Retail Therapy: Pacers Running CEO talks running surge and donating shoes to front line workers

Kathy Dalby, CEO of Pacers Running, weighs in with her outlook on the future of retail and the company’s partnership with a nonprofit and local competitor.

men standing in running store with running shoe boxes black and white
Photo courtesy of Pacers Running

Outdoor exercise—especially in the form of walking, jogging and running—has seen quite the increase during the global pandemic. Shopping on the other hand? Not so much. 

More people are taking to the streets and sidewalks as a way of getting some fresh air in the era of social distancing, releasing stress from home life and staying in shape while local fitness centers remain closed. 

This week, we caught up with the CEO of Pacers Running, Kathy Dalby, who has seen a large increase in the number of new local runners reaching out to the store for support, but has also watched the landscape of retail change in a matter of eight weeks. 

Plus, the company has teamed up with ON Shoes, a global shoe nonprofit from the company ON Running, that has been working to donate supportive running shoes to a wide array of DC and NoVA-based organizations during the pandemic, including front line workers. 

So far, Pacers Running and Potomac River Running, with the help of the nonprofit, have pledged to donate 5,000 shoes altogether, and recently donated to local residents including fire and rescue workers, nurses, restaurant workers, local delivery personnel, grocery store workers, veterinary hospitals and community centers. Highlights from our conversation are below.  

How has your business strategy for Pacers Running changed over the last two months?

We voluntarily closed our doors on March 16 with our stores in both Virginia and Washington, DC. Although we were closed to the general public, we still have limited staff that go into the store to fulfill online orders. We also launched virtual fittings so people can set up an appointment with us online, and we’ve done really well with that. We’ve had well over 500 orders over the past few weeks. Business isn’t the same as it was, but it’s not at zero. And we have found that online is a really great way to meet people where they want to be. Then, also for beginner runners, it could be a little less intimidating than walking into a running store, which I wish we could fix. But it’s been an easy way for us to kind of connect with people. We’ve been seeing a huge increase in people who are just starting to run. 

Speaking of beginning to run, how much of an increase have you all seen during the global pandemic?

For our new runner numbers each month, we usually see about 48%, and over the past two months we’ve seen an increase in new runners of 150%. We’re definitely seeing it, and we’re seeing a lot of people who used to go to the gym and are maybe like, “Well, I’ve got to do something.” Also, people who are trying to manage their stress too. 

Let’s talk about the recent partnership you’ve created with On Shoes and Potomac River Running. What is the partnership about, and why have you decided to donate shoes to local organizations at this time?

The efforts are not just happening in DC, they’re taking place across the country, but the biggest effort has been Washington, DC, and we’ve actually partnered with one of our competitors [Potomac River Running] to distribute 5,000 pairs across Northern Virginia and the nation’s capital. It’s been really great and it’s given our team an opportunity to reach out to the community, from youth clubs to first responders, to our neighbors at some of the local restaurants that might have been furloughed, who just need a little help to get them out to run.

workers standing in ppe with boxes of running shoes
Photo courtesy of Pacers Running

What does it mean to you to be able to give back to the community at this time?

As a company we have always been really community-based. It’s part of our DNA to do that. So to be able to give back and do it in such a big way is really heartwarming and gives us purpose. It gives purpose to our team and gives us something to focus on rather than ourselves. 

What has been the hardest part of going through the global pandemic as a company?

My instinct is to tell you the unknown, but actually, the unknown is kind of exciting for us because I think there are ways that we can really reach out to our customers better and think differently about how we do retail. I think there’s a lot of change coming to retail right now. I think it was really scary at first, but we’re not really scared anymore. I think we’re got a really good vision of where we want to go now; it’s just getting there. 

Once restrictions are eventually eased in Northern Virginia, what do you think shopping will look like at Pacers Running in the future?

Our team is still prototyping what those new experiences will look like, and we’re really not in any rush. Our target to reopen is not determined by what the government does, but we’re looking at what we can do to make sure that our team feels safe and our customers feel safe, and we have a really solid process. I think what you’ll see when we do open to the public are appointments, starting sometime in mid-June, but I think you’re going to see a lot of innovation with that too. You know, how do we continue to push forward on digital and connect with customers who may not be interested in coming into a store? So, we’re going to continue to push on that because we think that’s been a really great way to connect with people. Telemedicine is working, and having a digital call about getting your running shoes and talking to somebody is working as well. 

man in mask holding running shoes
Photo courtesy of Pacers Running

What keeps you hopeful during this time, for the company and for local runners?

The good news is that running is growing. We’ll just have to see how sticky it is. But we know the value of running and that’s why we spread the gospel of running. The most reassuring thing we have is that there’s a demand for the sport. Sure, we put on a lot of road races and we’ve kind of put that aside, and it’s where we’ve seen the biggest hit, but we’ll evolve. We’re really lucky we’re small and nimble, and we’ll be able to adapt. And I think there’s a lot of innovation coming forward. People are seeing retail in a different light, that retail provides a pretty amazing service and we do really good work, so I’m excited to see more professionalism in what we do. 

If someone is interested in running or just starting out, what would you suggest their next steps should be?

The best way to get started is to set up a virtual fit. I think eight weeks ago, nobody was really comfortable on Zoom, and now all of us are comfortable on it. So, set up a virtual appointment with a staff member and we’ll walk you through. We also have appointments where you can jump on for a 15-minute chat with one of our staff members to just talk about getting started with running. We have a specific person for beginner runners and if they want to talk to her, she’s such a cheerleader that she’ll just talk about getting you up and running. It’s not a sales pitch. And we’re super empathetic to new runners because we were all new runners at some point too. 

Is there anything else you want readers to know at this time?

We’re so thankful for the support we’ve received. You know, I think we’re seeing that across a lot of small businesses. People are like, “I really want my small businesses to be here when I come back and when everything comes back,” and we don’t use the term “new normal” at Pacers Running because we didn’t really feel like the last normal was that great, so moving forward, we’re growing. And we’re obviously going to follow all of the guidelines, we’re going to be safe, and the big thing for us is we’re going to do whatever we can to get you running and get as many people running as possible. Whatever support you need from us, whether it’s digital, whether that’s on social media, whether that’s coming into the store and making an appointment when we’re ready to open, we’re here to do that. 

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