Root Runners in Sparta, NJ
Guest: Matt Vilardo
Topics: Root Runners, retail
Chris Ressa 0:01
This is retail retold the story of how that story ended up in your neighborhood. I’m your host, Chris ReSSA. And I invite you to join my conversation with some of the retail industry’s biggest influencers. This podcast is brought to you by DLC management. Before jumping into the podcast, we have a quick new segment called Data drops brought to you by police or.ai Today’s data drop is all about grocery players like Publix, Albertsons and Kroger saw significant strength during the pandemic. And there were indications that this was just the beginning. Looking at monthly visit data year over year shows that Publix averaged a massive visit jump of 17.3% Albertsons and Kroger also saw impressive average monthly jumps of 5.4% and 5.3%. Trader Joe’s saw visits up 11% in July 2021 When compared to July 2019. The same pattern held true for Safeway, Ralph’s giant and Harris Teeter, two brands that are increasingly grabbing attention. Are Lidl, and all the their expansions are delivering results on the visit front with both seeing massive year over year gains in weekly visits nationwide. One brand that truly leveraged the pandemic to redefine its position is Winn Dixie. They are 18.4% higher than July 2019. This is fascinating because at the end of the day, there were some people who thought when pandemic restriction started to go down, that grocery traffic would go back. And I think there’s a lot of reasons that but one I think is really simple is that the lifestyle of people has changed. During the pandemic, people learned to cook at home, they started to cook at home, there were less restaurant options. There’s still less restaurant options. And because people are working in a hybrid model where sometimes they work in the office, some times they work at home, personally, you know, our grocery bill increased because of the amount. I was home during the pandemic and I used to only be at the office. I think grocers also invested heavily in their stores. They made them better than they were before and enhance the shopping experience. I think the grocery sector is in a really good spot. Stay tuned as we continue to drop more data drops from Play store.ai Thanks. Welcome to retail retold everyone. Today I’m joined by Matt billaudot. Matt is the owner of Route runners in Sparta New Jersey. I am excited for Matt to be on the show. Matt is a longtime family friend. I’ve known Matt for over 20 years. So I’m excited for him to be here. Welcome, Matt.
Matt Vilardo 2:57
Hey, thanks for having me, Chris. It’s truly an honor and privilege to be with you and to get to see, after so many years. It’s wonderful. So thanks. But yeah, I mean, I’m 33 years old, I have a beautiful wife of two kids. I consider myself to be like a nomadic entrepreneur. And think I finally found my place to stay in retail, surprisingly. And yes, after multiple startups and rental properties and all that fun stuff. I found my place in retail and I’m looking forward to being here and talking about that with you. When did your store open? We officially opened the doors may 27 2021. Yeah, you know, it’s pretty it’s been pretty wild.
I imagine. So family’s good. I mean,
everyone’s healthy sister, boy, Nicole, and she’s got three kids now she won from two to three and you know, they’re good. You know, so definitely blessed him amongst everything that’s going on to be able to have healthy family and opportunities to take on so.
So your your mom is one of the people that one day down the line. Some point? I’m going to have to Oh, she’s was amazing to me. Your mom was truly incredible to me. I don’t know if you know this, you might know this. You may do you know your mom bought me a car.
I did. Yeah.
Mom bought me a car. It was a crazy time in my life. And your mom was just fed up and she bought me a car and we went and she was willing to buy me like sure pretty nice car but we ended up with a 1997 Toyota Corolla at the time and it was perfect for me that I needed. That car lasted me like six years through college. So your mom’s What are the people? I? Oh, so
he’s got a heart. Yeah. And she loves these. And that’s for sure. Yeah. All right,
the Corolla. All right. We have a section called Clear the air. I’ve got three personal questions for you. Are you ready? All right. All right. Question one. When is the last time you tried something for the first time?
Is having a second child count as?
Sure, sure. But I think that’s I don’t think so. Actually, I’m gonna sit because you already had a child since not the first time.
Right, right. I feel like a second one. That’s just change. But alright, so fair enough. So let’s look. How about opening a retail store during a global pandemic?
Sure. That’s a great answer. And we’re gonna get into more of that. Perfect. Okay, question two. What is one skill you don’t possess? But
wish you did? It’s excellent. It’s a good one. Honestly, I always think about this a lot. And in terms of that skill, and I really would like to be a half of the skill set of a licensed plumber. I just feel like there’s always a plumbing issue going on. And I have the basics, but I want to be like a good solder. I want to work with packs. I want to fix furnace on demand. I don’t know why if that specific segment of home ownership is where is where I’m lacking, and we’d like that expertise. So my final answer is capabilities of a licensed plumber.
That’s a that’s an amazing answer. And no one’s ever said that. So I love the answer. Okay. Question three is one of my favorite questions. What is one thing most people agree with? But you do not. Okay.
I got one for you. Okay, so I think a lot of people and I’ve actually been told this, they tell me that it’s I’m an American, because I’ve never seen the movie A Christmas Story. You know, it literally runs on repeat from Christmas Eve to Christmas for 24 hours. And I’ve never seen it and I’m never going to I don’t have any desire. So I’m sorry, I just I don’t have
I do enjoy the Christmas story. It’s a good movie. I wouldn’t say that. I watch it every year. But I would say every couple of years I take a plunge in and I think my kids need to be get a little older before they watch it. I don’t think it’s I don’t know what it’s rated. But today, I don’t think it would be G so. So we are here to talk about route runners, which is your new store that you opened up, you created out of nothing? Why don’t you tell us how this all transpired and how you ended up with route runners in Sparta New Jersey. And maybe even before that, tell us a little bit about what the story is?
Sure, you know, runners, when it first came about, it really was derived with my personal experience from running and the effects it had on me and still continues to have on me. But essentially, when I was 19 years old, and I was I was battling some, some MdDS and major depressive disorder and severe anxiety, and kind of just consumed my life, given what we had gone through as a family and, and one night I was in bed. And I can remember laying there and I was just in this this really dark place. And didn’t really know where it was taking me. But I just felt numb and unable to move. And I was brought to this memory of of myself and my father at our high school track on a piece track. And he said to me, we’re going to we’re going to walk the curves and run the streets. And that was September 10 2001. And you know, like, Americans the next very next day, on September 11 2001, in the World Trade Center, were attacked my father who was one of those innocent lives who was lost that day. So that memory that I had when I was 19. And that particular moment I kind of woke me up and I just went outside and put on my shoes, and I just went for a run. And you know, I’ve always been active I always like working out and never just ran to run now you know. And from that moment that lift mentally that I got from running. Was this something that I continue to pursue so I continue to run and I continue to grow. And it took me from every distance of race, you know, the 5k to marathon, and that was great, and that helpful relationships that I made with people, the lives of people that I’ve seen running change, people who couldn’t walk then run, you know, good people like Denise Costello who lost her leg and she’s out there and she’s inspiring people and running marathons and doing Iron Man’s and All of this just kindred this, this passion inside of me to find a way that I can communicate and to offer this experience of better mental well being through the act of running or if you’re new to it just even moving, and walking. So I thought, after a long time, you know, it’s been years, 1415 years since that night. Throughout the course of my professional career doing other things, what can I do that can marry the purpose and the profits of my passion and opening a run walk specialty store was the best way that I thought I could store and store in my community, Sussex County, New Jersey here, and that was was just so profound in my soul for so long that finally, when during COVID, you know, sadly, we see so many businesses that were unable to endure the pandemic. But for me, it was an opportunity to find space that I know I’ll be able to have good leverage on and have an opportunity if I could find the right spot to work out a good deal. And to make my my passion of helping others through running a reality. So that’s when I just want to get started.
What did you do? Tell everybody, because you mentioned a bunch of startups. What did you do before you open the running store? So there’s this 15 year gap before your retail store owner? What was your career like?
Yeah, so at the early age of, you know, right after going in 20 years old, I started a turf management, landscape construction business. And that grew to be something very successful for us and my partner, and something that I’m still a part of today. And that was primarily the bulk, but during that came an opportunity to flip lots of homes during the financial crisis. And then from there, I managed a lot of private equity for myself and for others, and really just dabbled in multifamily homes and rentals, which are still on today. And things that, you know, just kept continuing to build upon
my personal portfolio, if you will. Got it. So going back, you opened the store in May, when did you say, You know what, I’m going to do this, I’m going to step away from the day to day of running a landscape construction company, I’m going to open a running store.
Yeah, I’ll never forget it, I drove by a building in Sparta that I’ve always loved just because it’s old architecture. It’s right in the main street, and I had a for rent sign. And, and it’s a place I always saw runners being. And I called my wife. And I said to her, and I said, Hey, we have to have a talk, because I think I think I found the spot to open. And I’m ready to do this. You know, during the pandemic, everything was crazy, right, everyone had an opportunity to kind of reflect on what’s going on in their lives. And, you know, you still hear today in the labor market, that people are just not returning to the places they work because they’re looking for other opportunities. So I had that moment, when I saw that space that I’ve always envisioned my dream being and then that night would talk to my wife about it. And they said, I can’t do this unless you’re in and she said, I’m in and then from there, it was just off to the races.
credible, you, you decide you’re going to do this. And you’re an entrepreneur, so there’s a lot that goes on gut and you take risks that some big businesses don’t do. But what went into the fact that you thought Sparta would be a good location for a running store? Right?
It’s a great question and what really is so if you look at run specialty, where it’s located in Morris County, you know, has tons running stores Sussex County, we don’t have anything over here, we’re underserved. And for me, as a runner and Sussex County, I’d have to drive 40 minutes to get what I needed. So it really was just like that arbitrage investment of being able to cut that consumer from an if that’s just inspired if you’re further north in Sussex, you’re driving an hour, if not more, so it’s such an active community, the trail system, the running groups, it’s all there. It was just going somewhere else. So I knew that there was a place for us here in Sussex. Got it
that that that for rent sign that you saw, is that the location that you’re in today,
it’s not Oh, so what happened? Yeah, so I started talking to the owner, small place and you hear a lot of safety nets going on with legacy shakiness. That’s even a word but constantly changing things. was in adjusting things that after we agreed upon things, and I didn’t like our connection. So this is not who I want to do business with. I’m going to keep looking, I’m not forcing doors on this new investment, I’m going to continue to move forward, I just pulled the plug and continue to work from there. Okay.
You find a new spot, walk us through the process, right? You’ve owned business. And so if you’re an entrepreneur and investor, you’re good at starting businesses, but this one, you’re selling a consumer product versus a service, you have to have connections with vendors who sell books, or whatever shoes that you sell in your store. How did that all evolve?
It’s pretty funny. I had zero idea to be honest about how that was gonna all take place, but I just had to dive into it. And I called I know, after finally, figuring out the sales reps numbers and doing some due diligence on how to get an authorized retailer, right, you know, I call the sock the rep. Eddie Joyce’s who’s been in the market forever, and, and he’s like, Do you have a business plan? And then like, I got some things to get there. And I’m like, meanwhile, I’m like, Oh, my God, I didn’t know to what extent I had to go through I thought it was I have a space. Right. That was my first that. Let me show everyone. I have a space. Right, right. And then from there, it’s like, cool, you know, no, it wasn’t the case. I was so oblivious, I guess, consumed with everything else I didn’t, you know, you’d never think anything through entirely. That I guess got blindsided completely by that but you know, fortunately, with what I was able to put together, and after talking with him, once you get one, go into the next one’s a little easier, because they’re like, oh, so I can use on board. All right, new balances. Like I’ll take this to my management, tell him and sock and he’s on board, you know, they’re all interconnected. They know when they wouldn’t even want to open up. But yeah, that threw me for a loop because it was like, not as easy as I thought it was going to be. But after learning it from like, the first two, then 345 and six made it a heck of a lot easier. And it just snowballs into, you know, getting all the vendors on board.
Understood. And when did you lock down the location? What what’s the type of you opened in May, when did it lock down,
signed our lease September of 2020. And, you know, so it was all of 2020 I was looking look and look and been through a couple of different spots. There was a new plaza opening up a little bit north of Florida, but the area is growing tremendously. So sure. It was with where a new shop right is. And they’re very prominent real estate owners who own that. So great space, great frontage, really loved it just excessively high for what I felt comfortable doing. So when I found this plaza that’s very well known in Sparta met the owner he built the building in the 80s just has a complete passion for his tenants. And for what he does, I knew it wasn’t going to be right. You know, firstly, this was the spot. So yes, that was September of 2020. We signed the lease.
So what were you doing, from September of 2020, to when the doors opened in May,
I’d go to work during the day when the kids went to bed, I drove up to the store and was putting the hammer to nail you know, my wife’s an architect, so she designed the whole space. And basically, you know,
that was handy. That was nice.
Really, I mean, she designed everything, you know, I probably would have done it much less expensive, but it wouldn’t have looked nearly as nice.
So you ended up you ended up saving on labor, because you were doing a lot of the work. You owned a landscaping and construction company, so you’re able to do that. What was the total with working capital coming in, in a pandemic opening a retail store? All the build out? What do you think you ended up investing in when you open the doors may 2020?
But 150? Yeah, you’re in 150. And you open the doors.
I was planning on 75 by the way.
I can tell you, this is not unique. Right. This is not unique. We see. We see every year we have hundreds of stores that open in our properties. And you know, it’s certainly a challenge especially now and we have a dedicated construction management team and I have a general contracting team that works with me. And right now given everything going on the ball is always moving. So it is it is not easy. It is not easy to keep your handle on that right now, especially with all the supply chain stuff when you were opening the doors may 20 Have, you had to do some marketing beforehand? Right. So, talk to me about what were some of the things you did to get the word out? How were How did you get the word out that you guys were coming here? Yeah, that’s
a great question. And I think what I love about the run specialty is that connection you have with the community. And so for me, it was going right to the people that have the biggest influence in the community, to our target audience, if you will, right. I talked to all the track coaches from the local high schools and some of the middle schools, I was able to build really good relationships with them, I spoke to the leaders of all the running groups in the area, and then started from there, already figuring out ways of how we’re going to build and grow and have events and do all that stuff. And then obviously, social media, you know, you play that to your to your strong suit. So you know, right off the bat, I just wanted to get in and start meeting the people who are involved with what we’re looking to do. And then and then from there, the connections continue to grow. And you work our way from the people who are actually coaching, the kids are having the run groups to the practices from the physical therapy, the podiatrist, going there, introducing myself talking about things, you know, building that grassroots Foundation. And then you know, as soon as you open the doors, it’s a floodgate for everyone who wants you in their newspaper, or the this and then that, so you gotta try to pick and choose wisely, I didn’t want to overextend. You know, from my past experiences of running businesses, grassroots is one of the best ways in terms of trust within a consumer. So that’s where I wanted to
start. So I got what we go through this all time. So we’re on the position that brick and mortar and you I’m pretty public about this on all social media platforms are not hard to find a Speak on, on a panels on brick and mortar is not only not dead, there is you know, today, most people don’t know that 86.7% of all retail sales come out of a store. So even in the midst of a pandemic, people still are going to a store. There’s a lot of reasons for that. It’s but that is the case. And we’re believer that long term, the store is still here, there will be stores that don’t make it because they’re not good stores. And there’s this symbiotic relationship between brick and mortar and online. But online is not actually killing the store. That’s the myth. My question to you did you think about just doing an E commerce business versus a physical location,
never, ever had. And the reason being is that, you know, you can go and buy a pair of shoes, you know, let’s just talk about the footwear segment of what we’re doing. Right? Yeah, if you want to buy a pair of shoes online, you’re buying four pairs, you’re returning three, if you’re lucky to get a better size, right? If you go to, it’s just, it’s just inconvenient process, when you fit somebody, when you have a personalized experience with somebody, especially somebody who’s knowledgeable, I knew that’s what’s going to drive people to come in and having that niche, and that, that it’s actually more convenient for them, even if they have to drive a little bit as opposed to ordering online to get fit properly. You know, get analyzed and have it done one one time, right? That never ecom all the way
at and and that experience you just described, it’s one of the things that’s really challenging with apparel as the owner of the Econ business, right? If I if I sell for it, she returns three, and I don’t charge her shipping. I’m losing. No pun intended. I’m losing my shirt. I’m not making any money from that sale. Right. And it’s a very hard business. That said, many groups have both a brick and mortar and an online presence. Do you have an online presence as well?
We do. And we do have a platform that’s actually gone pretty, you know, amongst all the fleet feeds now and stuff so they do really well. And we we brought them on right off the bat. I didn’t wait to have that I wanted it to be seamless given we didn’t know where we were headed with lockdowns again and whatnot. So we just wanted to be prepared,
you know. Excellent. So you opened in May? Did you hit your projection of sales? Were you were you short? Did you have any clue? How did it go?
Down? Well, we only made 27. So I was like, and it was like a soft opening. And the reason I made it a soft openings, because I wanted to train our staff, while allowing customers to come in before getting out there and exploding on our grand opening. Right. So I knew it was gonna be a little slower. You know, that first couple of weeks. We had our grand opening on June 19. But the doors were open may 27. So that was great. Practice experience hands on stuff. I would say you know, June we’re a little shy. But then July, August and September we hit our mark and I was really pleased with that. That’s where we need to be I know that it’s going to be lights out for the winter season, January and February, you know, but I’m really excited to get a full year under belt.
That’s great, man. Well, congrats. That’s great to see it. Are you seeing people buy for holiday? Is that Is that like a running shoes? I don’t know if other answers are running shoes, a Christmas gift,
I think the gift card to the running store is a good Christmas gift. Because anyone who’s in that they’re going to be excited to go there and get what they want and do that. So having seen so much people come in and let me get a shoe from my husband. It’s more of like, hey, let’s get a gift card. And they’re going to enjoy the experience of coming there. So yeah, we’re starting to get that gift card. Thing. Rolling.
That’s good. I didn’t think of that. That makes a lot of sense, though. It’s going to be slower in the winter. Will you still do like running events and things like that? Yeah,
we have some holiday events that we’re going to try to get out there and promote. You know, ultimately, you’re one of anything, you throw some stuff out there, see what works, what doesn’t, and we’ll take it with this next year, you know, coming from a landscape construction business, I know the store all your nuts before the winter, because if it doesn’t snow, a mark. And so I kind of have an idea of how to handle going into a slow season and what that’s going to look like. So I’m just going to take it with me try to host as many events as possible to try to keep interactive with everybody as possible. And you know, kind of see where see where it goes.
You mentioned staff before, and you can’t pick up a newspaper without seeing the challenges that business owners are having hiring. How’s that been for you?
I’ve been really fortunate. And, and I think it’s because this particular industry, you get people that are passionate about it and involve ranges and sizes. So it’s really easy in the summertime, because you get college runners who are home, who want to work at the local run specialty shops. So that was super easy. And then you meet people who have been running for a long time who have an opportunity. It’s not necessarily one person who could do full time as it is a lot of passionate people who can offer certain segments throughout the week, but haven’t hadn’t had any issues. Knock on wood. You know, we are I did start off wage at a very good wage for what we’re doing. And I think that has a lot to do with it as well. But, you know, at the end of the day, it’s worth it to me knowing that these people are passionate and are going to push that passion to the you know, their service.
Excellent. Okay. Last kind of topic about the store. What’s unique? What’s different? What separates runners from? Maybe some other running stores I’m gonna walk into?
Yeah, that’s, that’s a great question. And there are a lot of similarities, personalized fit, gait analysis, you know, all the staples of what you’d want at our own specialty. And it’s important that we provide those, but I think we’re other stores fail. And depending on who owns them, or how big they are, right, you kind of lose a little bit of personal connectivity. But we focus not only on the physical benefits, but on the mental benefits of running as well. So we have specific mental running events that we hold to to help people become aware of mental illnesses, and to help them understand what’s actually going on in your brain when you’re running. So we’re trying to help erase the stigma, bring awareness and do that through our run specialty channel. And that’s always been behind route runner since day one in our brand since day one. So I just think that’s a different message you don’t really get from a lot of places. And that’s not a bad thing on their end. It’s just something that I have a passion for. That is important for us.
Got it? Well, that was great, Matt. Yeah, this is this has been fascinating. I’m so excited. I hope this winter season actually shocks you and you continue to crush it and you come into spring not knowing what to do, because you’re crushing it so much. Yeah, I want to take us to the last part of the show. We call this retail wisdom. I got three fun questions for you. You ready? All right. Question one, what extinct retailer Do you wish would come back from the dead?
All right. I’m gonna go with Sports Authority. All right. And I’ll tell you why. I feel like when I went to Sports Authority as a kid, and always as a kid with my parents, the people that worked back then were actually passionate about like, getting you into the right equipment. You know, like it was a different feel and vibe as like, Dex is you know, because language I just think it’s ridiculous. You know, you don’t have it anymore. I just I just missed that vibe that they had in their heyday in their prime that was a good sporting store. Excellent. Are they extinct?
Are they are they are they went bankrupt. Yes, I had one and we ended up replacing it. I had one in Chicago and we replaced it with a DSW and a Michaels arts and crafts.
So we split into Yeah. Okay. Question two. What is the last item over $20? You bought in a store? As simple as wine? Why
not because I buy expensive wine but because I buy two bottles, so I don’t have to go back the next day.
Perfect answer. Okay. Yeah. Last question. You and I was shopping at Target. And I lost you know, what I would I find you
know, I’m always a sucker, I guess for for looking in the aisle of the things that I’ll never actually purchase. You know, so I guess for me as a bald man, I would be in like, I know target every time I passed that men’s grooming section. Oh, look at all this nice stuff. People with hair. And I’m like, this is fantastic. So I think that’s where I would
say, that’s the best answer. I’ve gotten on this question. So you know, like every men’s grooming product, even though you can’t use it.
Get a nice aftershave. And I’m like, too expensive. I’ll just keep using
man incredible. Well, Matt, this was great. Thank you for coming on. And yeah, man. We’ll hopefully build some awareness for the runners man.
Thank you so much person and appreciate the time and everybody’s help with this. Yes.
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