Fleet Feet was born in 1976 just as the first running boom was taking off, but the franchisor of 80 running stores appears to be getting a second wind. Here, Jeff Phillips, Fleet Feet’s president, discusses the successes at Fleet Feet, including its new Fitlosophy branding campaign; and probes whether the current running boom can be sustained.

PSR: How does this boom differ from past ones?

PHILLIPS: The type of runner we are seeing is changing. Twenty years ago, running was all about your 10K time. Today, the motivators for the majority of our customers are very different. Running is an important element of living a healthier lifestyle. It’s about reversing the aging process, looking better, feeling better, losing weight, reducing stress, and reducing long-term, health care liability.

PSR: Has it shown any signs of slowing?

PHILLIPS: With the number of baby boomers moving through the system over the next 20 years, I believe the running market is going to stay strong for a long time.

PSR: How will you respond if the current boom loses its momentum and the market declines?

PHILLIPS: This is going to sound really weird, but we would not mind seeing somewhat of a downturn in running. The reason I say that is, if we did have a downturn, the retailers that are doing a good job are going to be fine, but it would wash out a lot of the clutter. One of the results of the category being hot for four or five years is it has created a lot of clutter in the marketplace both on terms of product distribution and the number of retailers that have opened because it’s been hot. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve looked in a market and plan to open a store and there will be a couple of people coming into the market and they’ll rush to open. A lot of these independents are poorly qualified and quite frankly either don’t have the financial backing or the business skills to survive long term. So they’re very disruptive in the market. When the tide goes down, there are going to be quite a few boats that will run aground.

PSR: Are you still getting a lot of interest in people wanting to open a franchise?

PHILLIPS: We consistently get 750 to 1,000 franchise inquiries annually. What we are seeing is a larger pool of qualified candidates. We believe this is a result of the success of our existing franchisees and our growing brand presence.

PSR: What criteria do you use to select a franchisee?

PHILLIPS: We have a very different approach than the traditional franchise organization. We’re not in the business just to sell franchisees. We franchise people first and markets second, and we don’t allow absentee owners. We’re only looking for people who are interested in actively working in the business and being involved in the communities where their franchise is located.

PSR: Ultimately, why should someone work with Fleet Feet instead of going it alone?

PHILLIPS: We ask this same question of every candidate. We’re not looking for franchise candidates who could not do this on their own. We look for candidates who want to be a part of an interdependent organization and brand that is larger than their individual store. Our new store development process minimizes the mistakes for our new franchisees and helps them become successful more quickly than they would be able to if they were to do it on their own. We provide extensive pre- and post-opening training and track progress closely with regularly scheduled business reviews and coaching in areas from acquiring customers to financial management. Fleet Feet has a unique, family-like culture where everyone is respectful and supportive of their fellow franchisees.

PSR: Describe the Fitlosophy branding campaign?

PHILLIPS: Fitlosophy was developed with a clear mission: to convey Fleet Feet Sports’ brand positioning to the market in a unique, intriguing way that is differentiated from what our competitors are saying. We believe no one has a better fit philosophy than Fleet Feet Sports. We don’t just deliver the right footwear fit, but we help our customers find the right bra fit, apparel fit, nutrition plan, training plan, proper heart rate monitor, baby jogger. The list goes on. So the word, Fitlosophy, makes people stop and think about its definition and its purpose; it breaks through the clutter.

PSR: What is the objective of the campaign?

PHILLIPS: Over the past 30 years, Fleet Feet Sports has developed a reputation for customer service, community dedication, experienced staff, and a dedication to helping each customer find the right product for their needs. As the industry continues to become more competitive and saturated with retailers delivering performance footwear and apparel, it has become even more crucial for Fleet Feet Sports to maintain this reputation and position in the market. But, customers today are not the customers from 30 years ago. The market is not the same. Customers are more educated about what they want and don’t want, and the marketplace is full of clutter. Brand messages flood our e-mail, television, radio and mailbox. For national brands to remain relevant and competitive in this ever-changing marketplace, they must be able to break through this clutter.

PSR: How has Fleet Fleet’s layout changed over the years?

PHILLIPS: The success of our FIT process is changing our thinking on store design and layout. Adequate space for footwear fittings on a busy Saturday, large dressing rooms that are well lighted and convenient to our apparel and bra inventory, upscale fixturing and lighting. Women are driving the business, and we have to create an environment that is desirable and enjoyable to shop.

PSR: Women have played a significant role in running’s popularity. How are you addressing that audience?

PHILLIPS: Our women’s business continues to be really strong. We’ve been doing Diva nights for more than two years. It’s really an opportunity to recognize and pamper our female customers with a fun evening out. We certainly do footwear and bra fittings, but we also invite in other businesses from the community to provide information and services such as nutrition, massage therapy, etc.

PSR: How are you helping your franchisees do a better job reaching women?

PHILLIPS: We do a number of things. I think it started with Tom (Raynor) purchasing the company in 1993 and realizing the store in the future is going to have to look different. Simple things like having large dressing rooms that are well lit with a big mirror. You didn’t see that in running stores 20 years ago. In the early days, running specialty was a boy’s club. So it started there with really making the store environment a place that would be attractive for women to come and shop. And then from there it’s been education. One of the things we try to do – and it’s a challenge – is we try to have our staff reflect our customer makeup. So having the 35- to 50-year-old woman on staff is a really important part of the staff makeup. An older woman is probably not going to be comfortable going in and working with an 18-year-old skinny male in split shorts who looks like he just came from track practice – particularly in areas like bra fitting.

PSR: What are your top footwear brands?

PHILLIPS: Asics and Brooks have separated from the pack. Combined, they represent about 50 percent of our footwear business. Saucony, New Balance and Mizuno are neck and neck for the third spot.

PSR: Are you seeing any new brands?

PHILLIPS: Montrail, Ecco and Ahnu are a few on the radar. I wish I could say that we are seeing a lot of promise from new footwear brands, but it has become incredibly difficult to break into the category and have success.

PSR: Is Nike gaining any traction in running specialty?

PHILLIPS: We’ve seen some progress from Nike on the footwear product side, but it’s an extremely competitive environment. I’d say they’re definitely still on the outside looking in at this point. Over the past several years, the smaller specialty vendors that are reliant on the specialty channel for survival have been consistently better than Nike in most phases of the business.

PSR: What brands are seeing momentum in apparel?

PHILLIPS: Nike is a different story on the apparel side. They are our number one brand. Their product is innovative and there is a level of trust from the consumer that Nike is going to get it right. The apparel business is easy with Nike. You just buy it, merchandise it and the consumer comes in and buys it. This doesn’t happen with any other brand. This will probably surprise a lot of people, but Moving Comfort is the number two overall apparel brand in our stores. This is being driven primarily by our bra FIT initiative. We have great partners supporting the education part of this initiative, which isresulting in tremendous sales growth in the bra category.

PSR: What about some up and comers?

PHILLIPS: We’re seeing a lot of brands like prAna, Horny Toad, Stonewear Designs, SkirtSports and Zoot gain traction. When you look at core running apparel from our core footwear vendors, what we see is a sea of sameness. It’s a lot of the same technologies with different names. So we’ve started to look outside of the core to more performance lifestyle products that you can run and work out in, but also wear casually as well. It’s all performance-based, but has a more lifestyle element in terms of the design, styling and sizing.