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Running expos
Q3 2017

Pros & cons of running expos

Running expos attract thousands of dedicated runners to one spot over a few days. Is this a retail paradise, a great marketing opportunity, or just more competition in a very tough market?

Expos where athletes and their supporters have to pass exhibitors’ booths when they pick up their race numbers, have become part and parcel of most big running events. They provide exhibitors the ideal opportunity to promote their new ranges and technologies to a captive audience of thousands and thousands of dedicated runners, especially at big events like the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon (OMTOM) and the Comrades.

On the surface, this would appear to be a retailer’s paradise. Which makes one wonder why not all retailers — especially running specialists — exhibit at all expos.

“We have exhibited at expos like Comrades in previous years, but don’t anymore, says Justin Hand of the Durban Runner in Morningside. Even though Hand considers it a good place to show products to runners, it is not a good sales environment for him. “Especially not for someone like me who is a specialist retailer because I can’t give the one-one attention to runners as I would like to.”

In addition, the cost of stands is very high and if you don’t sell enough products, you will lose money, he adds. “Exhibiting is just not cost effective.”

Because all his suppliers already exhibit at expos, it makes no sense for Nick Velthuysen of Runner’s Rest to “go and advertise our stock as suppliers are doing it for us.”

Marketing exercise

Jax Snyman of The Sweat Shop, a regular at expos, agrees that these shows are more marketing exercises than profitable sales generators. “We believe it enhances our profile and makes runner’s aware of how much larger our offering is than that of our competitors.”

On the plus side, runners who are not based in big cities like Johannesburg or Cape Town, are exposed to brands and products they may not be aware of, he adds. “Particularly in the wearable tech area the consumer is able to interact with knowledgeable sales staff, who can assist him in matching his needs with a unit, instead of him getting home and discovering a whole lot of functions that he doesn’t need, and that the one he really wanted is not on the device.”

While a running show can be good marketing for a brand, it can also affect a retailer negatively “because you’ll find there’s a dip in sales around expo times when customers hold back on purchases to buy at discounted prices from suppliers at expos,” says Velthuysen. “It’s a good place to be if you’re new in the industry. But generally, people go to expos for deals or promos, which means they don’t really look at the guy only starting out in the industry, they look at where they can get the best priced items.”

The shoe specials offered to show visitors subsequently have a negative impact on other retail sales, agrees Glen Treub of The Barefoot Concept Store — although he believes that it offers good exposure to running products.

Expos are therefore more suited to brands exhibiting, rather than retailers, reiterates Hand, adding that being involved in the local running community and local clubs all year round has a much more positive impact on his sales than expos.

Better for brands

Most of the serious running brands therefore exhibit at running expos — clearly with the blessing of their retail customers.

Brands that are the official technical partners of events naturally make a prominent statement at expos: adidas at the OMTOM, New Balance at the Comrades, ASICS at the Cape Town marathon — as well as all other major running events that have expos, including Comrades and OMTOM — Skechers at Ironman, etc.

“Skechers will be the official footwear and apparel sponsor for Ironman South Africa for the next three years and so we have a large presence at all Ironman expos,” says Kim Aires of local distributor Brand Folio LLC. “Next year we will be present at many other racing events.”

Omni Sport (Saucony) usually partners with a retailer like The Sweat Shop at Cape Town expos like the OMTOM and the Cape Town Marathon, while SBR Agencies are also active exhibitors of their Brooks and other running-related brands at running expos. Mizuno also promoted their latest technologies at the OMTOM and Comrades expos this year.

“We don’t usually exhibit at many expos, but we were at the Comrades Expo this year and will potentially be at the 11th Biennial Podiatry Association Congress in August this year,” says Robyn Frick of PUMA SA.

For brands, this offers the ideal opportunity to introduce their technologies and latest styles to runners, and also answer all the runner’s questions.

Common questions asked

Questions they get asked on their stand is mainly around technology, not on cosmetics or fashion trends, says Brian Kerby, MD of ASICS SA. “Runners want to know if I run like this, what shoe should I be wearing?, or how long should I wear my shoes for?

Questions around wear on running shoes are quite popular, as well as about their technologies, he adds. The ASICS Foot ID or Motion ID scan enable them to determine the runner’s gait and advise him on the appropriate shoe for his specific gait, or they can recommend shoes for certain distances or activities, etc.

Running gait (i.e neutral or stability) is the one topic most visitors want to discuss on their stand, agrees Pieter Warnich, senior manager adidas SA Running. “But, the questions visitors ask us REALLY depends on the level of the runner, as well as the specific requirements they are seeking. The faster runners seek lighter weight shoes, high mileage (ultra-marathon) runners seek cushioning.”

In addition to the above, visitors to their stand also enquire about cushioning properties and a recommendation for the best value for money, adds Mia Goslett of Omni Sport, local distributor of Saucony.

“The question I get asked the most is, is this a running shoe …?” jokes Frick, explaining that their shoes look so great some runners mistake them for casual shoes. Other than that, race distance is a large determining factor whether a customer will purchase a specific shoe. “Aesthetics will probably be next, and lastly support. Comfort naturally plays a large role, but I am not surprised if a runner chooses aesthetics over comfort, as image, especially in the younger consumer, is becoming a large motivating factor.”

Apart from the above questions, they are often asked about the heel drop measurement in running shoes, says Aires. “Remember, we have many different kinds of runners looking at Skechers Performance shoes — from novices, all the way to elite runners.” Other questions include the type of shoe they should choose to prevent injuries, for cushioning, for good support, properties of uppers and ventilation, or which shoe offers the best value for money.

“Injuries are a runner’s worst nightmare and pretty much every question that we get asked about a shoe relates back to how will this shoe enable me to run longer/faster without being injured?” says Snyman, explaining that the runner would in other words be saying I need good cushioning. “Why? Because he perceives that good cushioning will reduce the risk of him being injured when running or training — hence virtually all questions have injury prevention at their core, except of course does it come in another colour?

But, while most of these questions are asked “the most common will be what deals or specials can I offer the customer,” adds Hand wryly.

New styles and trends

While new running shoe trends pique runners’ interests — and sometimes cause confusion — Snyman found that runners are generally risk averse, and that they will try and replicate a shoe that is comfortable and keeps them relatively injury free when purchasing a new model.

But, runners are also curious to hear an experienced retailer’s take on a new brand or model — and whether he agrees with the advertising and marketing hype that accompanied the launch of the product, he adds.

Warnich agrees that consumers will ask questions about a new trend that is being marketed, but, not always with the intention of purchasing. “If it is a new technological break-through, like Boost was, then we see consumers willing to make the purchase.”

ASICS ensure that they have tech reps on their stands at expos who are able to advise runners about the latest trends, says Kerby, because “runners are by nature very inquisitive about new trends, where things are leading, etc.”

Younger consumers seem to be more open to trying new things as they like to stay trendy, is PUMA’s experience. “We find those runners who have been running for many years are usually set on what brand works for them and it is very difficult to convince them otherwise.

“What the average consumer doesn’t realise, though, is that an updated version of a previous model is not always the same,” explains Frick. A change in the type of material used can, for example, drastically change the mechanics of the shoe. “This is why specialist running stores are becoming so popular, as the sales staff have intricate knowledge of each brand and how the changes could affect the consumer.”

While there are those that get caught up in the hype around minimalist and maximalist movements, most runners like to keep to the middle ground, i.e. medium cushioning, she continues. “The consumer is much more knowledgeable than say, ten years ago, as they have access to thousands of product reviews and YouTube videos, so they usually know what they want before they even walk into a retail shop.”

Because the expo visitors are mostly experienced runners who come to register for the event, they also know what they want, agrees Kerby. “At our stand we will advise them if what they are requesting is the right fit for them, after we had done a Foot ID or Motion ID scan on the stand.”

But, of course, runners’ susceptibility to change will depend on their satisfaction with a specific range, points out Warnich. “If they experienced niggles or discomfort then they are obviously more open to trying something different.”

Making new converts

An expo also offers a brand that is confident of the appeal of its technology or shoe styles the opportunity to win over new customers. It is a very concentrated running-focused environment, where exhibitors have the opportunity of drawing runners to their stand who might not otherwise be exposed to the brand.

This was the experience of Skechers SA when they had very prominent stands as the official technical sponsor of the Ironman events. Even customers who are comfortable with the shoe they have been using, “happily move across to the brand once they try on a recommended Skechers shoe,” says Aires.

Because Skechers Performance is new to the market and is still for the most part unknown within the running communities, expos offer them a good opportunity to get their message across. “We have had a very positive reception and runners are eager to learn more about the product.”

The majority of serious runners are familiar with the adidas brand, but do not necessarily know the full offering, and are therefore eager to learn more on their stand, says Warnich.

With more than 40% of serious South African runners wearing ASICS, the bulk of the running community already knows their products. ASICS runners are very loyal, says Kerby, “because they know the brand offers them premium quality, technology and products.”

For PUMA the expo offers them the ideal audience to change old perceptions of the growing performance category of the brand, says Frick. “Our latest performance technologies are state-of-the art and for the first time in a long time we have a product that can compete against the best in the business. So yes, this makes them want to learn more about our performance products.”

Do they buy?

Brands and retailers have had differing experiences with sales at expos.

Adidas, for example, was surprised to find that more runners purchase at an expo than they thought. “What is even more interesting, is the number of runners we see wearing our footwear the next day for the actual race,” adds Warnich. “Our footwear is not like old conventional footwear that requires a long wear-in time. If you need an update and you know the range of shoe that is suited to your biomechanics, the shoe is ready to go, due to the latest innovation in our upper technology.”

Skechers was also very happy to see how many runners actually buy shoes at an expo. “We had a very successful expo at the Standard Bank Ironman African Champs in Port Elizabeth this year, where we sold out all stock of our new running shoe, GoRun 5,” says Aires.

ASICS doesn’t retail at expos and will instead showcase products and new technologies in upcoming ranges, for example, with a stand featuring an overall theme explaining a certain technology. Runners visit shows to do their research and have a number of brands’ advice at their disposal, rather than to purchase new shoes, Kerby believes.

Smaller accessories like socks, and nutrition tend to be top sellers at expos, PUMA found. “The runners already have their shoes for race day, and most runners know it is a very bad idea to change your shoes the day before a major event,” says Frick.

Overseas participants, who are unable to purchase a particular model in their home country, or only at a higher price, are his main expo customers, says Snyman. “Despite the perception that South African running shoe prices are high, they are, in reality, quite competitive on a global scale.”

But, the main reason why runners will wait for expos to buy products, is because of the better prices suppliers offer them there, Velthuysen adds a cautionary comment.

But, while he agrees that most visitors from major cities centres come looking for deals, people from outlying areas, on the other hand, are interested in the products they can get there, because the stores in their areas won’t stock the wide range that is available at expos, qualifies Hand.

Different price points

Most brands and retailers agree with Goslett that the hard core runners who attend these expos are mainly interested in premium running shoes, and are therefore prepared to pay top end prices.

But, because the market is going through a tough time, Kerby believes you have to strike a fine balance between the value you’re offering for the asking price, in order to attract consumers. Price is becoming a major factor in determining if a customer will buy.

While R2 400 — R2 900 for a pair of quality running shoes is becoming widely acceptable — especially when the runner is looking for durability — a runner could be motivated to look elsewhere when there is a high jump in price on their chosen model, believes Frick.

But then again, their new GoRun5 Performance running shoe has been selling extremely well, says Skechers — probably because it is priced at R1 499.

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