Ridgefield Running Company
The Ridgefield Running Company (Photo: Ridgefield Running Company)

Ridgefield Running Company Named 2022 Best Running Store in America

It’s the first time a woman-owned store has won the award.

Best Running Store America 2022
Ridgefield Running Company

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Megan Searfoss has always just wanted to share the passion she has for running.

The longtime runner, triathlete, personal trainer and race organizer opened Connecticut’s Ridgefield Running Company in 2014 to create an engaging and inclusive local running community. Their mission is focused on getting people moving forward, no matter their athletic ability, pace, previous experience or any other variable that might seem limiting.

Amid a changing running population, competition from online sales and COVID-19, the store has thrived, mostly because Searfoss and her staff have worked hard to continually adapt while making personal connections with each and every customer that walks in the door and removing any feeling of intimidation.

“If we can get them one nugget of helpful information that can move them forward and keep them in the sport, then we can retain them as a customer,” Searfoss says. “One of the fears of walking into a running store for most people is that they’re afraid someone is going to tell them that they have to do an Ironman or qualify for Boston. That’s only 2 percent of our customer base. Our motto and ethos at our store is ‘Forward Together,’ and we know that one person’s ‘forward’ is different from the next person’s, but we can still benefit from moving forward together.”

Ridgefield Running Company
The staff of the Ridgefield Running Company are celebrating winning Running Store of the Year. (Photo: Ridgefield Running Company)

While their efforts have been appreciated by local runners for years, the store’s successful practices have also drawn national recognition. After being a finalist as the top retail running store in the country in 2021, Ridgefield Running Company was named the 2022 Best Running Store in America on December 1 at The Running Event trade show in Austin, Texas. Searfoss was also featured in the New York Times last year for her business strategies in a post-COVID world.

“Forward Together is all about the community,” says Ridgefield Running Company customer Tim Washer says. “I think that’s what Megan does better than any other organization I have seen. She builds community. It doesn’t take too long before you feel like family.”

Fleet Feet Louisville (Kentucky), Palmetto Running Company (South Carolina), and Shu’s Idaho Running Company (Idaho) were the other finalists for the award this year culled down from an initial list of about 60 stores. The process to pick the top running stores included mystery shopping to evaluate customer service, credit ratings from vendors and the assessing of local programs and community commitment.

Ridgefield Running Company’s win marks the first time a woman-owned store has earned the running store of the year distinction in the 17-year history of the award.

“I’m extremely proud of being a woman-owned business and that’s outwardly very important to me, but in reality I just want to be the best in the business, and it doesn’t matter what my gender is,” Searfoss says. “There are a lot of strong, kick-ass women in the industry, so it’s definitely a big honor. In the industry of run specialty where 65 percent of our consumer base coming into stores is women, it’s really cool to be a store that is owned by women and run by women. I think what a running specialty store can bring to the running community is the ability to connect and the ability to educate in a really open way, and I think women are really receptive to that.”

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A Passion for Being Active, a Mom and a Businesswoman

Searfoss, 57, has run numerous marathons and completed several Ironman triathlons since the mid-1990s. A mother of three daughters, she got her start in the running industry in 2008 when she founded a local running and walking event called “Run Like a Mother” that she later helped spin into a national series. The fun, supportive and inspiring vibe that came from that event led to her to write a book called “See Mom Run: Every Mother’s Guide to Getting Fit and Running Her First 5K.” After that, she opened the running store to create a space to empower, service and interact with the local running community on a regular basis.

She was about to open a second store in Darien, Connecticut, in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. Although the new running season was just getting started and the store was carrying a high inventory, everything came to a halt and suddenly put the entire business in jeopardy.

Searfoss didn’t panic, but instead shifted priorities to serving customers with outdoor fitting sessions, Zoom-based shopping sessions and, with help of her retired husband, Chon, home deliveries. She also quickly created an online sales mechanism to give her longtime customer base an easier way to shop while also being able to be competitive with other online entities and direct-to-consumer sites of running brands.

But the biggest change she made was remodeling the store’s interior by removing the cash wrap counter and transitioning entirely to mobile transactions on iPads. That allowed her staff to create even more intimate connections by engaging directly with customers at the shoe and apparel fitting areas while avoiding the transactional feeling of a traditional checkout station.

“It made it so our space felt more like a living area than a retail area,” Searfoss says of the 1,500-square-foot store. “The only thing that is not online is the ability to connect with people, and I think COVID-19 brought the idea of community back. People are starving to have connections, and the only way a run speciality store is going to stay relevant is by making those connections.”

Creating Connections

Every customer interaction at the store starts with finding out what kinds of shoes that customer needs and wants based on the type of running they do, what models they’ve run in previously and a training and injury history. From there, the staff takes each customer through a process of digitally scanning their feet with the Superfit ME3D program and explaining how the size and shape of their feet might work with shoe models that are brought out during the try-on session.

The store has offered 5km and half marathon training programs and shop-assisted runs (which includes putting hydration stations on group run courses) for many years, but Searfoss says the store has had its most tangible success with its walk-to-run program from new and novice runners and the foundational education that goes with it.

The business of a running retail store is much less about selling shoes, apparel and accessories and much more about serving the running community in myriad ways and making everyone feel welcome. She says it’s all about offering service and advice to help get each individual moving forward in healthy ways — running better, running smarter, running more comfortably or just walking consistently — no matter their specific starting point.

“We’re all capable of running, and I think it’s important for people to realize their local running store doesn’t care if you have or haven’t qualified for the Boston Marathon, but that it really only cares about getting you in the right gear to get you moving forward,” Searfoss says. “Eighty percent of the people who walk in and tell you that ‘I’m not a runner, but …’ and then come in with a big disclaimer of what they aren’t. When someone comes in and tells you what they aren’t, it’s our job to turn them around and let them know what they can be. Our goal is to find people where they are and help them move forward in any way we can.”

Ridgefield Running Company regularly works with the local medical community to help recommend shoes, insoles and accessories to help people run and walk in comfort, especially those who have long-term ailments like arthritis or diabetes. This year it developed an introductory trail running program called Women in the Woods aimed at providing a safe and inclusive opportunity for more women to experience off-road running near Ridgefield.

The store has also taken cues from the newly formed Running Industry Diversity Coalition to find and cater to runners where they are, including BIPOC communities outside of its original customer base. For example, it has worked with Brooks and New Balance to help outfit the high school cross country and track teams in nearby Bridgeport.

Searfoss says she’s grateful for her staff — which is 90 percent women and includes a range of individuals from single moms to part-time college kids — as well as the numerous connections she’s made in the running industry. Among them are many friends and mentors at other running stores, including Kathy Dalby, the CEO of Pacers Running in Washington D.C., and Kris Hartner, the founder of Naperville Running Company in suburban Chicago.

Searfoss eventually opened the second store in Darien and has grown that into a success based on the same core principles of the original location. But in 2021, the running industry had to deal with numerous supply chain issues that made the retail business even more challenging. Shoe models were late arriving, stores had less inventory in stock and specific sizes or colors of items were sometimes hard to find. Over the past year, stores have been inundated with too much inventory, which has resulted in more online sales than ever before.

“There are more challenges now than ever before,” Searfoss says. “It’s been a super wild ride based on how hard we’ve worked, but also with how sweet it is. I don’t think I would be in retail if it wasn’t a running specialty store. Really what I get most out of it are the connections. What brings me in everyday is my excitement to work with my incredible staff and having the connections we have with our customers, and that’s what makes our business so different.

“Hopefully we’re changing lives by showing the benefit of running and what can happen when they engage in it,” she adds. “That’s what running can do for everyone.”

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Lead Photo: Ridgefield Running Company

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