It was business as usual Monday at Fleet Feet Sports in midtown. Customers browsed workout clothes, had their feet measured for running shoes and chatted with the fitness-savvy staff about injuries and goals. Jan and Pat Sweeney looked around the sales floor, preparing to say a contented goodbye to the store they’ve owned for nearly 20 years.
The husband and wife, both in their late 50s, announced this week that they will retire from their positions and sell 90 percent of their shares in the store to general manager Dusty Robinson, 41, and his wife, Staci Robinson. “Running a seven-day-a-week operation is a young person’s game,” they said in an email to customers Sunday.
Tuesday will be their last day of work.
The store on J Street is the flagship location of the 170-store Fleet Feet franchise, which is now based in North Carolina but was founded in midtown Sacramento 40 years ago by runner and triathlete Sally Edwards and childhood friend Elizabeth Jansen.
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During their tenure as owners, the Sweeneys have offered a roster of educational events, training programs and customer appreciation gatherings that helped make the store a hub of the running community, not just a place to buy gear. The midtown store gets just over 1,000 customers per week and has an email database of 65,000, Pat Sweeney said.
Though the Land Park couple will step out of the day-to-day business operations, they said they have no intention of leaving the Fleet Feet culture.
“There are a lot of people who come in here and tell us about how running has changed their life, helped them relieve stress, helped bring their families together,” Jan Sweeney said. “It’s really, truly a community place, and it means a lot to both of us.”
The Sweeneys will become minority owners and continue to partially finance the business while consulting for Robinson as needed, Pat Sweeney said. It’s the same strategy that former owner Tom Raynor used when he passed the store to them on April Fool’s Day in 1997. They could hardly afford it at the time, they said, but felt so passionately about small business and physical fitness that they decided to take the leap.
The store blossomed with the running boom of the last two decades, but the last few years have seen an industrywide decline that’s driving down retail and hitting small businesses especially hard. About 14 percent of running-shoe sales came from specialty shops in 2013, down from nearly 20 percent in 2011 and 18 percent in 2012. At the same time, online sales increased from 12 percent in 2010 to 18 percent in 2013, according to a 2014 report from industry nonprofit Running USA.
Incoming owner Dusty Robinson said he’s aware of the challenges the business will face, and is prepared to brave them with the Sweeneys’ tried-and-true customer service philosophy. He won’t change operations at the store, he said, but he’ll focus on expanding services that make shopping local more convenient such as online purchasing and delivery to workplaces.
“The market has gotten extremely competitive and challenging due to online retail,” Robinson said. “If anything’s going to change, it might be a back-to-the-basics approach of being hyperinvolved in service and training. It’d be digging our heels in and doing what we’ve already done, but on a higher level.”
Robinson also said he plans to change the structure of the store’s training groups to offer four to six sessions a week instead of the usual two.
Some shoppers in the store Monday were aware of the change in ownership, having received the email from the Sweeneys. Karen Bonnett, a 60-year-old ultramarathon runner and Iron Man competitor who has been shopping at the midtown store for 16 years, said she was happy for the retiring couple.
“I’m sad to see them go, but excited for them,” she said. “They’ve got a beautiful store, and they’ve done a wonderful job serving the community. I hope the store won’t change much.”
After Tuesday, the Sweeneys will move on to a retirement filled with travel, physical fitness and leisure reading. Pat said he plans to finally take the time to properly rehabilitate a serious back injury he suffered several years ago.
Jan shed a few tears Monday as she thought about their next steps – sad to leave her post but happy to leave it in good hands.
“This place is important. What we do here is important,” she said. “Our customers love this place. People are passionate, not about just this place but the product. ... All of this community outreach and support will continue with Dusty and Staci.”