Brooks sprints past the competition as the coronavirus turns more people into runners

July 23, 2020, 6:07 PM UTC
WASHINGTON, July 8, 2020 -- A man jogs near the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C., the United States, July 8, 2020. The number of COVID-19 cases in the United States surpassed the 3 million mark Wednesday to reach 3,009,611 as of 11:34 a.m. local time (1534 GMT), according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. (Photo by Liu Jie/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Liu Jie via Getty Images)
Liu Jie—Xinhua/Getty Images

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Stir-crazy people looking for new outlets for their energy during the COVID-19 pandemic are proving to be a boon for Brooks Running.

The maker of high-caliber running shoes and apparel—a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway holding company—now expects sales to be up 20% for the year after a spike in the spring and summer, despite countless retail stores being closed for several weeks. (Some 92% of Brooks’ products are sold by retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Nordstrom, as well as independent stores.)

“Running started to boom as people froze, started to hunker down, and then lifted their head and a lot went outside for a run. Shoe sales rebounded,” Jim Weber, Brooks Running CEO since 2001, tells Fortune.

The jump is akin to the increase in popularity of bicycling and the accompanying surge in new bike purchases in the U.S. since the pandemic broke out. (Sales of performance-focused running shoes across the industry had been shrinking since 2013, when they hit their peak as fashion items.)

And it is helping Brooks, whose revenue last year was in the area of $750 million, get closer to its goal of becoming a billion-dollar brand in the near future. Brooks was second only to Nike in market share among people who bought shoes for the sport of running between March and June, ahead of Asics, New Balance, Adidas, and Under Armour, according to NPD Data. At specialty running stores, Brooks is No 1.

Yet despite what Weber called a “white-knuckled” period, when sales plummeted in April before snapping back, he says Brooks has no intention of shifting away from retail partners.

“Retailers are really important for us,” he says. “If you want to be the No. 1 brand with runners you have to be in the specialty shops and you have to be online.” While Brooks has beefed up its own e-commerce offering, it also benefited from a surge in online sales at Dick’s and Zappos thanks to a digital marketing push.

And that marketing prowess is even more important at a time when road racing, a big platform for advertising and bringing new people into the sport—particularly the more goal-oriented athletes that make up about half of Brooks’ clientele—is at a standstill. One by one, large marathons from New York to Berlin to Paris to Tokyo have been canceled, and smaller events by local running clubs have largely halted.

“Our sport shut down. The events are hurting,” Weber laments. It’s all the more painful given that races help people recruit friends into the sport. At the same time, many such events, notably the Boston and New York marathons, are offering virtual races this year. Still, Weber doesn’t think they replace the real thing. “Running is such a social, collective experience for people,” he says.

At the same time, running is an easy way to stay fit at a time of limited options. “Running is changing, there’s no question about it, but look what we’re getting. We’re getting replacement activity for gyms,” says Weber.

That has allowed Brooks, which has a devoted following among runners, to take market share from struggling brands like Asics and beat back hot, smaller brands like Hoka (part of Deckers Outdoor Corp.) and On Running.

Despite a decline in road race participation that predates the pandemic, the running boomlet lifting Brooks should have legs.

“People are more concerned about a healthy lifestyle today than they were going into the pandemic,” says Matt Powell, an NPD Group analyst.

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