After graduating college in 1998, Chris Farley began work at a database management job in a government office, and hated it. “I was into running,” he says. When he saw signs asking for part-time work for runners in a store called Pacers, he had to apply. It was an instant match. In 2002, he quit his database management job, took a huge pay cut, moved back in with his parents, and set off on a quest to open his own store like Pacers.
Before he could save up enough money for his own store, the owner of Pacers took him aside and asked him to buy that store. His parents saved the day. “Not only am I living at their house pretty much rent-free, now I’m asking them for money to help me do this,” Farley says. He made his best sales pitch to convince his parents to go in with him, they mortgaged their house for it, and in June 2003, Farley was the proud owner of Pacers Running.
Going All In
“Our success was because I didn’t have a backup plan,” says Farley. “I needed to have some pressure on me to make it go. When the going really got tough, there’s no options of a Plan B.” He didn’t succeed because he was smarter or more educated than others, but simply because there was no other option except success. Farley believes that if you give yourself the option of having outs and backup plans, you’ll inevitably take them.
Challenges of Growing Pacers
Farley knew the market in his area well, and knew it was red-hot. He decided that he could open a store in any town that had a Whole Foods and things would go fine. Unfortunately, not every town and market was the same. He opened one store in Silver Spring and had to close it about four years later. “What we realized was that we really needed to be immersed in the areas and the communities that we had retail,” says Farley. Satellite stores without a true community ambassador were just not going to work.
Building the Core Community
“There is nothing more important than our brand and our community,” says Farley. To help connect with the community, Farley launched a podcast. It has helped to build brand equity and spread their message. “We want to make you the best version of yourself through running,” Farley says. “That message was lost on a lot of people early on.” The podcast helped them establish that message. “It took awhile for us to understand that the brand was so important, that the community was so important, and once we did that, we made decisions based on that,” he says. “So opening a new store, yes, we’ve got to be profitable, but does it fit who we are as a brand? Will it help our brand grow?” They open, move, and close stores based not on profits, but on community, brand, and what’s best for their customers.
Competing with Online Companies
Competing with large online stores is tough. People can buy their shoes on Amazon. “But our competitive advantage is that they’re never going to be able to match our connection with that community, connection with that customer,” says Farley. Pacers is more than just a shoe store, they actually care about their customers. They want to get you into shape, get you into the right pair of shoes, get you out running, and talk about your running goals with you. They’ll even go out and run with you personally if that’s what you need. Amazon can’t deliver that to your doorstep.
Amazon can sell a pair of shoes. But Pacers can sell an experience.
Finding the Perfect Employees
“Our biggest reason for our success is our employees,” Farley says. “There’s no question about it. We can’t do it without them.” Many retailers have a ceiling for their employees in that the highest they can achieve is a management level. A number of Pacers employees have gone on to become local representatives of shoe companies, even international shoe companies. “We were invested in making sure that they were able to get to their next step career-wise,” Farley explains. “We know that retail and events are not necessarily going to be your last stop.” His employees work hard, gain great experience, develop a deep pool of contacts, and are able to participate in not just retail, but many business principles including marketing and finance.
The culture of the company is also great. Customers can tell when someone is just there for a paycheck and when someone is there because they believe in the mission and are entrenched in the culture. “We’re nothing without our culture,” says Farley. “We’re nothing without our employees, we’re nothing without our brand, but we’re nothing without our culture.” Part of that culture is giving employees a long leash to do what they think needs to be done. They’ve even let an employee drive an hour each way to deliver a pair of shoes to a customer who walked out with the wrong size. Pacers paid for their time and gas, and they gave that employee the ability and leash to make sure that customer had the correct pair of shoes.
Races and Events
In 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit, Pacers put on a Gulf Coast Relief Run to raise money for relief efforts. They thought they’d have a couple hundred people show up, but 4,000 people came to run for Katrina and they raised $125,000 for relief efforts. “Not only did we raise money for this one-time tragic event, we’ve got a community of people who want to be part of something,” Farley says. After realizing that this was a way to positively impact the community and grow their base, they began starting other races. Now they have 18 road races, including the upcoming Jingle All the Way 5k and 15k on December 10th, which starts in front of the Washington Monument and follows a beautiful course through downtown.
Get in Touch and Get Involved
You can find races, podcasts, and ways to get involved at the Pacers website, or email Farley with questions. He’ll either find the answer or find someone who knows the answer, but either way, he’ll get you whatever help you need.