A conversation with Fleet Feet Cincinnati's Frank DeJulius
Since 2012 Frank and Stacey DeJulius have owned and operated Fleet Feet Cincinnati. They have three locations and a devoted following with runners, walkers and triathletes alike.
When COVID-19 hit, running stores were deemed non-essential. Stores all over the country were scrambling and trying creative ways to make ends meet. Frank's passion for his community, the sport and his customers, helped him weather the storm during these extremely difficult times.
What was life like for you and your family during the lockdown?
The week leading up to our shutdown and the 55 days that our business was closed was the toughest two month stretch of my professional career. A low point was the day we furloughed 42 employees after trying to keep them on payroll as long as possible after our stores closed.
For 55 days Fleet Feet Cincinnati consisted of my wife Stacey and I and we were in a fight for our lives. From managing the one way flow of cash, navigating the new and ever changing federal support programs, to trying to drum up a few dollars a day in curbside sales, we worked hard everyday just to stay alive. The good news is that we did and we still are working through it, but for now, the worst is behind us. I tell people all of the time that the hardest part of my job during that time (and still some today) was having to make 100% of the decisions with 10% of the information.
Did you get much running in?
I don’t know if I trained anymore than the usual during the downtime - maybe a little. I drank more, that’s for sure!
Forbes just did an article on Fleet Feet and its franchise-wide central e-commerce site — Can you explain how that works? What has been its impact during these times?
fleetfeet.com is a unique e-commerce model that utilizes the inventory in our stores and all of the other Fleet Feet stores across the country instead of a distribution center or central warehouse. This gives us the ability to quickly fill and ship orders that are on par with the fastest fulfillment models available and it gives our customers the ability to shop online while still supporting a local business like ours.
“It’s not about thinking outside of the box anymore, the box has been shredded. It’s time to build a new box.”
Having a robust online sales platform was a huge factor in our ability to weather the storm. While the large majority of our traditional business is person-to-person speciality retail, we’ve been developing and building our e-commerce business over the last 5 or 6 years. COVID accelerated that growth and gave our customers a place to shop with us and support us during a time when they could not visit our stores. Our small team ended up spending most of our days filling online orders, curbside orders and offering virtual fit appointments before we finally reopened. I am proud of the way we were able to pivot quickly to provide safe services to our customers during that time.
Did Zoom and other technologies factor into your daily business, and can you see utilizing them moving forward?
We took advantage of technology through and through during the shutdown, and we still are. Zoom, Google Hangouts, FaceTime and other virtual media forms helped us connect with our team, our partners and our customers through Virtual Fittings in a way that we had never done before. I do think this will continue to have some place in our business in the future, but believe that people still seek personal interactions and connections when safe and possible. So we are not hanging our hat on the technology of the future, but we’ll use it as needed.
We all seem to miss that sense of community that was taken from us. Did the lockdown give you new appreciation for it? Especially when it comes to running.
We are community retail, so yes, losing our community was our number one loss. As the Official Training Program of the Flying Pig Marathon and the Heart Mini (American Heart Association Mini-marathon and Walk), our business is predicated on our Running Club. When you lose a group of 1,000+ people visiting your stores 3 times a week, you lose a large sense of community, motivation and of course, sales. People always say running is an individual sport but at Fleet Feet we move together and losing that aspect of our business was tough.
Now that your doors are open, what are your plans to energize consumers?
We win everyday by providing awesome customer service, offering the world's finest products (like INFINIT) and producing the most premium training programs in the city. I think one of the most energizing new offerings right now is our Virtual Running Club that launched last Monday. We reinvented our training programs and built a program that is still highly motivating, rewarding and challenging, but takes place virtually and leverages awesome tech and social media. As I mentioned earlier, our customers are also loving the Virtual Fit Appointments and In-Store Appointments which are all new services we’ve launched in response to COVID-19 and trying to make our customers experience with us safe and valuable.
What advice would you give to other stores that were impacted?
My best advice is to manage cash and to pivot quickly in a way to better serve your customers under the current restrictions and guidelines. It’s not about thinking outside of the box anymore, the box has been shredded. It’s time to build a new box.