Deal-hunting startup ShoeKicker raises eyebrows in boutique running sector

At Marathon Sports on Boylston Street, Kelsey Nickerson gets help with shoes from employee Lauren Roth.
At Marathon Sports on Boylston Street, Kelsey Nickerson gets help with shoes from employee Lauren Roth.

Imran Khoja needed some new shoes. But any old pair wouldn’t do the trick.

In the course of pounding out some 35 miles per week, he’d fallen in love with a particular type of Mizuno runners. When some bad reviews spooked him away from the newest version, Khoja went searching for the previous year’s model.

Even in a jogging-obsessed region, however, his shopping expedition quickly hit a wall. “I’d literally drive around Boston and everywhere you would go, it was out,” Khoja recalled. “A friend said, `They have to be online somewhere.’”

The resulting search sent Khoja into a maze of competing web merchants with varying prices, delivery speeds, and colors. And like many entrepreneurs before him, he figured there had to be a better way.

The result is ShoeKicker, a free online service that quickly surveys the Web and ranks specific models of running shoes by the best price. The site essentially acts as a robotic super-Googler, instantly digging through piles of search results for a particular pair of shoes and revealing where a shopper can get the lowest price at that moment.

As e-commerce startups go, ShoeKicker is still a very modest experiment. So far, it’s basically been a side project for Khoja and his three Boston-area partners: The site has only been public for about a month, and ShoeKicker hasn’t raised any investment cash.

But Khoja, who recently moved to Stanford to pursue a master’s degree, said ShoeKicker has already seen shoppers using its price-ranking tool despite very little marketing, showing that serious runners might be hungry for a deal.

“We’ve heard from people who literally buy 10 to 12 pairs a year,” Khoja said. “If we’re able to save them on average $30 or $40 per pair, that’s a huge amount of savings over time.”

Others aren’t quite as excited about that kind of hyper-efficient price comparison.

Twenty years after Amazon.com appeared online, boutique retailers in many categories are still defending their turf against the steady encroachment of online shopping.

Specialty running stores are no exception, which helps explain why ShoeKicker’s debut — although still small — has turned some heads in the world of independent running retailers.

Formula4Media president Mark Sullivan, whose company publishes trade journals and runs a major running-industry convention, said ShoeKicker’s focus on finding the lowest price could devalue the customer service and specialized fit advice that independent running stores use to stand apart in a crowded field.

“It’s certainly unhealthy for the running stores, but I would argue it’s unhealthy for the business in general. Here you have a wonderful, innovative product, and all of a sudden it’s a race to the bottom,” Sullivan said. “It hurts profit margins for the little guys and it hurts the brands, too.”

Marathon Sports 3

It’s probably no mistake that a startup like ShoeKicker is launching right now. Running has surged in popularity over the past decade, with nearly 30 million people jogging 50 or more days a year, according to the most recent annual report from industry group Running USA.

All of those runners need to buy plenty of gear. Running USA’s report shows that shoe sales crossed $3 billion in 2013, with more than 46 million pairs sold.

Online outlets have taken a larger share of the market, growing from 12.5 percent of running shoes sold in 2011 to about 18 percent in 2013. At the same time, specialty running stores’ share of the market slid from 19.6 percent to about 14 percent, Running USA said.

Specialty running stores have been feeling the squeeze from the other end of the market as well, with big-box retailers and even the shoe manufacturers themselves trying to consume more of a growing business, Sullivan said.

That helps explain why a price-obsessed service like ShoeKicker can seem threatening despite its small size.

“I mean, look, I’m a big free market guy,” Sullivan said. “But it really kind of irks me when it all becomes all about a race to the bottom.”

Some of that anxiety may be misplaced, however. Catherine Tucker, a marketing professor at MIT’s Sloan management school, said fears that online shopping would lead to rock-bottom prices on all kinds of goods dates back to the earliest days of the Internet.

“That is not what has happened,” she said. “Instead, the major transformative shift that the Internet has offered consumers is the provision of user reviews and ratings, which make quality more transparent. In other words, quality transparency rather than price transparency is the big transformation.”

At Boston’s iconic Marathon Sports, owner Colin Peddie is keeping an eye on startups like ShoeKicker. But he also notes that ruthless price comparisons can’t quite dig into sales of the newest models, since manufacturers can prevent retailers from advertising those shoes’ prices below a certain level.

A bigger worry for independent retailers, he said, is the ability to operate their own high-quality e-commerce sites — hiring a developer often doesn’t make much sense, while off-the-shelf software usually doesn’t have the best features for small-business customers.

In the meantime, Marathon remains dedicated to a level of customer service and expert advice that it relies on to set it apart from competitors at both ends of the market. The company continues to grow, recently doubling its Sound Runner stores in Connecticut to four locations, along with the 11 Marathon Sports stores in Massachusetts.

“I think for us, the more things change the more people want them to stay the same. And people either want the services we provide or they don’t, and we can’t placate and try to please everybody,” Peddie said. “Running footwear is just one of those things. It’s kind of like eyeglasses. Everyone has a different set of eyes.”

Khoja tends to agree. He says ShoeKicker is best for runners who know exactly which shoes they want and simply want a good price.

“If someone is already trying to find a model that is special to them and is outdated, they’re probably not going to be to find those in the store. So we’re not actually stealing those sales,” he said. “Every time I’m looking at a new shoe, I’m in Marathon Sports.”