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Episode 293
March 10, 2023

In-store innovation helps the Road Runner Sports “con-SHOE-mer” go the distance: LIVE from eTail Palm Springs

With so many tech options, understanding how brands can use technology in a way that humanizes the customer experience while not being afraid of “getting behind the curve” can be a delicate balance. How do you use it to grow and develop and be more knowledgeable in your space and serve your customers well both in-store and online? Road Runner Sports is a brand that is serious about navigating this balance. Listen now to hear Sean Peterson share how their in-store experience is paving the way for a better online experience for their customers as well.

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With so many tech options, understanding how brands can use technology in a way that humanizes the customer experience while not being afraid of “getting behind the curve” can be a delicate balance. How do you use it to grow and develop and be more knowledgeable in your space and serve your customers well both in-store and online? Road Runner Sports is a brand that is serious about navigating this balance. Listen now to hear Sean Peterson share how their in-store experience is paving the way for a better online experience for their customers as well.

In the Customers’ Shoes

  • {00:04:20} Road Runner has a very high-touch, tech-forward in-store experience, and they customize shoe insoles, for example, helping the customer get exactly what they need in a shoe
  • {00:05:22} Road Runner is taking a brick-and-mortar first approach to technology, which is actually going to dictate how they will do things online
  • {00:20:13} We can buy more and more and more technology today than ever before that can solve all these problems, but it comes down to a lot of intuition and understanding of the customer journey and the people that make sense of that.
  • {00:09:21} Computer learning is shaping the future of search
  • {00:12:57} It’s important to both provide customers with what you’ve learned they want and like but also help them explore new potential options in a way that makes them feel known as a customer
  • {00:24:41} How will brands take advantage of this future out how to inform the algorithm what their differentiators are because people are already using ChatGPT to discover their next pair of shoes or their next purchase?

Thanks to WB Research and eTail Palm Springs for making this interview possible. eTail is one of our favorite retail and eCommerce industry events. Plans are already underway for their Boston show, happening in August. Get more information and register right over here.

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Brian: [00:01:26] Hello and welcome to FutureCommerce, the podcast about the next generation of commerce. I'm Brian.

Phillip: [00:01:31] I'm Phillip and we are live at eTail West in Palm Springs. And we're sitting down with Sean Peterson, who is the Senior Director of Marketing at Road Runner Sports. Welcome to the show, Sean.

Sean: [00:01:41] Thanks for having me.

Phillip: [00:01:42] Yeah, we're actually...

Brian: [00:01:45] Live live.

Phillip: [00:01:45] We're live live. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role over at Road Runner.

Sean: [00:01:48] Yeah, So as you mentioned, I'm the Senior Director of Customer Acquisition. I've been with Road Runner for 15 years. I kind of have an interesting path. I started actually in the physical stores, kind of a rarity these days in most cases, right? Everyone just kind of jumps around.

Brian: [00:02:02] Yeah. So cool.

Sean: [00:02:03] I've been really committed to it and why I've been committed to it because I was a runner in high school. I ran in college. I was a high school coach for years. So I have a passion for what we sell and a passion for helping our consumers. And I've been able to do that over my career here.

Brian: [00:02:16] Love that.

Phillip: [00:02:17] What was your distance as a runner?

Sean: [00:02:18] Yeah, I was a miler in college.

Brian: [00:02:21] Whoa. Fast.

Sean: [00:02:22] Yeah, sort of. I mean, people are much faster now, but I had a good time. I was also one of those weird distance runners that could also high jump and sprint.

Brian: [00:02:30] Whoa.

Sean: [00:02:31] Yeah. Kind of fun. Kind of different.

Phillip: [00:02:33] So is it a fair characterization to say that you went to work for Road Runner to sort of have an excuse to continue to pursue that as not just a maybe like get a discount? I don't know. Is that a nice way of saying that?

Sean: [00:02:48] To be honest, I kind of did approach it as like, "Hey, I'm coaching high school right now and this is a good fit while I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to do with my life," and took a job as a retail employee and just kind of worked my way up. So I've managed stores, I've done grassroots marketing for Road Runner sports, and now currently I spent most of my career in the Home Office as a retail marketing and have made that transition to more of the digital space over the last few years. So I oversee all of our paid media for both web and retail, really driving our new customers to both our brick-and-mortar stores, which we have 50 across the country, and our eCommerce platform. I also oversee our content and social team as well as our field marketing and retail marketing as well.

Phillip: [00:03:28] 15 years you started in the stores. I think that gives you a perspective because eCommerce has changed a lot in the last five years. Never mind 15.

Sean: [00:03:36] Absolutely.

Phillip: [00:03:37] What kind of perspective do you have right now as sort of having been in a store front line in retail? And what do you think maybe gives you a cutting edge in your job and especially in demand acquisition and demand generation?

Sean: [00:03:53] Yeah, I think, for me, it's really understanding the customer's needs and the customer journey on an intimate level. And it's really easy to do in retail. You have that tactile experience. You can talk to them and guide them very personally and online it's a little harder, but that has allowed me to help shape our content and shape our direction on how we're going out to acquire new customers because I have that background. The other thing too, we really have a pretty unique experience in our store. It's high touch, it's tech-forward. We have a really robust fitting process where we get everyone through a process that scans their feet in 3D. We measure their foot in like ten different touch points, length, arch height, instep height, really understanding the shape of each foot, how it's different. We'll watch you run and walk on a treadmill. We'll analyze that using obviously some technology to help facilitate that. We have the ability to mold custom insoles on the spot in our stores and also then scan it to a cloud so customers can reorder those insoles and get them sent to them without even having to walk back into a store.

Brian: [00:05:01] Incredible.

Phillip: [00:05:02] Yeah. So it's really kind of a cool process that we've really mastered in-store. And we've seen customers just love what they can get from it. And now the challenge is how do we bring that online?

Brian: [00:05:13] Yeah, I was going to say, it sounds like you're starting with...

Phillip: [00:05:16] Phigital.

Brian: [00:05:17] Yeah. Oh gosh.

Phillip: [00:05:18] No, I'm just kidding. {laughter}

Brian: [00:05:18] No, no, no, don't say that word. But no, it sounds like you're taking a brick-and-mortar first approach to technology, which is so cool because it's actually going to dictate how you do things online. And I'd imagine, the seamlessness of an account, starting in-store, you want your customers to start in-store because they're going to get a much better experience online eventually. I'm sure you have customers, though, that come to you that buy without ever having touched a store. Is that is that also true?

Sean: [00:05:52] Yeah. We have our online-only shoppers like everyone does, and we only have stores in about 11 states. So we can't be everywhere for everyone, unfortunately. Maybe in the future. That's definitely something we'd like to look at. But yeah, it's just interesting how to provide that same level of service digitally.

Phillip: [00:06:12] Right. Let's talk a little bit about sort of the modernization of the eCommerce stack and how your role in performance and demand gen is. Inform some of that. There's a lot of conversation I've heard here at the show already around new platforms that do things like attribution, new platforms that do things like manage spend across more than just Facebook. I hear a lot about creators nowadays. I'd love some perspective on that. And then I hear a lot about the overwhelming amount of data that everybody has that really can't make any sense of, so everybody's kind of just falling back to intuition and gut anyway. And I think that as a person who comes from frontline in-store retail, maybe you can make sense of the customer, the intuition about what the customer needs more than most. Give us some perspective on some of those things that you deal with on a daily basis.

Sean: [00:07:06] Yeah, I mean, I think that is an interesting way to look at it, and I think that has been my approach for analyzing data and making decisions based on that because I can put myself into the customer's shoes a little more uniquely there.

Brian: [00:07:19] Literally. {laughter}

Sean: [00:07:19] Literally, yeah. Which is always fun. And I think you can see patterns in data where maybe you would miss them normally and understand those trends and how to focus what we're doing based on that.

Phillip: [00:07:32]  [00:07:32]We can buy more and more and more technology today than ever before that can solve all these problems. But it comes down to, I think, a lot of intuition and understanding of the customer journey and the people that make sense of that. [00:07:44]

Sean: [00:07:44] Yeah.

Phillip: [00:07:44] Is there a blend of the technology that leads you or is it just you and your role and being good at it?

Sean: [00:07:49] Yeah, I mean, I think it is technology helping inform as well. You come to a conference like this and everyone's trying to sell you a million different solutions and they're not all going to work for everybody. And I think you really need to understand your business and your goals and your budgets to make an informed decision not just to stack on, but use it to supplement what you're already doing or replace and not feel like one thing that has worked for you forever is going to continue to work for you and it's just progress forward.

Brian: [00:08:19] That's interesting. Yeah. Is there something that you've seen at the show that you feel like would add on to what you're doing currently right now or maybe potentially completely disrupt the way you're...

Phillip: [00:08:30] Leading the witness, Brian.

Brian: [00:08:31] I am. {laughter}

Sean: [00:08:33] Nothing at all. No, we haven't talked about technology at all this week. {laughter} No, I really do believe some of the AI and where that's going is going to be really interesting for marketers and brands and everyone really, for the most part. I listen to a really interesting talk about how ChatGPT is reshaping even our search process because right now it's kind of an antiquated process. And Google gave this great example of, "Hey, if I search for what comes on a waitlist or what is a waitlist or some ideas around waitlists," and they knocked out like just very basic generic stuff like, "Oh waitlist is this," what is a waitlist? And that wasn't even what was being asked. And you go to ChatGPT and ask the same question and you get real examples that are more contextualized.

Phillip: [00:09:21] Wow.

Sean: [00:09:21] And it's just wild to see computer learning shape the future of search.

Brian: [00:10:17] We've talked quite a bit about ChatGPT on the podcast here, and talked about how in many ways we're building algorithms to fulfill algorithms. When you look at customer acquisition and is it all paid or are you also handling organic?

Sean: [00:10:35] Yeah, I handle paid and organic.

Brian: [00:10:37] So especially when you look at organic, paid is like, "Okay, great. Yeah. I see some really clear-cut use cases for ChatGPT to write ads that perform well." But organic is the area where I'm assuming your brain is starting to, the wheels are turning about how I might be able to employ this.

Sean: [00:10:54] Yeah, our team's definitely trying to figure that out because it's twofold. You can write all this AI-generated content, but it still needs to be proofread.

Phillip: [00:11:04] Yes. Human curated. Yeah. Right.

Sean: [00:11:07] And even especially in our space where, you know, running content is ever-changing and the science is changing behind it and it is so relevant to be up to date.

Brian: [00:11:19] Yeah.

Sean: [00:11:19] And I don't know if the technology is going to necessarily catch up in our space and we may be just very unique and maybe I'm completely wrong and it can already do all these crazy training plans and really in-depth running analysis. But we'll see. We'll see.

Brian: [00:11:32] That's a really good point. Your industry is constantly changing. Phillip and I both run as well. And it feels like there's a new shoe with new technology coming out all the time.

Phillip: [00:11:46] And fads change over time. There's like barefoot running was a thing very in vogue ten years ago. Now it's like a lot of stack height, a lot of foam, carbon plates. The technology does change it in a fashion sense. But I think the understanding of this is sort of an interesting type of a customer who probably has generally a high lifetime value to begin with because it is a consumable product, but it also follows fashion, so you have to play to all of these sensibilities over time. So how do you segment customers and sort of speak to them directly over at Road Runner?

Sean: [00:12:23] We obviously leverage data like anyone does. We do have a loyalty program, our VIP program, which is a robust, rewards-based loyalty play, and customers love it. And we have the ability to really communicate with them a little more personally that way too.

Brian: [00:12:40] I love that.

Sean: [00:12:41] So we do segment by club status, lifetime, how long they've been with us as a shopper, obviously to some degree what they're buying, brand preference. I know in the running world I'm sure you both can attest to that. Once you find a brand or a shoe you love...

Brian: [00:12:55] You stick with it.

Sean: [00:12:56] You stick with it.

Brian: [00:12:56] Yup.

Sean: [00:12:57] But there's also curiosity of something new and different. So we want to make sure we're not just giving them the same old content, but also giving them an opportunity to learn and discover something new as well.

Brian: [00:13:07] That's really great. I think that's really important. Yeah, I think you're right. Once you find something that you really enjoy as a runner, you do want to stick with it. But there's always this sneaky suspicion in your mind, like, "Oh wow, maybe my feet would feel better. Maybe my stride would change if I just tried X."

Phillip: [00:13:23] It's funny, I feel like it's a... We've talked a lot about community over the years and sort of the way we leverage community, but runners tend to aggregate into communities on their own, around discipline, around life stage, around distance. But I also think that they look to each other for, "Oh, you're running in Brooks now? Oh, how's that? Oh, ASICS really? Oh, that's super cool. Rihanna's wearing Salomon." There's an interesting dynamic amongst runners that the grass is generally always greener and they're always thinking, even if they're not ready to purchase, they're always thinking about what the next one would be.

Sean: [00:14:05] Oh, absolutely.

Phillip: [00:14:06] Tell me more about how maybe you're teasing that out with data and creating journeys for that.

Sean: [00:14:13] I think we're just taking what we're hearing and seeing in the stores to help inform that. And what you mentioned was just hit the nail on the head, so to speak. And when we work with groups or run groups or run clubs, you always see that one person that all of a sudden shifts to that new brand or something flashy and splashy, and then all their other friends in the group are like, "Well, I want that too, and I want that too. I want that too." So we definitely are leveraging our brand vendors to help us inform those decisions and kind of understand what's hot, what's the future of running, and what people are leaning towards and leveraging our in-store experience too help shape that on the back end as well.

Phillip: [00:14:50] What are the things that you're keeping your eye on at the moment? You said ChatGPT. The adoption curve on that has been incredibly, incredibly accelerated. Everyone's using it. My 11-year-old is like, "How do I use this for my homework?" It's crazy. What are the other sorts of more run-of-the-mill software suites? Like what does the technology investment and evolution look like for Road Runner beyond the in-store if it's digital acquisition and you're leading them to digital commerce channels? What is that for you right now? Is there an improvement cycle coming or are you kind of fine with what you have?

Sean: [00:15:25] Yeah, I mean, I think we're always evaluating. I think you got to as things evolve. So I think our big opportunity is around CDPs, some PIM tools, eventually, we'll probably replatform... All those kind of fun things and I think then leveraging AI to better inform our spend decisions and how we're targeting and who we're targeting and leveraging the customer data in a little more intimate way to make sure we're delivering the most personalized message in the right way at the right time to the right customer and leveraging all the AI learnings to help be more efficient with our budgets.

Phillip: [00:16:03] How about quizzes? Fit quizzes? Are those things that you're bringing to the digital experience?

Sean: [00:16:08] Yeah. So we currently have one right now. We do have a fit finder experience. It's not as robust as our in-store experience. Obviously, the human touch is going to triumph always, but we are looking to revamp that and have that be just a great tool for any runner or curious fitness enthusiast to find the right shoe digitally. From there, there's opportunity around virtual try-on, augmented reality, and all that kind of stuff that definitely is on everyone's radar. So we'll see if it's a fit for us. I think with the running space specifically, you don't really care as much what it looks like at first. It's really about the fit and the comfort. But that physical presence is important for the consumer journey.

Phillip: [00:16:50] Oh, for sure.

Brian: [00:16:50] Have you seen any at-home fit technologies that look interesting to you?

Sean: [00:16:54] Yeah, there are a few that I've seen. I'm not going to name names or anything at this point, but I think that's going to be the next step in shoe fit technology is how are you going to accurately measure size and help with the support structure virtually? I don't think any I've seen anyone do it accurately. I've seen a lot of companies dabble with it, but it will happen in the near future. So we're excited to see what that looks like.

Phillip: [00:17:22] I'm on the record and I love this. I'm going to say this and then his PR team is going to strike it down. I'm on the record as saying I feel like there's like all of this foot scanning technology because it seems like there's a lot of it, a lot of press around it. It's probably some sort of clever cover for a fetishist sort of group that's just, you know, I don't know...

Brian: [00:19:20] Is PII, isn't it? I believe it's fit data PII.

Phillip: [00:19:24] Is that personally identifiable information? Yeah. There's got to be some European jurisdiction that says you can't keep people's foot data.

Sean: [00:19:35] No, that's a good question. I haven't really explored the PII of people's feet.

Phillip: [00:19:40] I would be very concerned about taking pictures of my feet. I don't know. I feel like it's a personal thing for a lot of people.

Brian: [00:19:44] I don't know. I think a lot of people would be fine. You have a whole foot thing anyway.

Phillip: [00:19:50] I'm sort of anti-foot. Coming back to things that you care about, Sean, when you're looking at the kinds of... There's a lot of conversation around new channels for customer acquisition creators. I'm sure you already have well-formed plans and strategies there. Is that still in a growth mode? Is that still in a discovery mode for you or are you leveraging it to your advantage already?

Sean: [00:20:20] Yeah, I mean, we have a small but mighty creator network that we're working with and we are looking to expand it. We just find that from an organic play on our social channels, people want that personal content that connects with their mood and their feelings and what they're doing and their lifestyle, and they don't want any overproduced kind of salesy content. So we have made an effort to be more informative, to be more educational. And I think a lot of people in our space are doing that. We definitely have a huge opportunity to grow that, as most do. So that's going to be interesting to see how we can do that this year.

Brian: [00:20:57] As you look at this data, it's really relationship with customer and you're a pure retailer. I would imagine that you see that layer of data, that relationship as sort of your hedge, and why someone would even come purchase from you.

Phillip: [00:21:14] Rather than direct to consumer, right?

Brian: [00:21:15] Right.

Sean: [00:21:16] No, absolutely. I do think people want that high-touch experience. And we do see a bigger shift to our physical stores because of that. With that, I feel we can provide something unique with our fitting process and customize it based on customers' needs. And a lot of people are brand loyal, but they're also curious, as I mentioned before. So going directly to buy from Brooks or buying from HOKA is an option for them. But I think they prefer to shop with us because they have the selection, they have that personalization. They're part of our loyalty program. They know that we're going to provide the right services for them at the right time in their buying journey.

Phillip: [00:21:56] So you spoke here at the show.

Sean: [00:22:00] I will.

Phillip: [00:22:00] Yeah. What's the topic? And give us a little preview.

Sean: [00:22:04] So it's going to be about how technology is going to reshape our physical brick-and-mortar store experience in the future.

Brian: [00:22:10] Amazing.

Sean: [00:22:11] Yeah. So clearly...

Phillip: [00:22:13] Beyond what you already have today? What does the future of Road Runner Sports look like?

Sean: [00:22:17] Yeah, I think [00:22:18] we hope to revamp our process and polish it up a little bit more and leverage the data and the customer experience to provide a more personalized customer journey. We do right now currently greet all of our customers with an iPad. All of our fit experts have it on hand, and it's really not a barrier tool, but more of a selling and an opportunity to personalize that journey with the customer. So we know when they last bought from us and what they bought. And a lot of times customers are asking us that anyway. So we found why not equip our teams with it off the bat because they're asking these same questions and now we have it all firsthand and we have a nice little welcome-in page that gives you all those relevant details that sometimes the customers don't remember off the top of their head, but they're asking us about it anyway. [00:23:04]

Brian: [00:23:04] Incredible.

Phillip: [00:23:05] Everyone's a concierge now. That's incredible.

Brian: [00:23:10] Do you see in-store as your largest path of growth in the coming year?

Sean: [00:23:15] Yes and no. I mean, obviously, since I started in the stores, I want to see the retail experience continue to grow exponentially. But we also want to make our eCommerce presence a little more well-known. I think outside of the locations where we have stores, it's just brand awareness. I think we just need to get out there and touch more people and connect with them and show them our uniqueness in different ways.

Phillip: [00:23:39] If the future of discovery is through a lot... So we've talked about so much today. But one of the things I think we've been touching on, Brian, has been how do you become known and where do customers discover their next favorite brand. How do they find the next great pair of running shoes? And if large language models and AI are the future, then I think it's really interesting to look into the present and say, "Well, are you known by the algorithm?" And Road Runner Sports, they have quite, you know, ChatGPT knows a lot about Road Runner Sports. I don't know if it's all accurate. That's questionable.

Brian: [00:24:20] Yeah, that's questionable.

Phillip: [00:24:20] But when you ask where to go to go buy shoes that have both an online and offline component it's Road Runner Sports. It's Fleet Feet. It's REI. It's who you might expect. And nobody did anything to educate the algorithm directly. It's just inferred it. I'm really curious to see [00:24:41] how brands take advantage of this future of well, how can we inform the algorithm what our differentiators are because people are already using it to discover their next pair of shoes, their next purchase? [00:24:53]

Brian: [00:24:53] Did you just ask ChatGPT about Road Runner Sports on the fly?

Phillip: [00:24:57] Yeah. While we were talking right here. It says "they also offer personalized shoe fitting and expert advice on selecting the right running shoes for your feet and running style."

Brian: [00:25:04] It sounds pretty accurate based on what we just heard today.

Sean: [00:25:07] Yeah. And I didn't even write that. That's wild.

Brian: [00:25:09] Yeah.

Phillip: [00:25:10] So yeah. We always ask our guests what the future of commerce looks like for you. Sounds like that's been the whole of the conversation here. What does the future of this conference look like for you? What's something you're looking to take away back to your team?

Sean: [00:25:24] Yeah, I think a few things. We talked about technology.

Phillip: [00:25:26] For sure.

Sean: [00:25:27] But [00:25:28] understanding how other brands are using it and using it in a way that humanizes it. I think there's a lot of concern about if you get behind the curve here, you're going to get eaten alive versus how do you use it to grow and develop and be more knowledgeable in your space. [00:25:47] So that's a big one for us. The other one is just talking to other brands and seeing that they're all dealing with similar challenges that we all are in with this really interesting economy and this interesting post-COVID time frame. Inventory had been an issue and pricing challenges are an issue and all these crazy ebs and flows.

Brian: [00:26:06] Yeah. Inflation.

Sean: [00:26:08] Yeah. So I don't think anyone really knows where it's going. But I think there's a lot of optimism. And it's nice just to kind of connect with all these people to make sure we're headed in a direction that is looking for growth and sustainability.

Brian: [00:26:21] Can I just replay back what I heard? So I heard everyone's like, "We have no idea what's going on, but we're excited about what's next." {laughter}

Sean: [00:26:29] Absolutely. But is it not marketing in general?

Brian: [00:26:32] Yeah, totally. Yeah, I know. That's like always the state of the world.

Phillip: [00:26:35] That's just the state of retail, baby.

Brian: [00:26:36] Yeah. Let's go.

Phillip: [00:26:38] It's been so great to have you. Thank you so much. Good luck on your talk and safe travels back. And I'd love to keep in touch in the future and hear how things are going with the future of commerce for Road Runner.

Sean: [00:26:47] Absolutely. Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure chatting with you guys today.

Phillip: [00:26:50] Thank you.

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