By Thomas J. Ryan

<span style="color: #999999;">While the threats of online competition and vendors’ DTC (direct-to-consumer) efforts aren’t going away, another successful TRE (The Running Event) provides more evidence that the run specialty channel has regained its stride.

Marking its 14th year and held in Austin from December 3 to 5, TRE generated record participation, along with a healthy international retailer attendance, according to a statement from Diversified Communications. Over 260 exhibitors and more than 2,500 total attendees reportedly arrived at this year’s show.

Diversified Communication acquired TRE in May 2018 and continues to receive praise for its handling of the event. These steps include leaving many aspects of the event the same, but several attendees contacted by SGB Executive favored the move this year to shorten the event to three days, including the first day for seminars and the following two supporting the trade show.

Attendees roundly commented that while run specialty tends to be an upbeat crowd, steadily improving prospects for the industry over the last two years has brightened the collective mood of attendees with many eager to explore growth opportunities. Michele Allen, owner, iRun Texas in San Antonio said, “I definitely think people are more upbeat, a lot of stores are up.”

“Two years ago, things were a little bit dourer but I think people are feeling a little more positive,” agreed Scott Tantino, owner of North Wales Running Company in North Wales, PA,

Tantino believes run specialty has adjusted, much like they did when new competition arrived about two decades ago when catalogs selling running gear started arriving in mailboxes.

Initially stubborn, shop owners are now recognizing they’re going to lose some customers to online selling simply due to convenience, said Tantino. Runners may come in to get fitted for the first pair of running shoes when seeking out a new model but the challenge is to get them to return for the second pair when it’s easier to simply order online,

Elevating services, product and community activations may persuade the runner to choose the in-store experience over online convenience. Observed Tantino, “We’re going to lose some battles but we have to win the winnable ones.”

Tantino heads to TRE to see new product but equally appreciates the seminars as well. He said, “Sometimes it may be basic classes on how to better layout your store or good hiring practices as well as the state-of-the-industry stuff. But most of the independents don’t have that structural support in a big way.”

Tantino also looks forward to sharing best practices with running stores and hearing what’s working in different markets.

On the product side, he called out Diadora as one of the newer footwear brands in the space that seems to be gaining traction. He feels New Balance continues to deliver compelling product while Asics and Saucony appear set to regain some traction with a strong line-up at the show.

Steve Moore, the owner of Run Moore in Westminster, MD, was attending his fifth straight show.

“I would say there was overall positivity in the industry and based on the eyeball test there were more folks in attendance this year than last year,” said Moore. “We were very excited with some of the new lineup we saw from Asics and Altra and they did a good job of showing us the line.”

On the downside, he felt “quite a few” footwear brands that the store already sells or were interested in opening up seemed under-staffed at their booths or less engaged. Moore added, “That part can be frustrating because we only get one or two chances a year to see stuff we will be booking so any additional time to see color options or explain updates is so helpful to us even if it seems repetitive to the reps in the booth.”

Overall, Moore enjoyed the conference side more than the trade show. He said, “We had a few great speakers and smaller breakout sessions that we took a lot away from. I had our manager with me this year so we were able to split up and meet up later and exchange notes and ideas. The after-hour events like the Balega reception on the opening night were a great mix of work and play and we got to chat with other shops we have connected with over the years. It was a great event and we’ll be back again next year for sure.”

“Great show!,” said Megan Searfoss, owner of Ridgefield Running Company in Ridgefield CT. She concurred that the running crowd seemed “more optimistic” than past years and she particularly looks forward to heading to the show to talking shop. She said, “The networking piece is the biggest, from peer to peer, and then vendor to retailer it is important to have time out of the store to talk.”

On the trade show side, Searfoss saw “lots of good products” from the major brands. Her one miss was that she didn’t find a hot item for the holidays. Searfoss said, “Loads of CBD vendors, but nothing exciting for last minute.”

“I saw a lot of CBD products,” agreed Allen at iRun Texas. “It was nice to see footwear updates from vendors different than just changes in colors and fabrication – i.e., carbon, outsole and midsole changes.  I liked some of the cool technology partnerships Under Armour is doing – i.e., Gore-Tex”

“We felt the show was more productive than over the last couple years,” said Mort Nace, general manager at Medved Running & Walking Outfitters in Rochester, NY. He liked to shorter format and that the trade show started early rather than after lunch as in past years.

Nace said, “As far as product goes, we weren’t seeing anything new but the lines we saw were pretty solid. We had full appointments, and we liked what we saw.”

Online competition, including brands selling directly online, was again the core topic of conversation at TRE, Nace felt. He expressed his own frustrations over out-of-stock situations that often lead to customers leaving the store to purchase an item online. Like others, he said Medved Running focuses on being “truly specialty” as a differential to online selling. Said Nace, “We’re focusing a lot of on what’s happening in our four walls.”

“It was awesome,” said Noah Rasmussen, a sales associate at Lincoln Running Company in Lincoln, NE. “It was a lot of fun just seeing all the new shoes.”

He felt carbon-fiber plate shoes were by far the biggest trend across footwear. Said Rasmussen, “They’re not rocket ships on your feet. But it’s more innovation.”

Rasmussen liked Brooks’ line-up but felt Saucony stood out for not only their upcoming products and plans but the number of elite athletes they were able to bring to their booth.

Overall, a break-out item such as Aftershokz and Goodr in recent years didn’t appear to arrive at this year’s show. CBD was by far the biggest new trend with 10 exhibitors touting the ingredient’s health benefits although the show took place a few days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement warning consumers about possible risks.  Recovery was again a big theme across product categories with the percussive massager trend receiving some friendlier price points from Triggerpoint and Addaday.

Outside Diadora’s comeback, a new brand in footwear hasn’t arrived since the trifecta of Hoka One One, On and Altra near the start of the current decade. But those three brands continue to have momentum and many of the industry’s traditional run brands brought compelling products to TRE.

“TRE continues to be an important event where we can come together, exchange ideas and finalize plans for 2020,” said Steve Doolan, director of strategy and business development, Hoka One One. ”As Hoka continues to see the retail landscape evolve, those experientially-driven partners are seeing great success and will continue to set themselves apart. The best vendor and retail partnerships will be those that can get closest to the consumer in order to best serve them.”

Altra, which was acquired by VF Corp. last year, saw a healthy response from retailers at the show to its Fall 2020 line-up. “We are really investing in premium, innovative product offerings, and we continue to focus our products specifically to our Run Specialty accounts,” said Brian Beckstead, Altra’s director of PR and strategy. “Our investment in our team, the quality, designs, and innovations continue to be showcased, and we are proud to continue to deliver our line of shoes from our popular racing flat, the Escalante racer, that will be now offered in-line to our dynamic support shoes that all encourage runners to move naturally. And our Core3 will always be showcased in our products which includes a Footshape toebox, Balanced Cushioning and Fit4Her technology.”

Beckstead said traffic was steady at Altra’s booth and he believes condensing the show in two days made it efficient and productive for everyone. He added, “The vibe of the show was great. The industry is at a collaborative place where we are all working together for the betterment of our sport as a whole. And, we all win when we help each other for the good of the industry in which we love.”

“We were really pleased with the show,” said Don Lane, Saucony’s chief marketing officer. “There’s really good energy in the industry that’s now heading into an Olympic year. “I think everybody was on their game and there was good family atmosphere there.”

At Saucony, the show provided a chance to showcase its new management team led by Anne Cavassa and the much-anticipated Endorphin Pro, the company’s carbon-plated racing flat. The Endorphin Pro features PWRRUN PB cushioning in the midsole for cushioning and rebound while the carbon-fiber plate feeds propulsion. The Endorphin Speed uses a thin TPU plate. Said Lane, “Many of our athletes have been wearing prototypes and setting records.” Saucony also earned some praise for bringing four of its athletes, including Molly Huddle, Parker Stinson, and Jared Ward, to the event. Said Lane, “We feel a lot of work we’ve done is finally coming together and we’ve got a lot of momentum.”

361 Degrees, the Chinese-based footwear and apparel manufacturing that launched in the U.S. in 2014, introduced the 361-Spire 4, its cushioning style that features the brand’s proprietary foam technology, QU!K SPRING+ that supports a fast and plush ride.

“What an exciting time for the industry. The buzz and energy around new product launches was at an all-time high. In my opinion, all the brands brought there A-game to the show,” Jim Monahan, president, 361 Degrees USA. “This lead to excitement from within the retail community. We spoke to many retailers who were experiencing strength and success in their business that they had not experienced in some time. As a brand, we met with our key retailers to discuss growth strategies going into the new year, as well as make key impressions on future partners.”

Zensah, best known for compression socks and sleeves, has been a long attendee to TRE and has seen the compression category heat up and cool down. Ze’ev Feig, founder and CEO, remembers when eight to 10 compression brands were attending the show. Along with the company’s sublimation advances, fewer compression players are leading to more stores to reach out to Zensah at TRE.

“The compression category is strong for us,” said Feig. “We are seeing strength in our tech innovation in apparel, and personalization of design. TRE was a good show for us.”

“Traffic at our booth has steadily ramped up over the years, however, this was the busiest TRE for us to date as far as booth traffic and appointments,” shared June Angus, co-founder of running accessories maker Amphipod. Angus believes her booth traffic was helped by buzz over Amphipod’s recent USB Xinglet Optic Beam visibility introduction. The booth also featured AmpXLab 3D prototyping stations showcasing Amphipod’s engineering team’s iterative rapid-prototyping process in action.

Angus also believes Amphipod’s recent success is tied to the channel’s embrace of premium brands that address UMAP (Unilateral Minimum Advertised Price) effectively, prioritize limited distribution, provide in-stock availability and are authentically committed to the channel. She said, “Vendor choice is being carefully re-evaluated by buyers and owners in every product category and every season with a central question being—which vendors have their backs, warrant their business and are innovating for the channel.”

Angus also believes the improving trends for specialty run are because local stores are doing a better job melding their in-store and digital presence and have become even more committed to creating “engaged and robust store communities.”

“TRE this year felt like there was a stair step-change in optimism creating a vibe that oozed momentum,” said Steve Anderson, national sales manager, sports specialty, Nuun. He believes that the industry has regained its momentum as it integrates digital into connecting with existing and new consumers. Said Anderson, “This is important as consumers are thinking about, and taking action on creating a more vibrant and healthy lifestyle. We see this from the continued surge in athleisure apparel to the desire to integrate functional benefits into their hydration and fueling habits.”

Nuun uses TRE to build stronger relationships with retail partners, roll out new products and further educate the run community about Nuun’s benefits. Anderson said, “We had many great conversations with retailers who are eager to find new ways to partner with us in 2020.”

GoLite looked to TRE to garner brand awareness from run specialty retailers and race directors early in its relaunch phase. Wendy Bretzel, GoLite’s sales director, stated. “It was a nice add-on to Outdoor Retailer and the regional shows we currently attend. Buyers were very supportive of the GoLite GoResponsibly and GoAid environmental and humanitarian initiatives and planet-friendly apparel. Many shared that they were still fine-tuning the most optimal apparel mix for their stores. We look forward to opening new doors for Fall 2020 thanks to the visibility achieved and generating some at-once online partnerships. The vibe of the show was upbeat and positive.”

Pro-Tec Athletics marked its 12th year attending TRE and had another successful show.

“The people are what make the run specialty industry so unique and special, and we enjoy the opportunity to connect with the buyers and managers of new retail stores as well as many long-term accounts,” said Jeff Rodgers, CEO at Pro-Tec. “This year we introduced our new vibrating massage ball, the Orb Activate and our EVA Bold Foam Rollers. Both were met with interest and enthusiasm and it was exciting to see our commitment to run specialty retail pay off as the stage is set for another year of growth. We will be back at TRE in 2020 because we truly value the opportunity to hear our accounts feedback. We listen in order to bring our retailers the most valuable and relevant products and information, maintaining our edge as the running specialty market sports medicine leader.”

Nathan earned some buzz just prior to the show when its SaferRun Ripcord Siren Personal Alarm, which supports run safety, landed on Time’s annual list of the 100 Best Inventions. At the show, the brand was called out for handing out reusable water bottles to all attendees in the show’s first major push to eliminate single-use plastic bottles.

“TRE was great,” said Roberto Gutierrez, director of brand marketing at Nathan. “Like most trade shows it has evolved from a writing show to a networking event with the opportunity to have meaningful conversation with people you don’t often get to meet with. The timing (just after Thanksgiving) paired with the shorter format gave the overall vibe a more mellow feel, but the effectiveness of the show was not diminished. All in all it was a great show and we look forward to seeing everyone in 2020.”

“TRE was a great show for us – just ask our stuffed sheep. They were the most popular attendees,” said Courtney Laggner, run brand manager, Darn Tough Vermont. “Merino is gaining traction within run specialty, and we are the brand that retailers are looking to. There is something about the run specialty community that is extremely motivating and inspirational. The vibe of the show was very innovative and exciting for both retailers and brands alike.”

Naked Sports Innovations, the maker of accessories and apparel aimed at endurance runners and founded in 2015, wrapped up its most productive TRE in its third straight appearance. Lindsay Dakota, president and co-founder, said he uses the show to gain feedback as well as to acquire new retail partners and further develop existing relationships. Said Dakota, “As a young brand costs are an important factor and we must pick our marketing events carefully. Our increasing brand awareness and consistency in attending TRE is playing out well and we find every year at TRE a lot more people know or have heard about our brand.”

Naked Sports showcased a new hydration vest product and added a second version of the hydration-waist band it first became known for. Dakota believes the industry will benefit as committed runners increasingly shift back to stores to see, feel and demo products after being disappointed with their past online purchase didn’t work as promised.

“We see our online platform as being more of a showroom – a place for product information, news and guidance in moving our brand forward,” said Dakota. “In addition, we like to support the community around our retail partners so we will often support a race in their region and try and tie in the retailer with the event in some way.”

Among the newer brands hitting the show was Rykr Products, a maker of self-massage recovery and prevention products. John Hetzel, founder and president, said the company’s focus is on compact, portable, lightweight, ergonomic, and easy to use. A signature item is the Rykr Roll, a handheld massage roller that enhances blood circulation and oxygen flow.

Hetzel, who formerly developed product for McDavid, believes the specialty run industry is still facing some growing pains adapting to online’s influence. He said, “It’s just easier now to research products and buy online or get the info needed and go to the store to buy. E-com is changing the way we think about products and how to get them.”

But he still sees run specialty as critical to providing credibility for brands in the running communities and views TRE is a strong vehicle to engage with stores. Said Hetzel, “Most companies continue to roll out new products at the show which generates a lot of interest and first looks you simply can’t get online.”

Photo courtesy Altra