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Spent, before race

Sales of Marathon goods still strong

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / April 20, 2009
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Before Boston Marathon runners hear the starting gun and cheering crowds today, there is the resounding ka-ching of cash registers at sports shops and the three-day John Hancock Sports and Fitness Expo. Aisles of running gear and souvenir merchandise create a candy store effect for marathoners. The selection around town leaves them wide-eyed, slack-jawed, and weighed down by shopping bags.

Temptation is hard to resist after months of difficult training. Even in a recession.

"This is possibly a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said Heather Billings of Boston, who checked out an $80 souvenir adidas jacket at Marathon Sports on Boylston Street. "You always try to weigh the options. Do I really need this? Yes, I do because this is something I'm really proud of doing."

Judging from the buying buzz at the Expo over the weekend and early returns from vendors, the 113th Boston Marathon appears largely recession-proof. Official outfitter adidas hopes to double its Boston Marathon sales over last year and planned accordingly with product orders and distribution.

So far, Michael Browne, adidas Business Unit Director for Running, said, "All early signs indicate a great year." Sales of other official items, such as commemorative plaques, jewelry, and lithographs are on pace or slightly ahead of last year.

Expo sales projections come on the heels of the biggest drop in US consumer spending in 28 years at the end of 2008. Boston Marathon executive director Guy Morse said sponsors have assessed where and how they spend their money over Marathon weekend. But Morse sees "at least status quo" with sponsorship interest and "a chance to add to sponsorship in a year's time."

Adidas just extended its contract as the Boston Marathon's official outfitter. Several new companies expressed interest this year, but had to delay any official commitment because of the economy.

A number of reasons
Consumer sales numbers reflect the uniqueness of competing in Boston with its history and tradition.

For runners who meet the race's qualifying standards, competing can mark the realization of a lifelong dream. This year, the field of qualified runners reached its limit of 25,000 on record pace, with a total of 26,400 registered to participate (up from 25,319 last year). Runners traveling from outside Massachusetts account for 80 percent of all entrants, including 3,977 international competitors.

From the $110 race registration fee for US entries, participants recognize the Boston Marathon will require a significant financial investment. Budgeting expenses associated with the 26.2-miler can be as painful as completing the run, especially since it's hard to cap spending on a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"We are stimulating the economy," said Jenni Sevenich of Glendale, Wis. "This trip is costing us more than Disney World did for a week."

Sevenich arrived in Boston with her husband and three children and planned to stay in town until tomorrow. Airline tickets cost slightly more than $1,000 total and a hotel room was $250 per night. And the family booked tickets for the Old Town Trolley Tour and Duck Tour.

At the Expo, Sevenich purchased a $40 running charm at the Long's Jewelers booth, which brought her Marathon merchandise total to almost $300. She placed the charm in a shopping bag with the official adidas race jacket ($90), three kids T-shirts ($64 total), and two Nike T-shirts ($91).

As she catalogued her purchases, Sevenich said, "This is definitely not the place to be if you're looking to hold back. There's definitely more that I'd like to buy, but I look at the hoodie sweatshirt and I go, '$50 for a hoodie, when I just got the jacket and two shirts and I got the kids' shirts.' So, I'm using some discretion."

Then, she laughed and added: "Probably not enough."

The Sevenichs made the Marathon a big family trip, perhaps the clan's biggest of 2009. It was a celebration of Jenni qualifying in her third attempt. Running may be an individual sport, but marathoners rarely travel alone to Boston.

Thom Gilligan, president of Marathon Tours and Travel, estimates out-of-town marathoners will spend - on airline fares, hotel rooms, transportation, and food - an average of $1,500 during a three-night stay.

Gilligan's company reserved approximately 3,700 area hotel rooms for this year's event and, typically, according to Gilligan, Marathon Tours accounts for 25 percent of local bookings.

Boston expects to bring in $73.6 million this year over the three-day Marathon weekend, according to the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The figure is an increase from $72.7 million in 2008 and includes all spending by runners and their family and friends. Gilligan, however, suspects some participants have sought more budget-friendly accommodations outside the city.

Also, runners may not buy items for as many friends and family members as in past years or they may hold off on big purchases until they see how the race goes.

But that still leaves plenty of time and plenty of products to buy around the Expo.

"I would call it recession-proof because there's such an emotional attachment to the race," said Craig Rottenberg, president of Long's Jewelers, the official Boston Marathon award supplier. "We haven't seen really any drop-off.

"When the economy is troubled, people like to feel good. The Marathon is one of those personal achievements that people pour themselves into, working toward this goal for the past six, nine months. They already feel very invested in it. When they have an opportunity to get something to commemorate the event, it's easy for them to do."

By the end of the first day of the Expo, Long's Jewelers was concerned about running out of some items. The same was true with other retailers.

Memories for sale
At the Expo, runners pick up their race numbers, then plunge into more than 100,000 square feet of merchandise. According to Kathleen Chrisom, show director for Conventures, Inc., it is the largest retail space in the event's history and an increase of 20,000 square feet from last year.

Booths offer everything from personalized race DVDs ($61.95) to sterling silver cuff links ($75) to a framed limited-edition official lithograph ($175). Every major shoe and apparel company has a retail space. There are free food samples, famous runners signing autographs, injury prevention equipment, and representatives from marathons around the world advertising scenic courses and fun times.

But the crowds swarm around the official merchandise, the items with the internationally recognizable Boston Marathon logo. Most runners can't find those kinds of products at their local sporting goods store. The long Disney World-like lines snaked around the adidas exhibit space all weekend.

"People come here and get the official jacket as a trophy," said Browne. "Then, they wear it all year long."

Added Donna MacLeod, owner of The Art of Running lithographs: "All the vendors came in wondering a little bit what it would be like. It's been great. There's no hesitation [about buying]. That's what I've noticed. People feel so good about arriving at this moment."

After ordering special framing for his bib number, finisher's medal, and official race photo for $149, Larry Wilson of Paris, Ontario, was near The Art of Running booth. At 66, he qualified for Boston in his second marathon. When asked how much merchandise he'd purchased, Wilson said, "$600 and stopping." At least, he and his wife saved on travel expenses by driving an RV to town.

"You can't really put a price tag on the experience," said Wilson. "This is a memory and an achievement. You can't buy them. You have to earn them. And I don't know if I'll make it back next year."

Retailers at the Expo took nothing for granted, either. Adidas offered a free pair of socks with any shoe try-on. Many companies made a conscientious effort to offer products at a variety of price points. But while vendors note they've seen runners go for less-expensive products at other marathons, that hasn't been the trend with Boston.

With running a relatively inexpensive sport and Boston a highlight on the calendar, marathoners save for the event. The cost-efficiency of running, with the recession, may actually boost sales. When you don't pay hefty expenses to participate, it can be easier to spend on a once-a-year or once-in-a-lifetime trip.

"People may be forgoing a health club membership or a ski trip, but they're doing something that makes them feel good and running is such a simple, basic activity that anyone can do," said Marathon Sports owner Colin Peddie. "And anyone who's a marathoner, their goal is run Boston at least once. So reaching that milestone they want to reward themselves by purchasing a jacket or shirt or many of them."

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.