of that has come to a screeching halt.
Then there’s another issue – what to do with existing inventory and payments due to vendors and suppliers?
Local shops contacted said the majority of their vendors have been extraordinarily helpful, allowing for delayed payments and getting creative in how to handle closures and drastically reduced sales.
But there are some positions that just have local owners stuck.
When high schools and colleges suspended or canceled outdoor track and field season, it left stores like Runner’s Roost in a bad position.
“We ordered all our spikes in February and now we’re stuck with them,” Fox said.
There’s a similar seasonal issue at Gear for Adventure, an outdoor retail store in Hamburg.
“This is the time of year when we had ordered lots of travel backpacks that sell really well,” said Sarah Beckwith, who co-owns the store with her husband, Kevin. “People aren’t traveling right now. Even when this starts to subside, I think the travel industry will be hit pretty hard, which means people won’t be buying travel packs.”
Gear for Adventure had opened a second location in Amherst less than a year ago, but they’ve shuttered that operation for now. The store had always maintained an online sales presence, so they were prepared to move sales to a digital platform.
Still, it’s the ability to try on trail running shoes, hiking boots and backpacks, which elevates the experience of shopping in a small, local store.
The Beckwiths said they will do their best to talk through purchases with customers and offer “curbside delivery” along with delivery in the Hamburg area.
“Some people have been contacting us wanting to buy day packs and things like that,” Beckwith said. “They’re also looking for new places to go. Erie County has 10,000 acres of county land and everybody ends up at Chestnut Ridge. We’re trying to help get the word out that there a lot of parks people can go to.”
Getting outside, maybe for the first time in a long time, has been a theme.
At Tom’s Pro Bike Shop in Lancaster, owner Tom Lonzi said he has seen an increase in the number of old bikes coming in for repair.
“What’s interesting is that it seems like lot of people have dug out some old bikes they haven’t ridden in a long time,” Lonzi said. “We’re seeing bikes with old tire sizes, old 10-speed bikes. That’s telling me that people who haven’t been riding much are now starting to ride again.”
While bike shops have been declared an essential business in New York State, business is still down. Spring is the time when Lonzi sells the majority of his bikes. And while he can talk people through the bike purchasing process on the phone, his business is built on custom bike fitting, something that can’t be done right now. That means the majority of his business is selling parts and doing repairs.
But there is some hope on the horizon. Perhaps Lonzi’s observation of more people digging out their old bikes means that more people will be riding, which could translate into more business when the pandemic subsides.
The nonprofit organization Running USA, among other outlets, has discussed the possibility of a third running boom, noting that the first two also took place in trying economic times – during the difficult financial times of the 1970s and during the 2008 recession.
During these stressful times, running can be done with a pair of sneakers and a 6-foot buffer zone.
So perhaps on the other side of this, the industry will see an uptick in runners at races and in stores.
“There’s been conversations within our circles about this,” said Ellen Brenner, VP/CFO of Fleet Feet in both Buffalo and Rochester, which also has an online store. “There’s the social media campaign, ‘Running has NOT been canceled’ and people have responded well to that. You look out your window and you see people walking or running that you’ve never seen doing that before. I want this theory of a third running boom to be 1,000% accurate. It would be amazing.”