Dick's Sporting Goods tests specialty store for runners in Shadyside

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The front window of the new True Runner store in Shadyside contributes a dollop of glamorous athleticism to the eclectic mix of Walnut Street retail. Mannequins draped in startlingly bright running togs and shoes pop, framed by the store's stylish gray structure.

The tripping point among all that sleek design might have been the white paper brochure -- the one that someone had taped inside the glass to publicize a local 5K run to benefit kids with cancer.

Yet the flier fit the mix the store's creators are going for as they try to build both a retail prototype that can be successful in different places as well as community of runners loyal to this particular location.

The small store is an experiment for Dick's Sporting Goods Inc., a place that the national retailer headquartered in Findlay can meet and greet running enthusiasts willing to invest in their sport. The company's namesake stores have already benefitted, as Chairman and CEO Ed Stack told analysts on an earnings conference call last week.

"What we do believe will happen and has already happened to some extent is we will learn what that technical runner's looking for from both the footwear and accessory and apparel standpoint and be able to apply that to our stores," he said.

"Our running business has been very good and part of that has been due to the research we did on the technical running store."

Bill Shepardson, director of the True Runner operation, said store development has been underway for about a year and a half. Mr. Shepardson, who started with the retailer three decades ago as a college student working in a Binghamton, N.Y., store, is an avid runner himself, so he's pretty enthused by this project.

The Shadyside store had its grand opening earlier this month, and a second True Runner store is scheduled to open in St. Louis in October. The locations were deliberately chosen to test different terrain -- Shadyside is an urban, upscale neighborhood near colleges, residences and hospitals; the St. Louis spot is in a suburban strip center.

"You just see people constantly running by here," Mr. Shepardson said, after the Shadyside store's staff opened the door to four female runners who had jogged to a spot out front just before Friday's 10 a.m. opening.

It wasn't too long before one of them was on the treadmill, going through the store's gait analysis procedure. True Runner's shoe wall carries about 200 styles ranging from $75 to $200 a pair, but even the most fashionable teal or yellow sneaker can cause pain.

To try to avoid that, first a customer stands on a mat that delivers an arch analysis to a digital screen. Then the customer moves to a treadmill to do a demonstration run -- without shoes on -- while an iPad-wielding employee stands behind and takes video that will be used to analyze her gait.

Mr. Shepardson, who said the staff uses an app called Coach's Eye on the iPad, reported the system has been popular.

In addition to stocking trendy accessories and running clothes -- the store carries no private label goods, unlike Dick's Sporting Goods stores -- the attempt to appeal to passionate runners includes publicizing area events and hosting runs. A big screen near the checkout includes suggestions for running routes that customers can capture on their smartphones.

One night last week, the True Runner hosted a 4-mile run sponsored by compression sock vendor 2XU. The first 25 participants -- a total of 27 people showed up -- got a free gift. Behind the sales floor, there are small lockers that runners can use, as well as bathroom, fitting room and even coffee facilities.

Mr. Shepardson isn't claiming to be reinventing the wheel with this new specialty retail venture. He notes the development team studied other specialty running stores in the area, as well as many around the country.

"They all have that element of community, which is great," he said.

Among those in the Pittsburgh region are Elite Runners & Walkers in Robinson and Monroeville; Fleet Feet Sports in Mt. Lebanon; and Up-N-Running in Valencia. They tend to list running events on their websites, offer advice on getting the right fit and use social media sites such as Facebook to connect with customers.

Nationally, the running community is large enough that Boulder, Colo., consulting firm Leisure Trends Group and the National Shoe Retailers Association, based in Tucson, Ariz., this month released a study that found 8,431 independent footwear retailers generate more than $7.2 billion in sales annually.

Dick's ran an internal contest to find a name for its new store, with an associate at the company's store support center winning a supply of running gear. In addition, the company looked to its staffers who like to run for suggestions.

Now that runners' ideas have been incorporated in the store, the plan is to move into place alongside the running community, in part by hiring sales associates who run. Danielle Lucas, who was at work last week helping customers pick out shoes, said she's planning to do three marathons this fall.

"We certainly want everyone to continue their own running," Mr. Shepardson said.

He said it wasn't hard drawing applicants who run, maybe because it's a growing sport. And, he said, the store will be working to help the employees make those important race start times.

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Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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