A decade ago, when the internet was still fairly new and the retail industry stagnant, innovation came in the form of online marketplaces. Now traditional brick and mortars and mom’n’pops are struggling to keep up with the face-paced and digital market that has transitioned from innovative to standard. But the most successful specialty retailers have learned that modern prosperity comes in old fashioned forms—like a devotion to old-school customer service—as well as avant-garde benefits you can’t find online, or anywhere else. Those successful retailers have embraced out-of-the-box thinking and strategies in order to bring their customers exactly what they want and need. Take, for instance, Bryan Mahon.
As co-owner of local favorite Philadelphia Runner and the inventive new retailer Anthym, Mahon knows a thing or two about creating and running a successful and innovative brand in the 21st century. It’s a skill set he’s been developing his entire life. “I think I got my start in retail around the time of my very first memories when I was 5 years old,” Mahon remembers with a laugh. “I went to my Dad’s tire and auto repair shop with my older brothers and he handed me a broom and dustpan and told me to get to work and that I could take a 20 minute lunch break at noon, which is when he would be inspecting my work.” That pragmatic youthful training proved indelibly useful for Mahon over the years.
The natural retailer continued his training at Bryn Mawr Running Co. while studying and running at St. Joe’s University in Philly. Here he further refined and developed his retail knowledge with owner Bob Schwelm. “Bob is, as many in this industry know, one of the nicest, most energetic and electrifying human beings to be around,” notes Mahon. “He made retail fun and exciting for so many people through his passion for the sport of running and running-related products. We all had so much fun working at his shop that I am just one of probably dozens of people that have gone on to either own their own running shop or work in the running industry in one capacity or another.” Working at Bryn Mawr didn’t just spark Mahon’s already burning passion for the specialty retail industry, it also introduced him to his future business partner, Ross Martinson.
When Mahon decided it was time to invest in his own enterprise, he had all the skills and knowledge necessary to make it a successful one in a traditional sense. But he didn’t want to simply open another running retailer; Mahon wanted to do something different. He could already see the industry changing and knew he needed to adapt in order to find true success. With the rise of the internet and the fall of the mom’n’pop shop, Mahon knew he needed to offer something new, and he knew his customers were the key.
Since his entrepreneurial beginnings, Mahon has always embraced the innovation and adaptation necessary to succeed in a constantly shifting retail marketplace. “As we all know, the reseller retail industry is facing extraordinary challenges and it has been for sometime now,” says Mahon. “With the consumer able to learn about and purchase the products we sell in so many different avenues now we must continue to evolve and innovate as a business or else we are going to become insignificant. That said, this obstacle serves as a huge opportunity to change the game and find new ways to not only survive, but thrive. It’s times like these where we will look back in a few years and actually appreciate the obstacles we face, because they forced us to change course and look for new ways to grow.” Mahon is quick to point out that these changes aren’t anything new; we’ve been aware of them for nearly two decades. And that means that we’ve had two decades to prepare, change and adapt to this new retail environment.
But it’s not trends, numbers or data that provide Mahon with the insight to tailor his businesses—it’s his customers. “The customer is the one that is screaming at us to think differently about how we do business and to shift the way we do things. The customer has been shouting at us for years now,” says Mahon. “Listening to feedback from the customer is the reason for trying to push the envelope and create a new retail running and fitness shop that is a departure from the traditional running store as we know it.” It’s an easy indicator that many retailers overlook when their noses are buried in charts and spreadsheets.
Providing that fresh framework for his customers has always been what inspires Mahon. “I would say the root of my passion is doing my best to be an innovative entrepreneur,” he says. “You can’t keep doing what you have been doing in the past in this retail environment and think you are going to be successful anymore. The game has changed and we better evolve if we want to play in it some more.” Whereas many retailers find change or adaption intimidating, Mahon embraces it and invites the challenge. “I get excited about turning everything on its head to figure out if there are better ways to do things and provide better relationships with our customers.”
This approach has earned Mahon a position as one of the most successful and innovational retailers in the industry, so we asked him to share some advice for other specialty retailers.
One of Mahon’s most valuable points of insight is one we personally champion at the Mann Group: a careful and intentional hiring practice. As we’ve said a dozen times before, Mahon also preaches against hiring someone based solely on their passion for the sport. “Don’t just hire someone because they are a good runner or because they want to be one. That’s obvious.” Instead, Mahon suggests hiring folks whose strength lies in customer service and engagement. “Hire people that love and are great at sales and connecting with people and those that are a natural at building rapport. Being a natural conversationalist is a lot harder to teach than product knowledge—maybe you can’t even teach it, you just have to go find it. And once you find it, you then have to relentlessly work on it day in and day out with your team to get them even better at it.”
Mahon also encourages retailers to take their time when hiring and to experiment with your hiring practices. “Give them an audition. I mean, why not, right? A trial run. Bring in five or ten people at once for a two week long paid ‘internship’ or ‘audition’ with the intent of only hiring the best of them at the end of the period.” We know sometimes it’s easier to simply hire the first person to walk in with a resume and a smile, but as Mahon knows, that can often turn out far more detrimental. Instead, invest the time into the hiring process to save yourself the hassle later down the road. It’s a fun and experiential experiment that will provide you with the absolute best match for your business and those ever-important customers.
Another piece of advice? “Know the market before you get into a new location or venture. I have learned this lesson… and still am learning this hard lesson as we speak,” says Mahon. It’s a lesson online retailers don’t have to learn—their customers simply come to them. But in order for specialty retailers to succeed, their brick and mortars need to instead go to their customers. Opening a ski store in the desert obviously isn’t going to be successful, but it’s important to research the community and their inherent style and passions before setting down your roots. “Knowing these viewpoints of our customers is paramount in meeting their needs and resonating and identifying with them as retailers. If we don’t identify with them on some level, then no way are they going to be shopping with us very much.” As retailers, we recognize the importance of our customers. But as Mahon points out time and time again, really appealing to our customers is a science and an art. It takes time and devotion and a willingness to change and adapt.
Mahon’s final piece of advice is an easy one. “My other advice would be know your USP—your unique selling proposition—and to run with that and build from there. If you don’t think you have one then find one. Now.” You have to offer something unique and special in order to stand out from the competition, whether that means your retail strategies or the products you sell. “You must also re-visit that USP constantly and study the market if it is still unique to you or not, and if not, keep evolving and improving to make sure you have a competitive advantage.”
That willingness to evolve and improve is the true key to his success. Mahon is anything but a traditionalist. His stores are vibrant and modern, his staff passionate and engaging, his personal outlook positive and forward-thinking—and it all stems from his inherent innovation.