On a recent Friday morning, customers were coming into Runners Soul at a steady flow.
Suddenly, a woman and her high school-aged son from Connell entered the store and walked right up to Scott Conrad, who owns the Kennewick establishment.
“My son is running cross country and he needs new shoes. I’ve been told you are the Shoe Whisperer,” she said.
Conrad got a little embarrassed, and he took a ribbing from store manager Carly Migas.
“We call him the Shoe Fairy,” she joked.
Conrad had the young man step up and down in place a number of times. Then, with his hands on his knees, he watched the youngster as he walked the length of the store back and forth two times.
The teen has a different step and needs a specific shoe, in a larger size.
Needless to say, Conrad sold the runner and his mother a pair of quality running shoes.
It’s a story that repeats itself every day. Walkers and runners come in, seeking shoes that will keep up with their unique physiology.
It’s a scenario that Conrad thanks his lucky stars for every day, considering the pandemic that has hampered all local business the past 18 months.
In March 2020, when the world shut down, Runners Soul was considered “non-essential” and couldn’t open even on a limited basis.
With no revenue coming in and bills piling up, Conrad’s dream of owning a small business disappearing.
“I was scared,” Conrad said.
In May 2020, two months into the lockdown, Runners Soul offered curbside service available and very limited in-store hours. But it was still struggling.
Fortune smiled when Shalom Powell posted a story on Supporting Tri-Cities Businesses, a Facebook group dedicated to steering customers to local businesses.
Powell recounted how the pandemic was battering the business: “His sales have taken a tremendous hit, not just from the lockdown, but also because of the cancellation of school sports (track) and local fun runs. He applied for the government small business loan himself, but not having a larger team, resources and banking relationships, he was declined over application errors and then the government money ran out. Scott is a valued member of our community that is doing his best to protect everyone AND put food on his table.”
And after reading the Facebook post, a customer got connected Conrad with a banker who helped him reapply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, forgivable loans aimed at preserving jobs in the early days of the pandemic.
“I applied at the end of June again, and got a little money in July to help,” he said.
Powell’s post to Supporting Tri-Cities Businesses was the publicity Runners Soul needed.
“I got a huge response,” Conrad said. “People came into the store and bought shoes. It brought tears to my eyes. One gentleman came in a bought a number of gift certificates for us to give away. Our community has stood by a lot of local retail businesses.”
Selling shoes is his avocation
Conrad was part of the running crowd in Spokane. He competed in 31 Bloomsday events. At one point, he was the second seed in the race — getting his time down to 43 minutes, from an original finish of 65 minutes, in the 12-kilometer race.
At 59, he no longer runs.
“I used to be a runner a long, long time ago. Now I’m a waddler,” he says.
But he realized he needed to find something that brought out his passion in life.
“When I was 18, I knew (that selling shoes) was my calling,” he said. “I knew I needed to get an education, get a degree and make money.”
Conrad became a shoe guru in the Spokane area, working for the Athlete’s Foot, Kimmel Athletic and at one point being a New Balance shoe rep.
He also realized that to make it a career, he needed to own his own store.
On his last job, Conrad worked for Runners Soul in Spokane.
“I told the owner I’d like to buy one of his stores,” said Conrad. “He wouldn’t do that. But one day he asked me what I thought of the Tri-Cities.”
That was 2006, when a Runners Soul store was opened on Clearwater Avenue in Kennewick.
Conrad moved here to manage the store, with the eventual chance to buy it.
“That happened in 2010,” Conrad said. “In 2015, I paid off the bank loan.”
Customer service is key
Runners Soul does not have the huge inventory that a box store might have.
“People come to seek our store out for customer service,” said Conrad.
The pandemic, he said, has forced many customers to shop online. But a shoe needs to fit well to work. Working with an expert fitter is the key to a good experience both in the store and out in the world.
“I think people enjoy talking to other people,” he said.
Conrad employs between seven to nine on his staff. That staff as well does a great job of working with the customer, knowing the ins and outs of each shoe brand Runners Soul sells.
Conrad and Migas train the employees.
“It takes a couple of months to get them trained,” Conrad said. “I give them a journal, and talk a little each shift about the products.”
Like the Santa Claus who sends customers from Macy’s to Gimbel’s if the right product is available, Conrad and his staff have no qualms of sending a customer in the right direction if he knows of a better product.
On this day, Conrad didn’t have what a customer was looking for. But he sent them up the road to REI, which he knew carried the product.
“Your customer service means a lot,” Conrad said. “I might send them to Dick’s or REI. When they’re ready, they’ll come back here.
“I believe in honesty and a good heart. I truly believe in karma.”
Even though Conrad said, “I got panicky,” he said Runners Soul will survive the pandemic.
“Sales are better than they were in 2020, but a little less than they were 2019,” he said. “You’ve got these rollercoaster rides.”
He’s not out of the woods.
“The next hurdle in retail that we have to overcome is inventory,” he said.
Or rather, lack of inventory.
The supply chain for numerous products — including athletic shoes — has been disrupted. Factories aren’t running near full capacity. Covid-19 is affecting production plants. There are not enough dock workers to unload ships sitting in harbor waters with plenty of product.
There aren’t enough truckers to transport the products.
“November, December and January could be tough,” Conrad said.
He’s not giving up
While it’s a concern, Conrad is not giving up. He loves to come to work every day.
“I’m not looking to get rich,” he said. “I want to make enough money to pay my bills and get my two kids through college.”
And he loves the customer interaction.
“To reach a customer who comes into the store with possible aches and pain from not having the right footwear, and then we get them a shoe that makes their body more comfortable, I love that,” he said.
“Or a mom or dad who come in wanting to change their lifestyle, and now they’re jogging two to three miles a day. Being a part of your success story makes me feel good.”
The Shoe Whisperer wouldn’t want it any other way.
Runners Soul is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
Runners Soul: 5020 W. Clearwater Ave., Kennewick; 509-783-7463; runnerssoulwa.com.
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