Before there were two-wheeled bikes, before there were slick snowboards, before there were elaborate fly hooks and high waders, there was running. And so, there was an industry around it.
The long history of the sport and its stores necessitates a lengthy list of traditions in the run shop—some profitable and vital to the community, others outdated and replaceable. Having a keen eye capable of differentiating between valuable traditions and those in need of modernization is integral for every successful run shop; at Pacers Running in D.C., Virginia and New Jersey, those eyes come in the form of CEO and Partner Kathy Dalby.
Dalby left behind her career as a D.C. healthcare policy analyst to pursue her passion and use her talents to buoy the run industry via Pacers Running. When she first came to Pacers Running full time, it was as an events manager, and that prioritization of community is still at the heart of her business approach. Dalby’s previous experience as an analyst shines in her position at Pacers Running, even as she abandons the sterility of numbers for intimacy and empathy—just read for yourself.
How did you get your start in the specialty retail industry?
I started in the summer of 1996 working at a run shop in Redondo Beach, CA. I was training with a local JC cross country team before my freshman year of college and was introduced to the owner, Mike Ward, through the coach. I then spent the next four years during summers and school breaks slinging shoes in a tiny running store on the beach. It was the best job.
What lessons have you learned from the generations before you in specialty retail that you know you want to uphold as part of the next generation?
Running specialty retailers are the original experiential marketers. Runs from shops, injury diagnosis, races and the clubhouse mentality have been deep-rooted in the authenticity of the channel. While we can come up with a bunch of different ways to market our stores, it always comes back to being a place where runners want to come together, whether physically or digitally. Having that street credibility is hard to build and easy to lose, so maintaining authenticity is a core belief of Pacers Running. I can say with certainty I’ve never heard anyone say they are headed out to hang with their friends at Dick’s.
Conversely, what changes are you planning to make as part of the next generation? Where do you see stagnancy that you know needs to change?
It’s critical to optimize the relationships among all business channels, refine our business practices and strategy, invest in the long-term professional growth of our employees, and be unapologetic when it comes to the integrity of our brand.
The consumer is attracted to our authenticity and brands value our influence. Working together among all stakeholders is vital to our ability to continue to survive and thrive in this market.
What are some tangible examples of real change you’re making/made/plan to make at Pacers Running?
At Pacers Running, we have put a lot of thoughtful consideration into our strategy and vision-setting. We have developed our long-range vision, articulated our belief system, defined our five guiding principles, and outlined our organizational structure that has included substantial shifts in the last three months. Documenting and referencing this strategy allows our teams to be more nimble and to divide and conquer. We believe the adoption of our latest organizational strategy, focused on cross-channel collaboration, will allow us to achieve our objectives faster and with greater precision.
To achieve strategic execution, we knew we needed to reinvest in our staff and expand our senior leadership team. Since our latest iteration, our senior leadership team has grown by 40 percent. While some may find this number overwhelming, we have grown with purpose to encourage additional collaboration and creativity and engage in healthy conflict with clear decision-making processes. We were working in very narrow hierarchies; we now operate in a flatarchy system that means more people are involved with decision-making and are consulted for input. It’s not odd for six to eight people to be involved in an initiative or meeting now, when it used to be one or two staff. This may sound laborious, but we have found that a sound collaborative team environment propels our company forward faster and with a higher adoption of key initiatives.
How do you stay engaged with your community in new ways?
Our brand marketing directive is to create programming and conversations around the runner versus the run with an empathetic eye on the consumer journey. Running stores should vie to be the third place people want to go outside of work and home. Therefore we focus on engaging programming that is an enhancement of the tried and true fun run or road race and that really draws the interest of busy consumers. For instance, we host a summer runner book club and have just recently unveiled our newest offerings, Runaways, which are excursions that focus on the social nature of running in unique environments.
Looking at the larger specialty retail industry, where do you see changes that need to be made? Why is change important in this industry?
The most exasperating conversations I have with colleagues are the ones steeped in whining entitlement. We are not entitled to our customer’s dollars, their attention or their loyalty. We have to earn their business every single purchase, every single run, every single time. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose—so let’s stop focusing our energy on the ones that got away.
Customer expectations are higher than ever and while some retailers bemoan the competition, either online or otherwise, we say “bring it.”
What advice would you give to other specialty retailers for adapting and staying relevant?
Believe in what you do, be unapologetic about your brand, and care about your customer. Empathy will lead to success.
Many folks claim brick and mortars are dying—we say otherwise. What do you think?
Connection is one of the most basic needs we have as humans. There are limited places you can engage in a face-to-face conversation around running where the person on the other side will actually care about your running—run stores offer that compassion and celebration. Also, a real hug or high five is 1000 times better than a “like”. . . Just look at what our friends at November Project have accomplished in a relatively short period.
Brick and mortars are not dying, but the way we did business even a few years ago is a relic. Let’s not confuse our inability to quickly adapt to the changing market by blaming where we sell our product. It’s time to catch up as a channel. I have faith that we will.