Athlete’s Foot closing after 29 years in Kalispell
The Athlete’s Foot store on Main Street in Kalispell is closing its doors after nearly three decades of operation.
Grace Guest, who has co-owned and managed the store with her husband, Mark, since Nov. 4, 1989, said the advent of the internet has made business increasingly cutthroat and that they were ready to spend more time with family. She also said it had been difficult to find reliable, long-term employees.
“We’ve been doing it a long time - we’re tired and have a bunch of grandkids,” Guest said. “We have our 13th [grandchild] on the way next month.”
The Guests originally opened the store as a franchise. While the larger corporate Athlete’s Foot chain has transitioned away from their initial model, the local Kalispell store has remained more or less the same over the years.
The Kalispell store is the only Athlete’s Foot remaining west of the Mississippi River; most of the U.S. locations are on the east coast. The company also operates retail stores in 29 countries.
Grace said recently the extent of the corporate relationship had been an annual licensing fee they paid Athlete’s Foot for continued use of the name.
“We’re the oldest franchise they have,” Grace said.
The store first opened in the Gateway Mall, but later moved to their current location on Main Street, which had just been built. They’ve been the building’s only tenant and Grace said the landlord told her it will be converted to office space once they leave.
Staying on top of the latest shoe styles for three decades took time and investment. Grace said that when they first opened the store, “basketball was king.”
She said her husband has always been interested in basketball and has served as a high school basketball referee for the last 20 years. Still, as the years went by, their customer base grew more interested in running shoes and their inventory changed to meet their demands. They started attending running shoe conventions in Austin, Texas and learned about the latest styles from vendor representatives who frequented the store.
She said they probably sell 60 percent of their running shoes to people who don’t actually run, and are just looking for comfortable and supportive footwear. With a customer base heavily skewed towared people over 40, that has been one of the biggest trends she’s noticed in recent years.
For a while, the Guests were able to coexist with online retail by providing a service that can’t be obtained with the internet: helping customers find the shoe that fits them best. As other retail chains that sold shoes on the lower end of the price spectrum arrived in town, the Athlete’s Foot began to focus on more specialized athletic shoes. Grace said local physicians and physical therapists frequently sent patients to their store to get sized for shoes that would help them stay healthy and comfortable.
She said their experience doing it right was the result of countless hours of training during the early years of their relationship with the Athlete’s Foot corporate office.
She said that while people can get help with finding shoes that fit right in other box stores in town, she is fairly sure the advice doesn’t come with as much expertise as they have offered over the years.
The Guests have found that demand for those services has been waning and they are ready to move on. Grace said she was 27 when they started the store; she is 57 now and ready to do something new. Her husband has been working as a sales manager at the local Subaru dealer and it isn’t as imperative that she work anymore.
She’s thankful for all that the business has provided for her family. She said it helped raise four children, giving them jobs and work skills and even putting them through college.
“We hung around as long as we could,” Guest said. “The store has been really good to us, it raised our family.”
She said she would miss, more than anything else, the relationships she’s developed with regular customers over the years. Most of their business came from people who were over 40 and had been loyal to them for a long time.
The couple has temporarily closed the store to prepare for a weeks-long closeout sale. They plan to reopen with marked down prices on Thursday at 10 a.m. The closeout sale will include games with prizes available, including a 50-inch Roku TV that will be given away on the last day of the sale.
They anticipate the sale could last as long as six weeks. Once open, they will operate with normal hours until they shut the doors forever.