Picture this — you find yourself in an industry that is dominated by big chains at the top and crowded with online stores that keep popping up. How do you stay competitive?
With big chains having the advantage of scale and online-only competitors becoming increasingly agile, can SMBs still get ahead?
Well, as this Vend customer shows us, the answer is yes, you can.
Meet Will Hatton, co-owner of Pace Athletic, a specialty store for running footwear and gear. They now have 5 stores across Sydney, Australia (Crows Nest, Kings Cross, Manly, Mosman, and Rozelle).
Read on to find out how Will built a customer community around the Pace brand, and how the communities eventually became the business model that fueled the growth of 4 new stores. It was in 2014 when Will and Pace co-owner Stuart had seen success from their first store in Mosman. Things were going fine, but they quickly realised they needed to do something different if they wanted to thrive.
Big chains were investing more in eCommerce, and new online-only competitors popped up at a much faster pace. Because of that, staying competitive was a challenge.
The Australian market for specialty running footwear was comparatively small, so Will and Stuart looked for inspiration from other parts of the world. That brought them to the US in 2016, where market size was 30 times bigger.
They then discovered a common aspect that successful and expanding US stores share — these stores put a lot of effort into building running communities around their brands.
Building an inclusive community, with love
Back in Sydney, Will and Stuart used what they learned in their US trip to build their own running community: the Pace Run Club.
According to Will, the most important thing they learned about building customer communities was this: know your customers well.
Really figure out who they are. What are their concerns, behaviours, and motivations? For example, Will was surprised to learn that beginner and intermediate runners didn’t really identify themselves as runners, the same way surfers of all skill levels think of themselves as surfers. Most runners were hesitant about joining a running club, thinking they wouldn’t be able to keep up with others. So from the outset, Pace’s first Run Club was designed to be a casual, inclusive and social experience. “From the fastest runner to the newest” is the Run Club’s motto — no one is too fast, and no one is too slow; members support each other and everyone should feel comfortable running at their own pace.
That ethos proved to be successful. In the 2 years since the first Pace Run Club started, Will and Stuart have grown their business to 5 stores with the support of hundreds of members who also shop regularly at Pace. There are now 3 Pace Run Clubs in Manly, Mosman and Rozelle and a Pace team for races.
Additional tips from Will
Looking to start your own community? Here’s some additional advice:
- Encourage customers to share more about themselves. Doing so not only helps you get to know shoppers better, but it helps you provide a better experience. So train your staff to always add customers to sales in Vend (or whichever POS you’re using). “We strive to offer a much better experience in-store,” said Will. “Being able to look up what customers bought previously and tailor our recommendations is crucial.”
- Create customer groups so you can segment your top customers and community members. “We’ve created loyalty, and sometimes special pricing for Pace Run Club folks, which is automatically applied in Vend based on the Customer Group,” added Will.
Investing in amazing imagery
Will understood the importance of high-quality photos. While resourcing is often a problem with small and medium retail business owners, Will made the decision to get professional photography done for Pace Run Clubs.
His decision paid off. Participation grew 200-300% last year since they introduced professional shots.
“Pace Run Clubs are moving advertisements for our brand,” said Will. “So of course we wanted to capture this great advertisement. The effort and costs were totally worth it.”
The professional photos also gave Will and Stuart high-quality content for Facebook and Instagram, which increased social media engagement. “We find that folks tag themselves and reshare our photos a lot more after we started doing professional photography,” said Will. “As our social media numbers trended up, we also saw more folks joining our weekly runs which was great!”
It even spurred them to create an online magazine that shares stories from run club members, tips and tricks from coaches and physicians, as well as useful information about upcoming races.
Additional tips from Will
In addition to investing in professional photos, find new and exciting ways to keep members engaged, then document your initiatives. Check out what Pace Athletic is doing:
- They create ownership. “In the Rozelle store, I turned some empty wall space into a special “bib wall.” It’s a space where customers could pin their race bibs to show off their achievements and also earn a discount for new runners.”
- “Giving customers a piece of the store that they own is a fantastic way to build relationships. We’ve had customers who had race bibs customised with theirs names or nicknames, who would keep bringing families and friends into our store to show it off.”
Reaping the rewards of having a strong community
When you’ve built an active community around your brand, good things start to flow. In the case of Pace Athletics, their community (and company) started getting attention from local businesses and shoe brands.
Other local businesses got involved, and to this day, personal trainers, running coaches and physiologists join the runs and offer support to members.
Shoe brands were quick to see the value in Pace Run Clubs’ closely knitted communities. In the beginning, brands would send staff down to join the runs. Later on, they started sponsoring Run Club t-shirts. And most recently, they started bringing a ‘demo fleet’ of newly released products for run club members to try out during the runs.
“Running shoes are an emotional purchase. No one wants their shoes to hurt or not work after the first run,” said Will. “The demo fleets are very popular with our run club regulars. In a way, everybody wins — regulars are confident that they’d be happy with the shoes, brands sell more shoes through us and we get more folks joining the run clubs because they want to take new shoes out for a trial.”
Brands now choose to launch new running shoes and stock limited editions and exclusives at Pace. “This has been an amazing side-effect, thanks to the Run Clubs,” said Will. “The launches and exclusives really help us differentiate ourselves against big chains and online stores.”
Additional tips from Will
Increasing your traffic and sales from your community is great, but make sure you have the systems and processes in place to stay on top of your orders. Here’s some advice from Will:
- Have the right stock in the right stores. “Online shopping has really changed how customers behave,” he said. “Our regulars treat our eCommerce site as a catalogue — when I see site visits trend up for particular running shoes, almost definitely I’d then see more foot traffic in-store and more enquiries about those same shoes 2-3 days later.”
- Managing inventory across 5 stores and their Shopify eCommerce platform also became crucial. “It used to be a daunting task, but we’ve now integrated Vend and Shopify and it’s given us the confidence that we’d have the right goods in the right places,” said Will.