It was 1972, and American Frank Shorter crossed the finish line of the 1972 Olympics in first place. It was a victory that propelled his professional running career to new heights while simultaneously spurring a running boom that would sweep across the US over the next two decades.
It was during the boom—in 1976—that friends and school teachers Sally Edwards and Elizabeth Jansen decided to open a running store in Sacramento, Cali. At the time, it was a novel idea; less than a handful of such stores existed. But all of them were owned by men. It was unheard of for two entrepreneurial women to open a retail sports store in the mid-70s and yet, against all the odds, they did it.
“We both decided that we didn’t want to teach and we were looking to do something else,” says Jansen.
So why not start a shoe business? The pair were already into sports and shoes; it made sense (to them), but not so much to the culture around them.
“We were young women, and so we weren’t supposed to be successful in that field at all,” Jansen says. Yet they persisted.
When they did open shop, it was in a decaying Victorian house in the poorest neighborhood in Sacramento (today it sits smack dab in the middle of booming midtown).
“We started the whole company on $2000,” says Edwards, "because we were 28 years old and we didn’t have any money!”
With no credit, the pair still somehow managed to order $20,000 worth of shoes—never mind they were all one brand. According to Edwards, if they sold just five pairs per day, they counted it a victory. That's because five pairs made them $100, and $100 was their break-even point.
Eventually five pairs of shoes turned into eight, to 10, to 20. As business grew, they opened more shoe accounts and word of Fleet Feet spread. They built a racing team, hosted events and started acquiring a regular customer base that not only came to shop at the Victorian house on J Street, but also to run and hang out. Fleet Feet, it seemed, was quickly becoming a Sacramento running hub.
It wasn’t long before Edwards and Jansen started thinking about opening a second store.
“The ingredients at that time were a college town, enough distance away that it wouldn’t interfere with our current customer base and something we could start o a shoestring,” says Edwards, "because that’s how we’d started everything to date.”
After an extensive search, they opened Fleet Feet number two in Chico, Cali., a little over an hour and a half away. From there, things began to snowball. The store was a quick success, and people began to approach to young business owners about franchising.
Jansen and Edwards talked it over. They weighed the pros and cons of opening a third company store. In the end, they decided it would wear them too thin. Franchising made sense. But, they had to do it the Fleet Feet way. According to Jansen, that often meant turning people down. They wouldn’t hand over a business to just anyone.
“We didn’t want people who were just looking for a financial investment,” says Jansen. That’s because Fleet Feet was (and is to this day) a community-oriented business driven by people who love running and love their communities.
The first franchises opened in California. Then, one day, Edwards received a call from Phil Fenty in Washington D.C. “That was 3000 miles away from all of our stores," says Edwards. "I told him it was a big risk for him to open a Fleet Feet, but he persisted.”
Fenty says he had a strong desire to live and work in his community and to help people get in shape. It’s the very reason he sought out Fleet Feet in the first place. Sure, buying a franchise meant that he’d have to take out a loan against his house and that if business failed, he and his wife would lose their home. So, he vowed to make it work. To him, success was the only option on the table.
Fenty's drive to succeed against all odds was at the very root of the entire company. ... And it still is.
“Fleet Feet is a brand with a 42-year overnight success story,” says today’s CEO Joey Pointer. “Some people still think it’s nuts that anyone would want to work in retail right now, but we’re having the time of our lives. We’re helping to provide an unbelievable experience to our customers while working to bring communities together and helping people live healthier lives.”
Eventually, both Jansen and Edwards exited the business. The brand continued to evolve as the retail landscape changed. Apparel became more important, as did accessibility for women. In fact, by 1998 women’s shoes outsold men’s for the first time ever.
In 2003 Fleet Feet developed a proprietary fit process to better help customers find the shoes they needed. From there, brand partnerships evolved with New Balance, then Superfeet, then Balega and, soon after, many more (brand partnerships are a still-evolving program today).
New running programs started for beginner runners, too. “We became relevant to a whole new group of people,” says Robyn Goby, Fleet Feet’s current VP of Development. A position that helped further Fleet Feet's development.
Today, Fleet Feet's training programs are still expanding through Fleet Feet Running Club. The fit process (and entire retail experience) is evolving, too, as technology evolves.
“I believe that one day we’ll no longer have a back room full of shoes," says Pointer," I believe that we’ll measure your feet and talk with you, and then you’ll go next door and get some coffee while we 3D-print a pair of shoes for you that is unique to both of your feet."
Since 1972, Fleet Feet has grown from a single store in Sacramento to 170-plus locations across the country. So despite the shrinking role of retail in most communities, Fleet Feet continues to expand. That’s because it’s a brand focussed on people and experience over product.
“Some brands do good to do well, but we do well so that we can do good,” says Pointer. “We’re trying to leave society in a better place than where we found it."