While the growth of online retailing continues to create pressure on brick and mortar, Joey Pointer, Fleet Feet Inc.’s new CEO, remains resolutely upbeat.

“There’s probably not a bigger group of retailers who are excited to be in the position they’re in if you look at all the headwinds that retailers are facing,” said Pointer about Fleet Feet Sports’ franchise owners last week at the brand’s annual franchise conference in Pinehurst, NC.

One major difference, he asserts, between Fleet Feet Sports and other challenged brick and mortar stores is that run specialty can create customers through training runs and beginner-youth events, as well as pub runs and other social activations. Said Pointer, “We’re unique in that we can bring customers to life through the sport of running or engagement in a healthy lifestyle. It’s really about creating that connection to the person and helping them find the inspiration, solution and information they need wherever they are in their fitness journey.”

Pointer also said that while yoga, CrossFit, spin and other activities have gained heaps of buzz in recent years, “running is still the core. Even if you’re a swimmer, running is something that you do. It’s foundational for a healthy lifestyle.”

Still, Pointer said retail is “not for the faint of heart,” is changing faster than ever due to digital shifts and demands a rethinking of basic business practices on both the retail and vendor side.

Toward that end, Fleet Feet Sports is evolving its fit process with the launch of Fit ID, a 3D scanning solution that helps the fit specialist “bring the fit experience to life for the customer in a whole new way,” said Pointer.

In 25 stores now and with a full rollout planned for October, Fit ID takes a 3D scan of the customer’s feet, then outputs measurements such as length, width and arch height onto a tablet with a 3D rendering. Fit specialists then use the rendering to highlight observations about that customer’s foot shape, heel width and other areas before recommending solutions and products to that customer. The customer then receives his or her 3D scan via email.

“Fit ID brings our fit specialists’ knowledge to life by allowing our customers the chance to see what our specialists see when they’re assessing the foot and making product recommendations,” said Pointer. “More and more of our customers have never known a world that didn’t have this seamless integration of technology into almost every aspect of daily life. With fit id, we’re able to deliver a customer experience that accounts for that in a way that’s wholly and uniquely Fleet Feet Sports.”

Pointer notes the brand’s recently refreshed marketing effort Fitlosophy®, which debuted at conference, encompasses this unique in-store experience found “only at Fleet Feet Sports.” The Fitlosophy positioning and messaging speak to all aspects of the in-store experience, including fit id, and will begin to roll out in stores this August.

As a national brand, Fleet Feet Sports is also looking to “tell big stories about the power of running.”

As an example, Pointer noted that on Global Running Day, Fleet Feet Sports partnered with Brooks for the inaugural The Big Run, a national 5K that drew 12,000 finishers across 80 unique events. Said Pointer, “The Big Run allowed us an opportunity to bring local communities and all these different tribes of runners together united under one national running event, but still be that very special and exciting locally-executed experience. It truly lived up to its slogan of nationally one, locally run.”

Pointer said the event will return for next year’s Global Running Day again in partnership with Brooks.

Fleet Feet Sports looks to further that notion of locally run, nationally one, later this year through an October promotion with Mizuno. Fleet Feet will have an exclusive model of the Wave Rider 21, as well as custom t-shirts, available for sale in-store. A portion of the proceeds from every one of these items sold will go back to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) as part of a larger effort to eradicate further loss of life from breast cancer. The “Project Zero” initiative marks the first-time Fleet Feet Sports stores nationwide have partnered together with a brand to give back to one charity. Mizuno will also include two of its sponsored athletes—volleyball Olympian April Ross and collegiate All-American and softball Olympian Jennie Finch—to extend and promote the partnership beyond the running community.

“We have an opportunity to take an initiative and make it meaningful not only in what we can do when working together, but in who we can reach,” said Pointer. “Whether you’re a runner, walker, or anything in between, we want our communities to know that come this October, we have a way that you can participate in combatting something that currently affects one out of every eight women in this country.”

Fleet Feet Sports is also looking to better leverage its scale as the largest national running brand in areas such as buying and allocation. Fleet Feet expanded its distribution center this past spring, and now helps service over 75 stores. Pointer cited the distribution center’s rapid replenishment program as an example of what the brand can do when leveraging its scale, noting that the program helped stores reduce the amount of inventory stored in back rooms, freeing up both space and cash. Said Pointer, “We’re pinching nickels. We’re looking for every opportunity to scale.”

Online, Fleet Feet Sports is integrating a buy-online, pick-up in-store option, and enabling the redemption of gift cards online. Said Pointer, “We’re removing all friction points in the online experience. We’re having great growth in terms of the e-commerce perspective, and there’s lots more ahead.”

Growth also remains ahead for the brand, though at a measured and strategic pace, said Pointer. Fourteen stores are set to open this year, joining the brand’s already 165 locations in 38 states.

Pointer said while Fleet Feet Sports will still acquire locations and open stores from scratch, he’s most encouraged by the success the company continues to have with conversions, or where an existing store converts to a Fleet Feet Sports franchisee. He believes that underscores the value Fleet Feet Sports can bring to franchise partners.

“It’s hard if you’re a one-store chain or even a two or a three-door chain to be able to pull off something like e-commerce or fit id,” said Pointer. “You need to be a part of a larger network. And we’ve created a lot of value in the past with services like our CFO in a Box program, and will be soon launching a national email service provider and internal communication hub for the entire brand. All of these are things independent retailers are having to do, but if you’re part of Fleet Feet Sports, you don’t have to.”

In another interview at the conference, Bob Shooer, owner of Fleet Feet Sports Pittsburgh and chair of Fleet Feet Sports’ franchise advisory council, feels a greater transparency is also being felt between franchisees and Fleet Feet Inc., in part due to retail’s new challenges.

“It’s really an open and honest dialogue,” said Shooer. “We are really working closely together to move forward some of the things like fit id and other newer challenges.”

A 30-year veteran of the department store channel until he acquired his Fleet Feet Sports franchise ten years ago, Shooer noted that the department store business at one point was steadily delivering double-digit gains, similar to the recent healthy streak the run specialty channel had recently been experiencing. But Wal-Mart, Target, and others arrived to cause changes across retail. He added, “The Internet is today’s discount store.”

Still, he echoed Pointer’s upbeat sentiments, noting that he’s spoken “very frankly to a number of owners this week, and enthusiasm about this brand and our channel is at an all-time high.”

Shooer added, “The strength of Fleet Feet Sports is local flavor and local ownership but with the vision at the top to really nationalize this brand. That’s what we’re striving for, and I don’t think there’s anyone else in this industry that can compete with that.”

Photo courtesy Fleet Feet Sports