Running specialty shops were a lot like today's fitness specialty retailers: Small operations smattered around the country, they mostly didn't share concerns or solutions or otherwise interact other than by chance.
"There was no trade association where we could share best practices, network and have benefits available," said John Rogers, owner of Maine Running Company specialty retailer.
But that started to change in 2004 when there was the first conference for selected running retailers. At both the first conference in 2004 and the second one in 2005, said show organizer Mark Sullivan, now publisher of several trade publications including Running Intelligence, the retailers attending would end up sitting around and hashing over their businesses.
A group had spontaneously started to emerge and Sullivan, sensing the need, decided to help nurture it.
Just over two years ago, the group had its first semi-formal gathering at the WSA (World Shoe Association) show. Expecting a handful, Sullivan said he was stunned when 20 retailers showed up -- some who hadn't even been at the show itself.
For nearly five hours they hashed out what they needed, how they could organize, what form it could take and all the other issues behind collaborating. Sullivan acted as director but only recently handed that gavel over to Rogers, who is now officially the Independent Running Retailers Association (IRRA) executive director.
"You have to take a broad view about what's best for your channel," Rogers said.
Although it is a group of specialty running retailers, suppliers are also members on an associate basis. The group's mission, per the website (www.theirra.com): "The purpose of the IRRA is to organize and strengthen the running specialty store business and to promote running as a lifestyle."
Rogers said members have had "some moments we had to work through."
"You have a roomful of very entrepreneurial, high-energy, strong-willed people who have different ideas," Rogers said. "The concept ended up being stronger than some of the ego."
Because of cost and time, the group has not become an official non-profit but is a trade association. Even in that form, it has been able to come up with benefits and networking.
"The thing about independent retailers is, they all have the same concerns," Sullivan told SNEWS®.
Rogers said that there have been competitive concerns -- there always will be, he stressed -- but those end up getting set aside for the greater good. The group even has retailers who compete in the same market since the goal is not to share competitive secrets but basic business practices.
"You need to take a broad view about what's best for your channel," Rogers said.
The group has offered not only networking opportunities but education on best practices such as inventory management, building open-to-buys and other sales and retail business areas. Plus, they have negotiated group discounts on items such as freight, shipping, credit card authorization and check processing, insurance (health, dental, etc.), advertising and promotion, and banking, among other things. There is also a private, members-only forum and email group.
Associate members receive advertising on the IRRA website, direct communication with members and participation in IRRA promotions and events.
Now there are about 110 retail members representing about 140 doors. Retail members pay $450 a year while associate members, such as manufacturers and suppliers, pay $1,000 a year partly to support the retail needs.
"We need to be all-inclusive and not build walls," Rogers said. "It's a work in progress."
SNEWS® View: But a work in progress that has made huge strides in barely two years. Interestingly, in talking to both Rogers and Sullivan, SNEWS® found that the running retailers are a lot like fitness specialty dealers. In fact, if you look at what they have built and their numbers, it's a superior model for fitness to consider. Take a moment to go look around at www.theirra.com and let the industry know – and let SNEWS® know – what you think. There is still interest brewing, especially in these economic times, and it may be time to get something rolling. The catch is, there must be retailers willing not only to work on this but also willing to work together. SNEWS® will hold its fourth-annual Fitness Forum at the Health & Fitness Business Show on this theme, with guest panelists from outside our industry, such as from running. Mark your calendar for July 18 at 9 a.m. in the demo area on the trade show floor.