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Blog: Specialty Stores Have to Think Outside the Big Box

I have a lot of respect for small specialty sports stores. Whether they're selling bicycles, skis, running shoes, tennis racquets or something else, they have a tough row to hoe. They have small staffs and tight budgets. They can't buy in the quantities necessary to compete with the really low prices on the Internet, and they often aren't able to offer the selection of colors and sizes found there either. Worse, they usually share their town with at least one sporting goods chain store or a big-box department store.

That's why I'm always interested when small stores run innovative programs that bring customers in the door and teach them about the expertise and good advice they'll find in independent businesses, something people can rarely locate online or in a superstore.

These events are usually creative. Sometimes, it's a ski store that holds an in-store session by a personal trainer who discusses good stretches to do before you hit the slopes. Sometimes, it's a demo night for new racquets at a tennis store. Sometimes, it's information about getting your kids fitted for the right kind of bicycle helmet.

And sometimes, it's something else, something so unique that I wind up thinking about it for a long, long time. Several years ago (I told you it had stayed with me), a running store in Baltimore called to invite me to go for a group run with a bunch of locals, and then come back for beer and an impromptu jam session. As in, a group of men and women who dropped off their guitars at the store, then went running, then came back and played music together.

I was coming off a deadline at work, so I missed the group run, but I arrived at the store to find the music in full swing. Well, as much of a full swing as a group of guys can generate when they're singing "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." (What a depressing song; I was glad they had struck this up after running, because it certainly wasn't motivational music).

It was one of those days between late winter and early spring, with just enough warmth in the air to lure people outdoors. The door of the store was propped open, and passersby were stopping to listen to the music. It worked like magic; within a few minutes of coming in, they began asking the proprietor questions about shoes.

The guys were still in their running clothes and obviously having a great time. The store manager would sing with them and take the occasional pull on her beer. Then she would go back to explaining to a customer why a cross-training shoe didn't work as a running shoe, or why it was important to have a shoe that supported a pronated foot.

One of the guys who'd brought his guitar told me the jam sessions "had just sort of evolved" because the store offered group runs throughout the week, and the participants one night had discovered a shared love of music. It turned into a nice business-builder for the shop, and became a fixture on the community's social scene.

I'm not suggesting all fitness facilities or businesses have folk music nights (it took way too long for "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" to remove itself from my head), but I was impressed by the shop owner's open-mindedness in hosting such an event. She was willing to go outside the lines, and it was obviously paying dividends for her.

Just as a side note, if you do decide to go the folk music route, I can suggest a song to put on your 'don't play' list.

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