FRONTRUNNERS FOOTWEAR is a locally owned and operated business co-owned by Nick Walker and Rob Reid. Reid opened the first Frontrunners store in Victoria in 1988; Walker and a partner opened Frontrunners in Langford in 2005; and then seven years ago, Walker became a full co-owner with Reid when all five shops (Frontrunners Victoria, Frontrunners Shelbourne, Frontrunners Langford, and New Balance stores in both Victoria and Nanaimo) were amalgamated into one company.
Frontrunners closed their doors to the public mid-March to protect the safety of customers and staff, and pivoted to online only. Business is now “substantially different” from normal, reports Walker. Local customers have a choice of curbside pickup or free delivery six days a week. Frontrunners will ship to their customers up island and on the Gulf Islands.
Frontrunners’ co-owner Nick Walker
Financially, Walker says, “We are only doing a fraction of our usual business.” After laying off the entire staff, he said, “with the wage subsidy program, we brought back eight full-time staff.” That, unfortunately, still left 80 percent laid off. He added, “Hopefully we can bring back the whole staff when it’s over.”
Frontrunners has had to quickly adapt from their preferred “sit and fit” model, to virtual fittings. “Our main focus is our service. We are not just selling a product,” explains Walker. Customers email photos of their feet and of their current shoes in order to show wear patterns. “These are all things we would normally do in the store,” says Nick, but now they assess photos rather than the real thing. Occasionally, they have done fittings through the door. “We want people to get the right product so they can stay active and injury-free.”
The 400 participants in Frontrunners’ popular run clinics are currently staying “connected but apart,” thanks to Facebook groups and a new online training model.
With more people out running due to the closure of gyms and rec centres, Frontrunners is planning to publish an easy walk/run program to promote injury-free running which they will post on Facebook and Instagram, says Walker.
The move from a 9 to 5 store-opening model, to an online shopping open-ended model has brought some unexpected challenges.
People who shop online imagine a big company with staff available 24/7, says Walker. But in the case of small businesses that have temporarily moved to this model to survive, “It’s your neighbour down the road answering the phone,” he says. “If someone wants to order something at 10 at night and you don’t respond right away, you’ll lose them.”
While he says that he tries to shut his brain off from work when he’s at home, the reality is that, “right now, every sale counts.”
Frontrunners is grateful to their customers for their support. “Our current customers are our best advertisers. They spread the word with friends and neighbours and family members,” says Walker. In the long run, how they fare will depend on how long this current state goes on. Walker notes that, “rent still needs to be paid, but we have a good line of credit at the bank.”
A talented competitive runner, Walker runs regularly when he is not at work, but it’s taken on a new urgency. “It’s a stress reliever and a form of therapy and meditation. I feel better after a run.” He emphasizes that it’s important to “keep physical health for mental health.” Good advice for all of us navigating these uncertain times.
Marilyn McCrimmon is a native Victorian and freelance writer. She has written for Focus since its inception in 1988.