“The formula is simple, really,” says Pacers Running Stores executive vice-president of retail and managing partner for events Kathy Dalby, “but, like any small business, we have to work our tails off.”
Five Washington-area running specialty stores serve as unique centers for an ever-burgeoning number of running enthusiasts. Combining customer-centric retail with community-building races has been key to expanding the successful enterprise. The independent business has grown to both a multi-store retail operation with an affiliated events company.
The first D.C. location, near Logan Circle at 1427 P St., N.W., opened in summer 2010, joining current Virginia storefronts in Alexandria, Clarendon and Pentagon Row in Arlington, and Old Town Fairfax. All serve as hubs for local runners – offering a full range of running gear along with training advice, motivation and coaching, and a robust schedule of regular fun-runs and special race events.
The original Old Town Alexandria location, a short sprint from the King Street Metro, opened its doors in 1991. Twelve years later then-employee and former University of Virginia collegiate runner Chris Farley, now corporate owner and general manager, acquired the business with the angel investment of his family.
Like other store employees and managers, Dalby started working part-time on the shop floor – a continuation of a college stint working at a running store in California. Moving to the area following studies at Michigan State and with a master’s degree in public health, she landed a law firm job specializing in Medicare reimbursement. Dalby soon discovered, however, that the quintessential Washington occupation was not to her liking.
Having “always been entrepreneurial in spirit and with an events background,” Dalby explains, led her to make a career change. “I love how we have integrated those two things,” she adds, engaging in “authentic and community-focused relationship building.”
Many of the approximately 25 full-time employees and 60-some part-timers come from similar backgrounds. When being fitted for the right running shoe, customers might be assisted by a former or current mortgage broker, architect, librarian or other professional.
“We make an investment in both the people and the customers of Pacers,” Dalby says, noting the “genuinely small business” enjoys long-time employee retention. She points out that the business is “proud to hire customers for both store positions and to assist with race events.”
Last weekend, the Pacers-sponsored 10th annual “Jingle All the Way 8K” drew nearly 4,500 and filled downtown District streets with Santa-costumed runners in a light snow. The first store event was held in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – surprising staff when 4,000 runners turned out, raising $120,000 in relief funds.
Alongside fundraising well over half-a-million dollars for local charities, the company recently launched its “DCXC Project” supporting development of distance running and fitness programs at area schools. By working with cross country and track programs, and supported by vendor partners such as New Balance, Pacers helps engage youth in the sport of running while encouraging life-long fitness habits – including among underserved communities.
The same philosophy guides the award-winning business – named a “Top 50” national running store for seven years – in its approach to customer service. Pacers staff, including two trainers rotating among stores, guide those just starting out or getting back into a running regimen by connecting them with other runners and running groups to achieve their training goals.
More than an endorphin empire for professional runners, Pacers has built success one stride at a time. “People want local small businesses to win,” Dalby points out, “and we have to earn that every day.”