If service is the secret to an independent retailer’s success, then running offers perhaps one of the best ways to provide it. Except for the few that like to run barefoot, shoes are an essential piece of kit for any runner - and the better the fit, the more there is to be gained, not just in terms of comfort, but also in lowering the risk of injury.
Of course, not every customer might know that, though it’s probably safe to say it only takes one bad experience with inappropriate footwear to turn a customer’s thoughts to a specialist retailer. But once they’re through the door, how does a retailer best serve that customer’s needs?
Gait analysis is a big draw on the high street, with the likes of Runners Need, as well as many independent sports shops, offering in-depth assessments. Usually, this is achieved by filming a runner on a treadmill and using a sophisticated software program to analyse the results.
The aim is to discover how the ankle rotates, the theory being that this can affect not just injury risk, but also running efficiency - and an appropriately designed pair of shoes is then selected to correct any problems. But does this kind of service deliver benefits for customers and retailers?
Jonathan Quint, marketing manager at Saucony, is keen to stress the importance of the process: “To compete as a bricks and mortar store on the high street, it’s almost expected to provide gait analysis. If you don’t, people don’t feel like they’re getting value. It’s true that if you’re experienced enough, you can do it just by watching someone walk or run across a room. But there are advantages to using dedicated equipment, not least that you can go into a lot more depth.”
Most gait analysis systems can run footage of a customer wearing different shoes to show how one shoe achieves a better alignment solution than another. For instance, one shoe might correct a problem by 12 per cent, another by 16 per cent.
“That kind of detail is very attractive to customers, Quint says. “They like the theatre of it all.”
Saucony has long been aware of the importance of ankle rotation, but the company is also working on new technologies that assess a runner’s gait from the side.
“There was lots of talk around 2012 of minimalism or barefoot running, which has inspired biomechanics and specialists to start to think not just about how the foot lands, but where it lands,” Quint explains.
“Minimalist running means that, because the foot tends to land towards the front rather than the heel, the knee is flexed on landing and muscles like the hamstrings absorb the impact rather than the bones. Assessing a runner’s gait this way means that it’s easier to recommend different levels of cushioning - essentially, knees that are less flexed or more rigid on landing need more cushioning.”
Saucony no longer supplies the technology required for gait analysis because most organisations it deals with have it already, but it’s worth knowing that while the whole kit doesn’t come cheap, pared down versions of it costs a lot less and can still be effective.
“We’re testing some of them now,” Quint says. “iPads and iPhones have very high quality cameras and the apps slow down the action to 100 frames per second. It’s a bit less theatrical than a proper camera and treadmill, but it’s still another service retailers can offer - and we can help retailers set one up and train them how to use it.”
One retailer who’s already discovered the benefits of a more low key approach to gait analysis is Kurt Hoyt of Run Sports in Hove, East Sussex. He introduced the technology into his stores in 2004 using just a JVC digital camera with built-in hardware for slow motion.
“It was a much cheaper way of doing it, particularly at that time,” he says.
Hoyt videos customers’ outside his shop running along the pavement to assess their gait, firstly in neutral footwear, such as a Nike Free, then in the corrective footwear. He uses the video to show to customers.
“We think it’s better to work on the ground than a treadmill,” Hoyt says. “Research shows the treadmill, to an extent, skews results by affecting footfall. Our way isn’t mega-sophisticated, but it gives us a good idea of foot behaviour and technology isn’t everything.
“It might be that a computer says we need to do x to correct y, but that doesn’t always work. A person might have flat feet, but the body might have adjusted to it, in which case there isn’t a problem. The technology can be a bit rigid. It’s about the broader picture, such as how the shoe feels. Essentially, comfort is key - medical facts are not. But having said that, the technology adds to our status as a specialist.”
Can’t replace experience
Quint agrees that fitting running shoes correctly is about a lot more than just using technology to do so: “Without knowledge, the gait analysis technology is just a slowed down video program. It can’t replace experience. It’s also important to remember the outcome to the process isn’t a shoe that will exactly match that runner’s needs. Instead, it provides a category into which several shoes will fit, which ideally will all be different brands.
“Gait analysis also provides more opportunities for a retailer to build a relationship with the customer. They can ask all the really important questions to ensure they’re able to provide the customer with the most appropriate shoe. For instance, are the shoes mainly for on-road or off-road? Do they experience pain? Where? Are they running? Walking? A 10k or a marathon? It can sound like idle chit-chat, but runners love to talk about themselves and about running. Capitalise on that. From a sales side, it adds value.”
Currently celebrating 10 years in business, Podplus in Ashford, Kent has found an effective way of making gait analysis work for the company.
Set up in 2005 by sister and brother team Kate and Tom Austen, as a podiatrist, Tom had found there was nowhere in the immediate vicinity to send patients who needed properly fitting running shoes. As a result, he chose to set up a podiatry business and sports shop to fill the gap in the market - and has found the combination highly successful.
The sports shop uses a treadmill and camera to assess runners’ requirements, which is useful for customers, as well as patients, who Tom refers to the shop, where trained staff fit their shoes. The shop can also refer customers with more complex problems to Tom for more in-depth podiatry treatment.
“There are other more complicated ways to assess gait, but a treadmill and camera is the easiest way to do it in a retail environment,” he says. “The spectacle of it all gives customers a feeling of confidence that we’re doing our best to help too.”
The sports shop generates 50 per cent of the business’ turnover and stocks ASICS, New Balance and Brooks shoes, alongside apparel brands such as Odlo and GORE.