Foot Tools fits nationally ranked to first time runners
Foot Tools’ owner John Lawson with staff member, Lacey Van Der Marel.
Graham Paine, Metroland Media Group Burlington Post
It’s been 15 years since John Lawson and his wife Paula Desjardins opened their “little hole in the wall.” “We’d always been interested in running, and John has always been a businessman,” explained Desjardins. And so, on Aug. 1, 1997, the couple set out to grab a niche of the specialty shoe market with Foot Tools, all 400 square feet of it. It’s since doubled in size, but the downtown James Street store is still small and unobtrusive. Its market reach, however, knows no bounds. Through trial and error, marketing savvy and unfailing customer service, Desjardins and Lawson have successfully carved out a place in a highly competitive market. Their formula has proved to be a dynamic mix. Many of their clients are nationally and provincially ranked track and field, road racing and triathlon athletes.
Until they catapulted into the Olympic stratosphere and garnered high-profile sponsors, 2012 Olympic marathoner Reid Coolstaet and hurdler Priscilla Lopes Schliep, bronze medalist in Beijing, were customers. When Puma couldn’t find what they needed closer to home, the company contacted Foot Tools directly to obtain a special Usain Bolt shoe, which was needed for a promotional event with the Olympic sprinter in Miami. Customers come from far and wide. Foot Tools fits nationally ranked to first time runners. “They’ll drive three or four hours from Kingston to come to our store just to pick up one shoe because they know we got it, or I’ll get it for them,” said Lawson.
Foot Tools also ships from one end of the country to the other, up to the Yukon and into the U.S. “For a small company we’ve got quite a bit of a reach.” Even staffers have been known to make out-of-town deliveries. “I will do all I can to look after my customers,” said Lawson.
“Our hope was just to make an impact on the running community here and to get people out moving and thinking about fitness and working on their speed, just getting out there and doing it,” said Desjardins. Instead of striving for big numbers, Foot Tools settled for a niche, said Lawson. “We’ve found what’s working for us,” he said. “We’ve become a technical store, we focus on technical; we’re basically focusing on stuff other people aren’t selling. It’s not a big market but you want to make sure you get a big chunk of that niche and we’ve managed to do that over the years, through a lot of trial and error.”
Technical means faster, lighter footwear, track and field spikes and technical apparel, said Desjardins. “We’re fortunate enough that we’ve been on the top of the market with some of the more technical footwear… when it comes to racing flats and spikes, we’re right on top,” said Lawson. “We spend a lot of time off site with young people. We’ll probably go to about 15 different track and field meets and cross-country meets each year. That’s more of our direction, going after the young people.”
It’s not unusual at these events, said Desjardins, for Lawson to hold court with a captive audience of athletes and coaches, soliciting information and opinions. “What I found out basically is they can’t get access to the quality of spikes they want,” said Lawson. “A lot of them will go down to the States or go on the Internet. “There are a lot of diverse runners in this area. We’ve got some great 100-metre runners right up to some great 100-mile runners; it’s a big, diverse area of runners. This is a hotbed of mid-distance and sprint spikes (runners).”
Foot Tools is a committed corporate citizen, pumping sponsorships donations and prizes into a number of community meets and races, and is one of the sponsors of the McMaster University cross-country team. Footwear has obviously changed over the past 15 years, but in the last two years alone there’s been an industry revolution, said Lawson.
“I can’t believe the changes in it. The clunky type of shoe is pretty well basically disappearing like a dinosaur. I would say the younger people are starting to drive that; young people do not like the traditional heavy shoe. They’re going with lighter. There’s still that marathon group though that will wear three or four pairs of shoes a year and they want the heavier protection but that’s changing and changing quite rapidly. Some of the companies are almost completely dropping the heavier shoes.” Clothing has become softer, more colourful and fashionable, with improved wicking (sweat management) technology, said Desjardins. “You can be technical, but very fashionable as well.” Throwing an old T-shirt over a pair of shorts doesn’t cut it anymore. “There is before, during and after running wear,” she said.
How do the owners maintain their stellar reputation?
“Definitely service. I know we go the extra mile,” said Desjardins.
Lawson gives the nod to his knowledgeable staff as well, Lacey Van Der Marel, who went to Olympic trials this year, and Brianne Crites who handles the store’s social media and marketing. “Fortunately, we have young people (staff). Without social media, forget it. We’re starting to learn that. Plus, off site we go to events, we bought a van just for that. We really try to go after the young market. The young people are more knowledgeable, they see this stuff on the Internet, they’re very savvy, that group between 19 and 35, they come in and know as much about a shoe as we do.”
When customers come in with that information, staff can explain to them how to use it properly, said Van Der Marel.
“We’ve got the technical know-how to explain to them how to use it,” she added.
Store manager Patte Beltrame, a 53-year-old mother of four, has been running since she was a kid. The all-around athlete and long-distance (running) junkie, recently placed 9th overall in the 50-kilometre Canadian Trail Championships in her age group, and was invited by Northface to run a leg of the grueling Canadian Death Race in Calgary.
“We can have 10 different people come in and they will be from 10 different disciplines and we can help them,” said Beltrame.
Foot Tools also cornered the wetsuit market in this area by jumping into it when no one else was selling them.
“There are a lot more triathlons. We have a young partner who was able to get us into that market; we just took the gamble and have been fortunate that market’s really grown in this area,” said Lawson.
Foot Tools can accommodate national-level athletes down to “some kid doing his first race in high school,” said John.