Employees at Distance, a running store with locations in Europe and Africa, told customers last month that they could steal any item featuring a tag that read, “ROB IT TO GET IT.” But there was one condition.
Distance hired one of France’s fastest sprinters, Méba Mickael Zeze, as its security guard that day. To steal an item, customers had to outrun the 29-year-old, who once finished the 100-meter dash in under 10 seconds.
Zeze caught 74 customers; only two got away with free merchandise.
“I thought it was a joke at first,” Laurie Sicot, one of the customers who tried to make off with an item, told The Washington Post.
Last week, Distance placed the items that customers tried to steal back on its shelves at a discount.
“We lost two items, but I think the value of the campaign is really big,” said Lionel Jagorel, a manager who opened Distance’s Paris store in 2019.
Distance, which was founded in 2018, has two stores in France, one in Kenya and one in Copenhagen. This fall wasn’t the first time the store took a creative approach to advertising. In September 2021, it released a video of runners appearing to activate Paris cameras meant to catch drivers exceeding the posted speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour, or about 19 mph.
Distance and its Paris advertising agency, BETC, wanted to build another viral campaign. Jagorel said the company wouldn’t mind losing a few items to build publicity.
“We were assuming that the concept and the videos would have a lot of buzz,” Jagorel said.
Damien Clanet, an associate director for BETC, said he read news articles about Zeze raising money and looking for sponsors for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, and he thought the publicity from a commercial could help the sprinter as much as it would help Distance.
Zeze said he agreed in May — the concept reminded him of playing tag with his friends as a child. But he was competing in meets every few weekends throughout the summer, including the World Athletics Championships in Budapest in late August. He had a break after that, allowing him to take a day off from training to act as a security guard.
Distance did not advertise the event beforehand, in fear that thousands of people would try to take merchandise. Instead, managers posted a sign outside its Paris store Sept. 13 that read, “ROB IT TO GET IT.” When the store opened at 11 a.m., customers saw tags on items with the same slogan. Managers explained that they could steal them if they outran the security guard.
Some customers thought the managers were joking, but they still took the chance. Most did not recognize Zeze — who has run the 100-meter dash in 9.99 seconds and the 200-meter dash in 19.97 seconds — or know he was a professional sprinter. Zeze wore a black polo and a band on his left arm that said “SECURITY.”
Zeze easily caught the first runner, who grabbed a pair of black shoes around 11:30 a.m. and ran away on a busy sidewalk. Zeze said he sprinted at about 35 percent of his maximum speed to catch most customers. As he kept succeeding, though, other shoppers tried to trick him.
On a few occasions, one person talked to Zeze while their friend seized an item and ran away. Other people waited for Zeze to chase someone else, so when he was occupied, they could make their move. But Zeze chased down most people anyway.
Zeze said he’s accustomed to short training sessions to improve his speed, but chasing people for hours tested his endurance. He said he was tired by 1 p.m., but the shop, which is about 538 square feet, only grew busier. One avid runner got away holding gray shoes while Zeze was elsewhere tracking down another customer, who took a pink T-shirt.
Sicot, a regular customer at Distance, said she entered the store around 4 p.m. and didn’t believe she could truly take the items until a manager explained the campaign. The 33-year-old, who has run five marathons, was wearing her Cloudmonster running shoes, so she figured she’d try.
She grabbed a belt bag from a table at the front of the store and started running. She said Zeze caught her at the door moments later.
Zeze said the day was tougher than his typical training sessions. Near the end of his shift around 7 p.m., a woman ran out of the store with a pair of white shoes and crossed a busy intersection before Zeze caught her.
After leaving the store, Zeze said he got a massage and took an ice bath. He would return to training the next day in hopes of qualifying for the 100- and 200-meter dashes and the 4-by-100-meter relay in the Olympics. But he was exhausted.
“It was a long, long, long day,” Zeze said.