Retail report card: running shoes

A survey of the service, selection, presentation and product knowledge of the sales personnel of five shoe stores in New York has been conducted. The superstores, Paragon Sporting Goods, had the highest rating because of its abundant selection of merchandise, fast service and cordial personnel. The performance of the other four stores, Herman’s Sporting Goods, The Sports Authority, Athlete’s Foot and Super Runner’s Shop, are presented.

On a sunny spring day in Manhattan, the Mystery Shopper searches the streets of the city to find the perfect pair of running shoes.

It’s a beautiful spring day in New York, the kind that brings runners out in droves to pound the not-so-mean streets of the city. And Mystery Shopper would like to be out there among them, except that my shabby running shoes have finally broken down to a point of no return. One more time of striking worn-down rubber against pavement, and I fear my freshly healed legs will once again be revisited by the demon of chronic shin splints.

So instead of heading toward the loop in Central Park, I make my way downtown to search for a new pair of running shoes that will let me join the throngs of runners, walkers, skaters and cyclists looking to escape, temporarily, from the concrete jungle.

My first stop is the expanded Herman’s Sporting Goods store on the outermost corner of Union Square. The bi-level store is designed with a light and airy feel, with an open staircase leading you downstairs to the footwear department. Spread across the back wall are several rows of athletic shoes for plantar fasciitis. I head toward the bright neon lights that highlight the “Women’s” section, and spotlight the various footwear categories.

The only problem is when I actually walk over to the “Running” area and discover that a good portion of the shoes fit in about as well as a tourist on a subway platform. Meshed among the so-called running display are aerobic, walking and even cross-training shoes.

When I do finally find actual running shoes, the selection is somewhat sparse. My choices are already limited to four brands – Nike, Reebok, Asics and New Balance – with a few models in each.

Picking up a shoe, I look around for some help, and spot one lone clerk assisting other customers. Patiently, I stroll in front of the display, peering around every few seconds to draw some attention. It doesn’t work. I stand there some more. Still no response.


Service                            C

Selection                          D

Presentation                       B

Product Knowledge                  C

Finally, the weary-looking sales assistant approaches, and asks if I need some help. I tell him that I’ve just recovered from an injury, and am looking to get back into running again.

Upon hearing that chronic shin splints were the cause of my temporary hiatus from the sport, the sales assistant instantly recommends the store’s top-of-the-line shoe, the Nike Air Max2. It takes my breath away – mostly because I spot the $129.99 price tag on the bottom.

When the color returns to my face, he explains that the shoe is extremely well cushioned, which should help protect against injury. Convinced that it will act as an insurance against future pain, I ask to see it in my size, a relatively average six. Alas – they don’t have any more sixes. He recommends the Nike Air Triax, which offers slightly less cushioning, at a decidedly lower price – $89. Another snag – also no sixes in stock. He has run out of options.

I sigh, and begin to turn away when I spot a sign telling customers to call a special 800-number if the store doesn’t have the shoe they want. Too late – I am determined to get out and start running without any more delays.

Leaving Herman’s, I walk across the street and up to the doors of Paragon Sporting Goods, New York’s original “superstore” and one of the city’s preeminent sporting goods retailers. I soon realize that it justly deserves its reputation.

Downstairs at Paragon is an abundant selection of footwear, with most of one wall devoted to women’s styles and a large section of running shoes. Nine brands are spread across the wall, including off-road and racing flat styles.

A sales clerk immediately approaches, and I give him the spiel. He asks more specifically about my injury, how long I’ve been out, when it started, what type of shoe I was wearing before. Quicker than a podiatrist can say “orthotics,” he tells me that I need a shoe with ample cushioning, but also some measure of stability. He recommends the lower-priced Nike Triax, sighting its improved stability over the more expensive version.

While I try on the shoe, this time in my size, he also volunteers to bring out an Asics model for comparison. With a little prompting, he gives me a case history on almost every type of running shoe, which brands have improved cushioning, how the materials differ, what the fundamental features are in each. This man has spent a lot of time studying footwear.

He leads me over to a set of treadmills to let me test out my two selections. I’m satisfied with the Triax, until I realize that my wallet is not, as I had imagined, in my backpack, but instead lying somewhere in my apartment.

Instead of staring me down with a dirty look, my sales clerk very nicely promises to put the bunion shoes in a holding bin until my return. I guiltily turn away, and head back home to search for my missing wallet.


Service                            A

Selection                          A

Presentation                       A-

Product Knowledge                  A

At this point, my feet are weary, and I’ve promised myself a break from the troubles of shoe shopping. But since I also don’t have enough money to hop on the subway home, I begin the trek back uptown to my apartment. On the way, I pass by the midtown Manhattan location of The Sports Authority (TSA).

What the hell, I think, I might as well check out what they have to offer. I probably shouldn’t have bothered.

Even with its somewhat limited city space, TSA offers a fairly cavernous version of its superstore. The footwear department easily takes up a quarter of the floor. Knowing TSA’s self-service approach to shopping, I quickly spot the women’s section, which is somewhat hidden toward the back of the store. There, I begin to scan the stacks of boxes for running shoes.


Service                            C

Selection                          B

Presentation                       C

Product Knowledge                  C

Although there is an ample selection – roughly two dozen types – the majority are again concentrated in a few brands, namely Nike and Reebok. And again, there are some questionable merchandising choices, with lifestyle shoes for high arches like the Reebok Classics mixed in with decidedly more technical running lines.

TSA also makes an effort to break footwear out by brands, with end displays featuring Nike, Reebok and New Balance. Among these, however, it’s difficult to determine which are men’s and which are women’s, and what the fundamental characteristics are of each. Plastic tags make some attempt to explain, but after a while, my eyes begin to glaze over.

Frustrated, I begin to look for some assistance, but there is none to be found. I wait some more, growing increasingly impatient before I spy one “Authority” in another section. I wave him over and ask him what he knows about running shoes, to which he cavalierly responds, “You run in them,” and promises to get me someone else to help.

The second “Authority” who approaches is more familiar with the merchandise. He also recommends the Nike Air Max shoes because of their cushioning, but mentions the store doesn’t have the top-end model. He searches the stacks of boxes for some other selections, pointing out some of the salient features in each brand, but can’t seem to find what I need. Finally, he recommends I try going to a Lady Foot Locker to test out the Air Max 2.

I take his advice, and leave without a purchase.

Freshly armed with my wallet, I leave my apartment and walk over to a nearby Athlete’s Foot store, where I am greeted by a few different sales personnel. Although the store does not have a wide selection of running shoes, they are merchandised together in one column, with a relatively deep assortment of brands.


Service                            A

Selection                          B

Presentation                       B

Product Knowledge                  A

A salesperson volunteers his assistance, and begins by measuring my feet to make sure the size I’ve given him is right. He then offers to bring out a few different types of shoes for me to try out. He also warms my heart by explaining that more expensive doesn’t always mean better, and that if I find a lower-priced shoe that feels comfortable, that’s just as well.

A few minutes later, he returns, laden down with a half dozen pair of shoes for me to try out, explaining the benefits and features of each. Together, we narrow down the choices to the Saucony Shadow 6000, which he explains is an updated version of the Shadow 5000 with improved cushioning and firm stability, and once again, the Nike Triax.

He also extols the virtue of the Nike Air Max 2, but apologizes that the store does not have my size in stock. At this point, the elusive Air Max 2 has become something of a quest, and I am determined to at least try it on before I buy. Sweetened by the store’s service, I promise to return if I go with another model.


Service                            A

Selection                          A

Presentation                       D

Product Knowledge                  A

Finally, I walk into the door of Super Runner’s Shop, which is something of a nirvana for runners in the area. The small, intimate store features a wide range of styles, but packs them all together in one small merchandising column. Stacked on top of each other are rows of running shoes, but it takes a few moments to determine which are the women’s shoes.

Quickly enough, I am rescued by a sales assistant who, hearing my story, promptly pulls the Air Max 2 Light – an even newer version of the Air Max 2 – from the wall. He declares it perfect for my needs, and once I try it on, I am apt to agree.

Still, I ask for some more choices, and am given a couple of other pairs to try out. I’m even encouraged to take the shoe for a spin around the block, a fairly trusting offer considering the reputation of New York.

We chat some more about running in the city, and about how to train for long distance goals like the marathon. I like the club feeling of the store, and the way the Air Max Light – which still run a hefty $130 – feel on my feet. Declaring my day a success, I pay for the shoes, and head out for an evening run, depositing my old sneakers in the nearest trash bin.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *