Ron Marinucci April Column

Ron Marinucci April Column

Provided by Ron Marinucci

Nick Stanko was Michigan Runner’s 2015 Male Runner-of-the-Year. He has had a lot of experience and success running and racing the Michigan roads. And, he’s helped pass along his knowledge to others through employment in several specialty running stores. In August 2014, he and Ian Forsyth opened their own running shop, The Ann Arbor Running Company. “We are passionate about what we are doing.”

Recently he was elected to the board of directors of the Independent Running Retailers Association. Headquartered in Great Neck, NY, the IRRA is focused on assisting smaller, independent running stores. Member stores cannot be chains; that is, they are limited to “ten or fewer brick-and-mortar” sites where “70% of business” is conducted. And naturally, “the primary focus” of the business must be on “running products and/or services.”

He pointed out that “even though stores like Gazelle and Hansons have multiple doors, they still are locally-owned businesses.” He went on, “When Running Fit was sold to RSG [Running Specialty Group, now bearing the brand name Jack Rabbit], it opened the door for an independently-owned running shop in Ann Arbor [his and Forsyth’s venture] because Running Fit is now owned by a company outside of Michigan.”

Currently, there are nearly 200 members of the IRRA. Michigan running retailers include The Ann Arbor Running Company, Gazelle Sports, Hansons Running Shops, Playmakers, and The Running Lab. In addition, Saucony and Merrell, part of the Rockford-based Wolverine World Wide, are associate members.

The state is also well-represented on the 12-member IRRA board of directors. In addition to Stanko, the newest member, John Benedict, co-owner of Playmakers, has been a board member and was elected president for 2016. The past president, now holding that title, is Chris Crowell, a founder and current partner of Gazelle Sports. He was the president last year.

According to Stanko, the aim of the IRRA is to help independent running stores to grow and prosper, to achieve an excellence in serving their customers and communities. Crowell added, “We are a collective voice…and believe strongly that the locally-owned shop is the heart and soul of the larger running community.”

The IRRA provides a support network, sharing resources, education, communications, and research with members. Those should come naturally to both Stanko and Crowell. They are quick to point to help and advice they have received. Crowell noted, “I co-founded Gazelle Sports in 1985 and would not have been able to without the help of Curt Munson, owner of Playmakers.” Stanko also expressed appreciation, “Both David Howell [Total Runner] and Steve Angerman [Running Fit] have been great mentors to us [with Forsyth] and we are excited to use the knowledge they passed on to us.”

A national organization, IRRA members share ideas from across the US. For instance, Stanko explained, “I handle most of the marketing at The Ann Arbor Running Company and am looking forward to sharing ideas with members so we can all improve our stores and connections to our local running communities.”

One issue the IRRA will tackle is new, emerging running stores. They noted that Michigan has been fortunate to have quality running stores, “dating back to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s,” many still going strong “after 30+ years.” But, they added, “As the previous generations of [specialty shop] owners get out of the business,” those new, emerging stores are needed to fill the gap. Both the new and the old have similar, yet also different concerns.

The smaller stores face other challenges, too. Stanko said, “Speaking from the perspective of a new independently-owned running shop, I would say the biggest challenge we face is getting our name out there. People are constantly flooded with advertisements, whether they’re from other running stores or the local grocery.” How, then, to attract attention and sell the uniqueness and benefits of the

small stores? “We are finding success with just getting out into the community and making meaningful connections with people. This is something that money can’t buy. It takes a lot of time and energy.” But, he said, because the locals are “passionate” about running, “it’s not so much work.” He hopes to bring that idea to the IRRA.

Crowell chipped in. “Local businesses do matter in terms of both the economy and community support. The running stores in Michigan and across the country keep more of our money invested locally…. We give back to our communities in many ways that the nationals [often] do not. We provide services like fun runs, events, training, and free clinics, as well as fund charities.” For instance, he cited 2015 as a year Gazelle gave, “$104,000 to local charities.” This, too, is a message the IRRA will get out to members.

Another major challenge they see comes from the expansion of the national sporting goods stores, not necessarily those serving only runners, into running and fitness. Crowell also cited, “the proliferation of athleisure apparel throughout the marketplace.” How will the local-owned shops compete?

Add to that the growth of on-line sales, especially from the big-name e-tailers. They are, Stanko noted, “discounting right and left,” adding, “It’s not healthy for retailers or for manufacturers or for the sport of running.” For example, on-line running purchases do little to help the local running communities, he said.

With their many years of collective experience in retail running and running communities, both Crowell and Stanko hope to add a positive influence to the IRRA, both nationally and within the state of Michigan.