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The Tragedy of the Commons: ShoeKicker and the Role of Running Stores

Last Monday marked the launch of running shoe price aggregator site ShoeKicker. How does it work and what does it mean for the future of brick-and-mortar running retail?

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Welcome to the of online shopping. It started, of course with, which is the Kayak of flights, hotel reservations, and car rentals. If you listen to any of the ESPN network of podcasts, i.e., Grantland and FiveThirtyEight, you are no doubt also familiar with SeatGeek, the Kayak of sports and concert tickets. Last Monday, August 10th featured the launch of ShoeKicker, the Kayak of running shoes.

If you're a runner, you likely wear through and purchase running shoes at a rate that necessitates the establishment of a "running shoe" category in your monthly budget if you are one to divide your monthly expenditures into distinct categories.

In the spirit of categorization, this post will be broken into two sections. First, a review of the site ShoeKicker itself and, second, some speculation on how it's launch might affect or, optimistically, transform the role of your neighborhood running store.

What is ShoeKicker and how does it work?

Shoekicker, as mentioned above, is a price aggregating site for running shoes. They pull from 16 online retailers, including EastBay, Amazon, Running Warehouse, City Sports, Dicks, REI, Footlocker, and RoadRunner Sports, and show you all the available prices for the shoe you search.

The interface is quite minimal and, as a result of that, very user-friendly. You go to the site and this is what you see:

Once you start typing the name of a shoe, it offers suggested results based on the shoes in their database. You then, of course, put your size and gender in and, boom, ShoeKicker returns the best prices available for your shoe. I did a search for a Men's Brooks Ghost in size 11:

So, Running Warehouse offers the best price on this, but that doesn't strike me as a spectacular price. That's probably because the Ghost is one of the most popular shoes on the market and all old models were sold out on the sites that ShoeKicker searches.

And that brings me to another cool feature: you can search by edition of the shoe. Take the Mizuno Wave Rider, for instance. A lot of Wave Rider people weren't too fond of the 16, but, since that model is the oldest available in the Shoekicker database, it is likely to return the cheapest price if it is available in your size. You can very easily tell them to search the 17 or 18 instead:

That's a handy feature for those among us who are so fanatical about their shoes that they have not only model, but edition-specific preferences.

Once you've found your shoe at a price you like, you just click on the link provided by ShoeKicker and it takes you to the item page on the relevant online retailer. Very easy!

So, in short, I really like this site, and, if your only concern is getting shoes for as cheap as you can, it's probably a good option. I will note that I was able to find cheaper prices on Ebay for most of the shoes I searched on ShoeKicker, but then you have to deal with the vagaries of Ebay sellers.

What about your local running store?

I suspect that many running store owners are not thrilled about this site. I used to manage a running shoe store, and the topic of how to compete with the cheaper prices of big-box stores and online retailers was constantly on our minds. Local running stores are being bought out by FinishLine's Running Specialty Group and larger retailers like City Sports and RoadRunner Sports are offering an experience that, although certainly of a lower quality than a specialty shop, most customers consider good enough if it means they get to save $20 on a pair of shoes.

Gone are the days that running specialty stores could trust that their product and the expertise of their staff alone would be a viable business model. Expertise is available for free on the internet and you can buy the Brooks Adrenaline at Dicks. Running stores no longer hold a monopoly on quality product and running-specific expertise.

The store I worked out, I think, has done a fantastic job at transforming their approach to the industry. A small part of that transformation was an intense focus on providing the best possible service to customers with the hope a) we could develop more customer loyalty and b) that a couple good Yelp reviews would compound to a significant influx of customers. But, at the end of the day money talks, and many people, especially newer runners who may not appreciate the value of a good running shoe, are hesitant to pay the retail prices for them.

I'm not an overly sentimental or nostalgic fellow, so I don't believe that one should shop at a local running shop as some manner of homage to small business, put the money into your neighbor's pocket values. But, I do believe that you should shop at your local running store for the community and public goods they provide.

Even if they rarely offer the best prices on running equipment--shoes, apparel, gadgets--running stores always offer the best price on the service they provide as a community running hub: free. Many shops put on their own races and host at least one group run a week and those that don't at least serve as a one stop location to find out about races and group runs in your area.

The problem is that people aren't willing to pay for these services. No one would show up to a $5 Wednesday night group run at a running store, but those same people would probably be disappointed, at the very least, if their local shop stopped hosting those weekly runs from their store. Granted, store may make some money on the races they put on, but from organizing a relatively well-attended local 5k, I can tell you that community road races are far from cash cows. Similar to group runs, if your typical weekend morning 5k started costing $50 instead of $25, people would likely stop doing them.

What running stores face, then, as the hub of the running community, is a classic example of the free-rider problem in which members of the community take advantage of these public services the running store provides--group runs, road races--without paying a sufficient amount to sustain them on their own. The only way the model is sustainable is if people keep utilizing the retail services of the stores.

At least in the United States, running is booming in popularity but running retail is yet to reap the rewards of that boom. As we get closer to 100% of the consumer population being comfortable shopping online, it grows increasingly unlikely they will be able to catch that wave through retail alone. Everyone loves their local running store--or they should--so hopefully they come to that realization that their shoe purchases pay for more than shoes: they fund the maintenance of the fanatical running communities we all would hate to lose.