It’s a bold move that Chris Lampen-Crowell has been pondering for a decade.

Should Gazelle Sports, a respected retailer of running, soccer and sports apparel in Kalamazoo, Holland and Grand Rapids, expand beyond its home turf of west Michigan to challenge a host of established competitors in metro Detroit? The boom in running shows no sign of slowing and there are plenty of specialty shops to serve runners.

Running Fit and  Hansons Running shops, for example, are well-entrenched running shoe retail outlets with multiple locations and long histories of sponsoring races and training and coaching athletes in southeast Michigan — with Running Fit strong on the west side of town, Hansons on the east.

And meanwhile, Road Runner Sports — a national online seller of running shoes, recently opened its first two Michigan brick-and-mortar stores in Canton and West Bloomfield.

Into the teeth of that competition, Lampen-Crowell, cofounder of Gazelle Sports in 1985, decided to jump into the fray. Next week Gazelle is launching a new store at Haggerty and 7 Mile in Northville with a five-day grand opening celebration.

“We knew metro Detroit had some really good retailers,” Lampen-Crowell said, “but also, there was an opportunity because there are more and more people getting active, not just the elite runners. And we already had a local connection with large youth soccer clubs in Novi and Plymouth, as a supplier of their shoes, jerseys, warmups and fan gear that moms and dads buy.”

It will be intriguing to watch, amid a national fitness and active-lifestyle craze, how competition shakes out locally among a pack of retailers with different spins on their business models.

“I’ll be curious to see how they do,” said Randy Step, who founded the first Running Fit store in Ann Arbor back in 1985 — the same year Gazelle began in Kalamazoo — and grew his chain to seven locations  in southeast Michigan and Traverse City. He sold the retail stores last year to Colorado-based Running Specialty Group (RSG), but hung onto the separate but related business of operating timed events such as marathons and triathlons.

There’s no disputing the overall market growth: U.S. sales of running shoes alone have mushroomed from $2  billion to more than $3 billion in less than a decade.

But “retail is tough,” Step said, noting that there are about 1,200 small-footprint specialty running stores in the U.S. — typically with about 2,500 square feet of space  — at the small end of a gamut that includes big-box retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods and national online retailers with cut-rate prices.

Gazelle, Step said, has a hybrid business model, with a  focus on personal service and local events like the small specialty shops, but with more floor space and broader product offerings.”They’ve held onto their model and done OK with it,” Step said.

The new Gazelle Sports store in Northville is 6,200 square feet, more than twice the size of a typical Running Fit. Gazelle also has an entire wall devoted to soccer gear, plus a department devoted to Lole, a Canadian women’s activewear brand whose name stands for Live Out Loud Everyday.

Will that approach entice a customer from, say, the Running Fit location in Northville just a mile south of Gazelle’s? Or, if you are an obsessed runner, do you want a store laser-focused on you and your needs?

Lampen-Crowell knows it’s a tricky mix of tradeoffs, affecting issues from the store’s inventory mix to the level of expertise among staff on the sales floor.

To prepare for its incursion into southeast Michigan, Gazelle worked with the state’s Small Business Development Center on market research and demographics, and followed up with focus groups in Detroit’s western suburbs.

“What we heard, loud and clear, was there’s an opportunity in apparel,” Lampen-Crowell said. “There’s a growing ath-leisure trend, because women in particular want things they can wear not only to work out, but also to the grocery store or wherever.”

While its product lines and target customer base are broader than those of other running stores, Lampen-Crowell said Gazelle Sports’ core mission is still to promote a healthy lifestyle in the local communities where it does business.

Grand-opening events at the new Northville store this week include a pub run at 6:30 Wednesday in partnership with the nearby Granite City Brewery; a women’s night and Lole Yoga Meet-up on Thursday; a Nike open house Friday and a young-athlete celebration weekend with giveaways and prices  Saturday and Sunday.

Step said it will be a challenge for Gazelle Sports to maintain the same tight connection with local communities as they stray further from from west Michigan. The only store Running Fit ever opened and closed was years ago in Lansing. “We didn’t have the local following, once we got further away,” Step noted.

Lampen-Crowell wonders, conversely, whether the Running Fit stores that Step sold last year to RSG, which is owned by a publicly-traded stock company, will mean that “maybe they can’t pursue the same  amount of community engagement and community investment that  Randy had done.”

Gazelle Sports, Lampen-Crowell said, “definitely” has plans for further expansion beyond Northville — but don’t expect a rapid rollout of more stores. “The plan is to grow slowly, maybe a store a year, or every other year,” he said.

Contact Tom Walsh:, also follow him on Twitter @TomWalsh_freep.