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Gazelle Sports: Where retail success is a marathon, not a sprint

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Gazelle Sports | KzooConnect Blog

We're happy to share this article by Gretchen Johnson, owner of WordPlay Marketing Communications.

In an era when even big box retailers struggle, Gazelle Sports is that rare local merchant whose customers aren't just satisfied, many are raving fans.

Founded in Kalamazoo in 1985 by Chris Lampen-Crowell, the running specialty chain now includes locations in Grand Rapids, Holland, Northville, and Birmingham. Although each store reflects Gazelle's signature brand - offering quality running clothes and gear combined with outstanding customer care - the shops are locally managed with hours and outreach tailored to each community's unique needs.

On a morning when Kalamazoo store manager Joe Trupp opened early to greet shoppers waiting outside, Trupp says there are no secrets behind the company's success. He uses words like honesty and integrity to talk about customer care and the relationships he strives to build with suppliers.

"We see everyone who walks through our doors as a potential friend, first," Trupp explains. "If we can outfit them with the shoes or gear they need, that's great. But we can only do that when we understand who they are and what they're trying to achieve. And you can't know that until you know them."

Gazelle Sports in Kalamazoo, which moved across the street and expanded from its original location, remains an anchor to the downtown shopping experience along South Kalamazoo Mall. But the storefront is just one piece of Gazelle's presence in the region. They offer lunchtime wellness classes for local businesses, running groups, and training programs, clinics, and camps, and a slew of other value-add services for customers and not-yet-customers alike.

"I think one thing that separates us from other stores is our deep involvement with the companies and the people that make up the communities where we serve," Trupp explains. "Some of our biggest successes come from our great partnerships with companies like Greenleaf Trust, Stryker, Borgess, Bronson, and the many locally owned stores downtown. We've developed a great synergy through these relationships, and we build on each other."

To meet its mission of providing "the world's best customer care," Gazelle employees undergo a 26.2-mile training marathon. Because the program is based on achieving milestones - like gaining product knowledge and learning to fit shoes properly - employees can learn at their own pace.

"Like everything we do, our training was designed to share our passion for movement, for customer care, and for our community," Trupp explains.

The company is also known for its role in several walk/run "traditions" for the region - annual events Gazelle either sponsors, hosts, partners on, or otherwise supports through promotion or volunteerism. Gazelle claims four as its now signature runs for the Kalamazoo area: Run through the Lights each December, and the John Daley Memorial 1-1 Run each January - events Gazelle claims as theirs - and the Bell's Eccentric Cafe's St. Patty's Pub Run and Pretty Lake Vacation Camp's annual World Run Day. Gazelle is a partner for the latter two. Formally and informally Gazelle's employees and the company participate in dozens of other walk/run events around the region and the state.

Another signature series is Gazelle's annual Historic Walks, which are co-sponsored by the Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections. Each Thursday evening or Friday morning through most of the spring and summer, historian Lynn Houghton shares stories about how the region has grown and changed since the time of Titus Bronson. The 90-minute walking lectures focus primarily on the downtown Kalamazoo area, but Houghton introduces new tours each summer that expand the lectures into outlying neighborhoods and nearby villages like Vicksburg, Schoolcraft and Richland. It's one more way that Gazelle celebrates movement while promoting community and engagement.

"It starts with our passion for running and health," Trupp says. "And from that we've created a true caring movement that's grown over time."

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