Baltimore’s Charm City Run adapts and thrives amid Covid-19

By: Brian Metzler

OK, so the running retail business has been a tough grind over the past year, but it’s also been flourishing from an online perspective.

The collection of Charm City Run stores in Maryland built by Josh and Kara Levinson are one of the success stories of the past two decades among specialty run shops. They opened their first community-based shop in Timonium north of Baltimore in 2002 and saw it thrive based on good customer service and a friendly local vibe. They replicated that experience and opened new shops around the state with great success, earning national recognition as the Running Store of the Year in 2016.

Amid the changes in the running industry prior last spring’s arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, business was good but not without challenges. Charm City Run had recently closed one of its downtown Baltimore locations, but it was still doing well based on its other six thriving locations, an adjacent events business, and a tiny amount of online sales.

When Covid-19 arrived last March, all of the stores had to close for more than two months. While the Levinsons were concerned, they did their best to adapt. Realizing they had to up their online game, they invested time, effort and resources into boosting sales from their own website.

“Before you had to have an online site to represent the brand, but it wasn’t a real business,” Josh Levinson said this week. “We had been selling online for a while, but it wasn’t very good. The site didn’t look good and the interface wasn’t great. The pictures of shoes weren't the same size and we were only offering about 10 to 20 percent of our catalog. We were essentially doing zero business for a long time before we improved it.”

Levinson said the convergence of the pandemic, better integration with sales software and new e-commerce tools all came together at the right moment. Offering more shoes, apparel and accessories via an “endless aisle” with a better user interface and Fitted technology has already shown marked success borne out in sales analytics.

Before the stores re-opened late last spring, Charm City Run was able to publicize its updated online sales and an offer of home delivery within a 10-mile radius through social media and email newsletters. Even after partial re-opening with limited occupancy and Covid-19 health and safety precautions, it was already seeing an increase in business, Levinson said.

The noticeable increase in recreational running was apparent, but so was the notion that the store was successfully getting its existing customers and other local consumers to shop online via Charm City Run. And that’s a testament to the community connections the stores and its staff had worked so hard to build for years.

“There was a huge uptick,” Levinson said. “It was partly that we were offering more to our customers, but I think people really doubled down on local. Nobody wants to see a lot of local business go away, but it’s not easy to survive. Local stores aren’t just going to stay around. They need to be supported. I am proud of our employees and that we have persevered.”

By the time the holidays rolled around, Charm City Run was so busy fulfilling online orders that it started to impact the ability to perform its daily business in the store. Levinson said there were many late nights in which he and his staff were fulfilling orders to make sure they could get shoes delivered (or shipped) the next day.

“When we delivered a pair of shoes, we included a Charm City bumper sticker and a hand-written thank note to thank our customers for choosing to shop with us, Levinson said. “There was no ‘woe is me’ from us and no guilt trip about having to come shop at our stores. We knew everyone was suffering and challenged by Covid. All we did is say, ‘Thank you.’”

By the end of the year, Charm City Run was still down about 14 percent overall — a rough year, for sure, considering the growth it had experienced in prior years — but it would have been down more than 20 percent without the boost in online sales, Levinson said. Overall, online business grew from 1 percent of Charm City’s revenue to about 8 percent, a dramatic boost that has continued to surge into 2021 even as the stores have finally fully reopened.

Levinson estimates that business is up about 6 percent overall so far this year after a bleak, weather-impacted February and a very robust March.

“Considering what we were thinking last March, we’re pretty happy to be where we are right now,” Levinson said. “I think Covid kind of forced a lot of things to happen, both in our business and among runners. We have a lot of people telling us, ‘I used to walk, I used to run, and now I’m finally back running.’ I am thrilled to see so many people out walking and running, kids, families, people walking dogs. It’s good to see the customer again and know people are out running.”