In the early 2000s, I found myself with two things: a shiny new graduate degree and a lot more student loan debt that I bargained for. As a result, I picked up a part-time job at a small running specialty store called Fleet Feet Sports in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where I was living at the time. But what started out as simply a way to earn some extra money, became much more than that. What I experienced at Fleet Feet—both as an employee and as a customer—has stayed with me for a long time and really has changed my perception of what a local store can and should strive to be.

I learned quickly that we weren't selling running shoes and apparel—or rather, we weren't just selling running shoes and apparel. What we were really selling was an experience. Customers can buy running shoes from myriad sources. They came to Fleet Feet because they wanted expertise and they wanted to connect with people: they signed up for their first marathon and wanted training advice; they wanted someone to help them understand what the nagging pain in their shins was and how to deal with it; or they just wanted to be around other people who love running. Customers are savvy enough to know when a store is deliberately trying to sell them an image of who they are. At Fleet Feet, the "image" was really a culture that grew organically and directly from the passion and joy store owners Phil and Jan Fenty had for running.

However, a lot of brands are able to cultivate a unique customer experience. While it was immediately obvious the Fleet Feet brand in Adams Morgan was doing that, over time, I realized the unique customer experience wasn't the most impressive part of the brand. Fleet Feet was an active participant in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. Long before Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, and others were deliberately positioning themselves as communal gathering points, Fleet Feet did so naturally and in a way that helped create a sense of community pride. It organized weekly group runs from the store; it provided free marathon training programs; it actually analyzed customer's stride and gait in order to provide a better assessment of what shoes will fit them best. As fitness specialty stores have proliferated over the last 10-15 years, this type of personal touch has become the norm. But Fleet Feet started doing these things in the 1980s. Not because it was a good business decision (although it was) but because it felt like the right thing to do.

Eventually, I believe many looked to the Adams Morgan Fleet Feet store as more than just a running store—they saw it as a civic leader and part of the fabric of the community. If you think I'm being a bit over the top in my assessment, consider the steady stream of people that I saw during any random 8-hour shift on a Saturday:

  • Soccer moms who wanted to run their first 5k.
  • People new to the area that wanted recommendations on good places to run.
  • The guy who just wanted to talk politics with Phil and get him to sign any number of petitions.
  • The homeless guy that just wanted to give people high-fives.
  • Local celebrities (Sen. Bill Frist, Ted Koppel, and Mayor Anthony Williams all came in to be fitted for shoes during my time at Fleet Feet).

It seemed to me that shopping at Fleet Feet also said something about you. It said you cared about your community. It said you wanted a personal experience and expert advice. And it said you valued being associated with a local institution.

In closing, I want to highlight two other memories that stand out for me from my time as a part-time employee:

  1. People generally didn't just wander in to Fleet Feet. Rather, it was a destination—nearly everyone that came in really wanted to be there.
  2. As a result, the store was constantly packed. On a Saturday, there were likely five to six employees working in an area that was smaller than a studio apartment. And we were often assisting two or three different customers at a time.

The Fleet Feet brand in the Washington, D.C. area managed to capture an elusive mix of passion, community pride, and personal connection that created a memorable customer experience. The results speak for themselves. The franchise opened its doors in Adams Morgan in 1984. Thirty years later, it's in the same spot with only one significant change—Phil and Jan retired about 5 years ago and passed the torch on to their son and daughter-in-law.

Note: Fleet Feet Sports started as a single store in Sacramento, CA in 1976. It has grown to become a national running specialty brand with local franchises across the country.