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Running store chain changes name, opens new shop

November 20, 2010

The specialty running store co-owned by Olympian Bob Kennedy is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month with a new name and logo, a move designed to broaden the five-store chain’s customer base and position it to expand outside central Indiana.

The Running Co., now known as BlueMile, started its push outside the region in October when it opened a store in Louisville. The store joins the chain’s flagship, which opened in Broad Ripple in 2000, and locations in Fishers, Carmel and Greenwood.

BlueMile’s owners expect the new name to fuel its growth at a time when recreational running and walking are surging in popularity.

“We consistently heard that people were intimidated by our former name, and they were reluctant to come into our stores because they don’t consider themselves to be serious runners,” said Ashley Johnson, who co-owns the business with Kennedy. “The broader market for us is the fitness enthusiast.”

The former name also got lost in a sea of similarly named stores.

“There are as many as 50 running specialty stores throughout the country that use the words ‘running company’ as part of their names,” said Kennedy, who won multiple NCAA championships while at Indiana University and was the country’s best middle-distance runner during the 1990s. “The unique new nameFacts on BlueMile will make it easier for the company to set itself apart from competitors.”

Kennedy, 40, and Johnson, 48, have big plans for capitalizing on the store’s new brand.

“We feel like we could open one new store per year,” said Johnson, who spent a decade managing Portland Running Co. in Portland, Ore., and Marathon Sports in Boston before partnering with Kennedy. “The key to our success is to maintain the local expertise in every store. That’s what drives our business. We’re not competing with The Finish Line or Dick’s. We offer something different than that.”

Each outlet costs about $250,000 to open, and Johnson said the company is in financial shape to accelerate growth.

In addition to video analysis for runners and walkers and customized shoe fitting, BlueMile offers a variety of training clinics and classes for all customers.

“That’s one big way we’ve grown our business,” Kennedy said. “We don’t use much traditional marketing like TV or newspapers. It’s all grass roots.”

That’s smart business for BlueMile, said Ken Long, who founded The Runner’s Forum store and now operates a running and fitness events management company.

Long said his running retail operation boomed when he started training classes for the Indianapolis 500 Mini-Marathon 32 years ago. He sold The Runners Forum, which now has outlets in Carmel and downtown, in 1986.

BlueMile appears to be picking a good time to grow its operation. Running—and walking—are booming in the United States as more people seek inexpensive ways to manage stress amid economic uncertainty.

Nationally, the number of marathon finishers rose nearly 10 percent between 2008 and 2009, to a record 467,000, according to Running USA, a Colorado Springs-based not-for-profit that tracks the sport. The growth of half-marathon finishers was even more impressive, jumping 24 percent from 900,000 in 2008 to 1.1 million in 2009.

Unlike the 1970s, when Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter sparked a male-dominated running boom, women play a big role in the current surge, said David Willey, editor of Runner’s World magazine.

Willey said Title IX and the explosion of women’s college athletics is part of the reason, along with the growth in running and walking events popular with women that help raise money for things such as breast cancer and leukemia.

Women account for 68 percent of BlueMile’s sales, Kennedy said.

The specialty running category is a small, but key niche in the sporting goods industry, said Bob McGee, editor of Sporting Goods Intelligence, a Pennsylvania-based trade publication.

“The running shoe is an item with one of the highest price-points and highest margins,” McGee said. “Running and walking is a worldwide sport and fitness activity, and gaining credibility in that category is very important to shoe companies. Many shoe companies feel if they can get in the specialty running stores, that sets them apart as an elite brand.”

U.S. running-shoe sales rose 2 percent last year, to $2.4 billion, while sales of running apparel declined 3 percent, to $883 million, according to the Illinois-based National Sporting Goods Association. NSGA officials said they are projecting about a 12-percent sales increase at specialty running stores nationwide for 2010.

That’s a pace BlueMile says it’s used to. The chain, which does not divulge its revenue, has experienced growth between 11 percent and 20 percent each of the last five years, Kennedy said, with sales growth this year projected at 17 percent.

McGee isn’t surprised by BlueMile’s performance.

“Ashley Johnson in particular is well-known in the industry and has a lot of experience growing a retail operation, not only at The Running Co., but in his previous jobs,” McGee said. “I’m sure their growth strategy is very well-thought-out.”

Long, for one, can empathize with the company’s brand identity issues.

“We had the same issue at Runner’s Forum,” Long said. “People were intimidated by the name. They thought it was for serious runners only. But we never considered changing names because we had too much brand equity in that name.”

Long wonders what people will make of the new name.

“I had to think about the name,” he said. “It didn’t immediately make sense to me. I know there’s a blue line that runs along the course of the New York and Olympic marathons. But I don’t know if BlueMile is readily identifiable as a store for runners and walkers.”

Actually, the name didn’t come from the blue line that sometimes runs along a marathon course. Kennedy said it’s a fabricated term that alludes to that place where runners and walkers go when they’re on a so-called runner’s high—that sensation when everything feels right while exercising.

“It embodies the perfect mile,” Kennedy said. “Like a blue sky day.”

The logo shows a path running through a sky-blue square. Accompanying the logo is a new positioning line: “Run Walk Live.”

“We wanted a name and logo that spoke to the spirit of what they do,” said Mary Hayes, co-creative director for Hetrick Communications, which worked on the rebranding. “The name and logo speaks to the experience even more than the product in the store.”•

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