Sports - September 2006

Fleet Feet competes by staying on its toes
by Chris Roush

Huge chains such as Dick’s Sporting Goods and The Sports Authority, which offer everything from lacrosse sticks to Gatorade mix, are dominant in sporting-goods retailing. But when it comes to increasing sales year after year, Carrboro-based Fleet Feet Inc. is a step ahead. Since 2000, Fleet Feet stores open at least a year have had annual sales growth of 11% or more every year but one. Dick’s same-store sales have not grown more than 5.1% in any of the last five years, and Sports Authority’s have fallen three of the past five.

Fleet Feet specializes in shoes and gear for serious runners. The company has flourished by focusing on running devotees who aren’t satisfied with the expertise and service they find at bigger chains. Dick’s offers plenty of shoes for runners, says Bob McGee, editor of Sporting Goods Intelligence, a Glen Mills, Pa.-based industry newsletter. “But if they want to take their workout to the next level, they will go to Fleet Feet and get the expert advice. The point is their service. You’re not getting serviced by somebody who is a 19-year-old college student.”

That emphasis on service comes from majority owner Tom Raynor, a former executive for shoe makers Nike and Brooks Sports who bought the company in 1993. At the time, Fleet Feet had 37 stores and lots of headaches. The biggest problem, he says, was that many stores were operated by runners who treated them as hobbies, not businesses. Within three years, Raynor gave the boot to the dilettante owners of 20 Fleet Feet stores.

“Clearly, the company needed to go one of two ways,” he says. “One was out of business. The other was a more professional franchise format.”

Now, Fleet Feet has 70 stores in 31 states and the District of Columbia — and plans to reach 100 within three years. “With some stores, you can buy franchises if you have a check,” says Bob Carr, news editor of New York-based Sporting Goods Business magazine. “But these people really want their franchisees to know the business, and the managers have been there for years. And they’re not trying to grow fast. They grow at a rational pace.”

This year, Fleet Feet is opening new stores in North Carolina in Winston-Salem and Raleigh. Its other stores in the state are in Carrboro and Hickory. Jeff Phillips, who became president in 2002, after working as head of U.S. sales for Brooks, says he wants to add franchises in Asheville, Charlotte and Wilmington, too.

Fleet Feet’s storeowners pay an initial $35,000 franchise fee, as well as 4% royalty on revenue for the first two years and 3% for the rest of their 20-year contract. Fleet Feet estimates that it takes about $200,000 to start a franchise. Last year, its 67 stores, all franchises, produced $52 million in revenue. This year, through May, same-store sales were up 18.8%.

Service has spurred Fleet Feet’s growth. Headquarters staffers give regular training sessions for franchise owners and their employees about how to fit shoes for runners. The company’s stores also offer specialty shoes that the bigger chains don’t carry.

Fleet Feet has benefited from the increasing popularity of running — and walking. Last year, according to research by the National Sporting Goods Association, the number of runners and joggers rose 9.5% to 29.2 million. As for walking, the same study shows it’s the nation’s top participation sport, with more than 86 million people, up 1.5% from 2004.

Some athletic-shoe chains have struggled recently. Birmingham, Ala.-based Just For Feet filed for bankruptcy-court protection in 1999 and closed its last store in 2004. The Athlete’s Foot, based in Norcross, Ga., closed more than 120 stores in the past two years. The Sport Shoe, based in Atlanta, closed in 2005.

The difference between those companies and Fleet Feet is specialization. Shoes make up about 80% of its sales, and those are all for runners and walkers. At Sports Authority and Dick’s, where you can buy footwear for any recreational pursuit you can imagine, shoes are 21% and 17% of sales, respectively. Raynor says he prefers Fleet Feet’s focus. “You’re big and you trade on price, or you’re small and you trade on selection and service,” he says.

Raynor, 55, owns 82% of the company. Fleet Feet was founded in 1976 in Sacramento, Calif., and later opened an Eastern U.S. office in Carrboro. He moved its headquarters there in 2003 because Carrboro was closer to his home in Maine.

The company has competition everywhere. The category-killer sporting-goods stores draw their share of runners, and San Diego-based Road Runner Sports had $130 million in sales last year on the Internet. But Raynor’s goal isn’t to build a world-beating business. “We want to be the leading specialty retailer in the U.S. in our category,” he says. “Not the largest, but the one that people look at.”