The Coronavirus Economy: The resurgence of outdoor running during the lockdown

June 29, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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As anyone who has been to their local park recently will know, outdoor running has experienced a resurgence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are many reasons why we run, and why can be deeply personal for each runner. Running can be just as beneficial for one’s mental health as physical. With gyms and fitness centers closed in many regions, more people are going on a jog or for a run to get in some exercise during lockdown. Some are looking for a chance to (briefly) get away from whomever they might be in quarantine with, while others isolated at home might be looking for some semblance of community.

Hoka, an athletic shoe and apparel brand that has evolved from a core audience of professional runners to casual joggers and aspiring runners—saw a surge in sales during the first three months of 2020—up 52% year over year—as many other businesses in the retail space struggle to stay afloat.

Fortune spoke with Hoka president Wendy Yang for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, about how the outbreak has affected her business, her thoughts on the future, and how she is working through the pandemic.

Hoka president, Wendy Yang
Courtesy Deckers Brands

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: With fitness centers closed during the shutdown, outdoor running has seen a resurgence on par with crowded gyms during the first week of January. Why do you think that is, and what kind of fulfillment does running culture often instill?

Yang: Recent events have forced a lot of us to take stock of what we have, what we’re grateful for, and how we find joy. For many, that joy comes from getting outside and moving, and a lot of people are finding that a regular routine of getting outside, breathing fresh air, and moving—whether that’s running, walking, or hiking—provides a crucial outlet during a stressful time.

This has even been true for those of us who were regular exercisers to begin with, but frequently had a race or some other goal on the calendar because of the destination or performance-based incentive to train. We are rediscovering why we fell in love with movement in the first place. It can provide health, happiness, and empowerment. 

More people are hitting the pavement for exercise—many of whom might be casual or new runners. Hoka saw an increase in sales during the fourth quarter of 2019, but how have sales fared during the first two quarters of 2020? What has it been like to meet supply and demand during a pandemic? Has your supply chain been affected at all?

The business landscape has certainly changed, but those changes have largely reflected an acceleration of existing trends rather than a total shake-up: Namely, there have been challenges on the retail side of the business, but our e-commerce business has been thriving, and we have worked closely with our valued retail partners throughout the shutdown.

Overall, while we have not been untouched by the economic challenges posed by the pandemic, running and walking has been enjoying a boom, as I mentioned above, and with some adjustments by our team, we have maintained a very strong position. [Ed. note: Hoka’s fourth quarter ran from January through March 2020.]

Hoka is poised to benefit from the running and walking boom since the pandemic started.
Russell Holiday—Courtesy Deckers Brands

During the shutdown, most retailers were designated nonessential and were forced to shutter their doors. That might encourage most retailers to shift toward online altogether, but Hoka still has a brick-and-mortar presence with select retailers. Will that continue, or will your sales channel strategy be adjusted to whatever the new normal might be?

Hoka has always had an intentional relationship with specialty retail. As a high-touch brand—one where we started out little known, but knew consumers would frequently prefer to use our shoes to meet their goals, if they had the chance to experience and learn about them—we cultivated and continue to maintain a good relationship with retailers who are able to tell our story, build trust, and offer customers a high level of expertise in the course of fitting them.

This is a driving force behind our robust field marketing program, educating retailers and interacting with consumers. While our e-commerce business continues to grow, we will continue to foster this extremely important and influential relationship with retailers, and we are working with all of them through this challenging period in their business with the intent to come out better than before.

Says Hoka president Wendy Yang: “We knew consumers would prefer to use our shoes to meet their goals, if they had the chance to experience and learn about them.”
Russell Holiday—Courtesy Deckers Brands

How have your employees been coping through this? Are they all working from home? Have you been forced to make any cuts to your workforce?

Our Goleta, Calif., headquarters–based employees have largely been working from home since mid-March. Our team has adapted incredibly well, shifting to a completely virtual Global Brand Conference in April, coming together for a weekly all-hands via Microsoft Teams, and even joining together for Friday virtual happy hours with local business owners and community members serving as frequent guests.

One of our most popular social media features in recent months was a video series detailing our employees’ work-from-home setup. It showcased how different people are adapting, and, hopefully, reminded everyone that we’re human, too. I think we could all use that reminder at a time like now. We are all in this situation together.

On a personal note, how have you been faring amid all this?

Thank you for asking. I can’t complain. Our current situation has certainly proved stressful and testing, but I have a remarkable team around me, and their ability to adapt and think on their feet has eased a lot of the potential burden. It helps, too, that I am able to spend time with my family, and getting outside and moving on a regular basis has provided relief and perspective. At Hoka, our aim is to empower people, and together with my team, I feel empowered and equipped to meet our challenges head-on.