A woman jogs past a mural as indoor fitness classes and gyms remain closed in Calgary, Alta., on December 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Runners facing shoe shortage due to surging demand, COVID-related supply issues

Running shoes are the latest product to be plagued by a pandemic-related supply crunch as exercise-starved Canadians head outside in droves.

An uptick in outdoor pursuits, an early spring and supply chain issues are impacting inventory levels, forcing some athletes to look beyond their usual sneakers – or wait weeks for their preferred style or brand.

Industry experts say one of the biggest hurdles is a transportation slowdown, with a shortage of shipping containers causing delays with some overseas shipments.

“It’s what I call a get-what-you-can-when-you-can situation,” says Ben Nelson, shoe buyer for The Runners Shop in Toronto.

“We’ve seen a dramatic uptick in our business … and there’s less availability than there’s often been.”

His tip for runners is to “stop worrying about colour and stop worrying about brands. It’s about what feels good on your feet.”

Such advice can be hard to follow for some runners, who tend to be notoriously “linear” shoppers, says Luke MacDonald, co-owner of Aerobics First in Halifax.

“They want the same shoe over and over and over,” he says. “But because of some of these supply issues we’ve been able to expand their horizons and fit them for a different shoe that feels great.”

Supply problems started with a brief interruption in the production of running shoes last year as factories shut down at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While manufacturing was back up and running quickly, a shortfall of some raw materials has caused some delays or shortages for specific shoe models.

The situation is a familiar one to cyclists, who have been facing product shortages since last spring when initial lockdown measures resulted in a rush on bikes.

Cyclists eager to get their bike prepped for the season are looking at delays of one year for a 12-speed chain, five hundred days for a new saddle and up to a two year wait until certain bike models come back in stock.

“I did have one product cancelled because they couldn’t produce a specific rubber compound that went on the bottom of one of the shoes,” Nelson says. “That happened in January this year so there have obviously been some material problems.”

Yet the most pressing supply chain snag now appears to be with transportation amid a shipping container shortage.

“The biggest problem right now is some of the container and port issues,” says Jason Stanton, owner of The Running Room.

“There are some shortages of containers but some of our suppliers airfreighted products when they saw this coming.”

Despite the challenges, he says The Running Room’s stores across the country remain in a “really good inventory position.”

Still, a boost in outdoor walking and running as many gyms remain shuttered or restricted during the public health crisis has sent demand for running shoes soaring.

Nicole McCasey, general manager of Saucony Canada, says the running shoe company has a “nimble supply chain” and positive inventory levels but is seeing higher demand – especially as in-store retail restrictions ease.

“Lots of consumers are looking to get outside to be active and maintain their mental health … whether that be through running, walking or hiking,” she says.

“There’s lots of energy around getting comfortable shoes and having the right support on your feet.”

Martin Lacroix, store manager at La Foulee Sportive, says the Gatineau, Que., store has also seen an increase in people walking and running outside since the onset of the pandemic. Coupled with an early spring, he says it’s been a challenge keeping up with demand.

Meanwhile, most stores order running shoes six months to a year in advance – what’s called future bookings – so a sudden spike in demand can also leave retailers trying to reorder more shoes midseason.

“Sometimes we know in advance there’s going to be a problem with a particular model so we’ll say, ‘OK, what’s the closest model in another brand that’s currently in stock? Let’s buy that,” says MacDonald with Aerobics First.

“We’re playing this huge chess game … and telling runners, ‘This is your stop-gap shoe for now.’”

Stanton, from The Running Room, says a silver lining that has emerged during the pandemic is the growth in people walking and running.

“We have a lot of people coming in and saying, ‘Hey, I usually go to the gym. But I want to try running outside,’” Stanton says, comparing the pandemic running boom to an uptick in running in the 1990s when marathons and half-marathons gained in popularity.

“We’re feeling like we’re in that time again.”

Meanwhile, Nelson with The Runners Shop urged shoppers not to get discouraged if their favourite shoe is out of stock in their size.

He says running shoe store fitters can help find a good alternative, whether the customer wants “a lot of ground feel or to be on big squishy pillows.”

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