The Internet can sell in a lot of categories, but it has one Achilles’ heel: It often comes up short in selling highly personalized products that demand to be seen and felt. And among buyers demanding perfect fit and feel, runners come in first, second and third.
That makes it all the more significant that Road Runner Sports has been so successful at hawking a highly personalized item like running shoes on the Web. In fact, the company bills itself as “the world’s largest running store,” and that may be true. It hosts 650,000 unique visitors each month and sells to more than 1.3 million customers a year. In 2004, the company booked sales of $447.5 million in its Road Runner and Activa women’s sports apparel lines.
Many features on Road Runner’s Web site are dedicated to achieving that perfect fit for each customer, including a downloadable PDF file of a Brannick device that buyers can use to measure their feet at home. The “Size-o-Meter” pulls up a list of available models for the customer’s foot length and width. And a “Shoe Dog” search feature seeks out the optimum model among Road Runner’s 20,000 SKUs to suit runners’ habits, from the miles they cover per week to whether they wear thick or thin socks.
Still, errors will happen, and product returns are unavoidable. (In fact, customers who are full members of Road Runner’s Run America loyalty club get 60 days to use their new shoes and return them for an exchange or full refund if they’re not satisfied.) So in January Road Runner adopted Newgistics’ SmartLabel system for handling and tracking these bounce-back buys. Shoppers get a prepaid, pre-addressed bar-coded label they can use when shipping the return through the U.S. Postal Service.
The bar code ties the package to the customer invoice and alerts Road Runner that the item is on its way back. Customers also can track the return in transit through a SmartLabel return center link on Road Runner’s home page. And Road Runner can notify the customer by e-mail when the return has been received, and once again when it has been processed and accepted.
“Previously, we simply gave customers the return address and told them to insure the package and ship it,” said Jennifer Melzer, Road Runner’s director of customer care. “They wound up using multiple carriers with different tracking systems, so they had to track that package on their own. Very often packages got lost, and follow-up was complex. Now we’ve simplified the return process both for them and ourselves.”
Newgistics pointed out that its SmartLabel returns management platform can work as a sales opportunity; the earlier you know a return is coming, the quicker you can suggest an alternative purchase and save the sale. But Road Runner said it usually doesn’t have to counter-sell when a customer returns a shoe — thanks to the compulsive nature of runners.
“We’re very lucky that way,” said Melzer. “Most of our customers can’t live without their running shoes. They can’t wait two or three weeks to return a pair, get a credit and buy another shoe. If something they order doesn’t work out, they’re usually on the phone or online to us ordering something else before they even put the return package in the mail. So we often get the second sale before the return is on its way back to us.”
The exception there is first-time Road Runner buyers, who may not be so driven. When a new buyer has to send a product back to Road Runner, he or she gets a personalized phone call from a customer service rep, or “running specialist,” offering additional help and product advice. “They get a personal phone call from Road Runner Sports apologizing and then spending all the time necessary to see if there’s another product we can get them into,” she said.
Even many of those first-timers reorder before returning, noted Melzer. “In our business, problems are generally a sizing issue, going up or down half a size — not a complex matter. Still, we let them know that we wish we could’ve gotten the order right the first time.”
Other aspects of the Road Runner Web site cater to a demanding, technically motivated market. The company recently revised its customer service phone operation to reflect that many buyers wanted even more product data than was available on the site. Callers now get a menu that separates them into two groups: those who want to place an order and those who want to talk running gear. The company had no trouble findings reps to handle that second group.
“The sales department at Road Runner is so well trained and knows so much about products and correct fit that we wanted to take advantage of that and help customers get more quickly to the type of help they want,” Melzer said.
Other Web features reinforce the impression that Road Runner knows what runners want and will go all-out to give it to them. For example, runners often become loyal not just to a brand but to a model and can feel trauma when manufacturers stop making that favorite shoe. Road Runner lets searchers track watch lists of “endangered” shoes and gives them a chance to stock up on their favorite kicks before they go extinct — thus adding value for the dedicated customer while maximizing sales in soon-to-be-discontinued brands.