Since opening the doors to their first store in the summer of 2006, Big River Running Company‘s focus on a customer service motto of unmatched personal attention and a community-first corporate philosophy has directly led to their current reputation as a cornerstone in the St. Louis running landscape. In 2007, Big River Running became a club sponsor and remains one of the club’s strongest and most loyal supporters. In this Q&A, we took a look back at their earliest roots with owner Matt Helbig, and marketing directors Katie Helbig and Stephanie Hussman about what makes them stand out among an increasingly competitive industry and why they remain committed to our local community all the while garnering national recognition among their peers.
Tri Club: Your first store was established in August 2006. Do you remember when the idea of starting a running store first entered your mind?
Matt Helbig: Back in 2001, Ben (my original business partner) and I joked in college (as roommates) at Truman State about opening a store in St. Louis. We both thought it would be the most awesome job you could ever have. We went our separate ways after school, Ben to Michigan to run for the Hanson’s ODP and myself to graduate school at Iowa State, but stayed in touch. While Ben was running for the Hanson’s he was also working in their running stores. He’d call me from time to time and tell me how we’d “kill it” in St. Louis if we were to open our own shop. It was a few years later, 2005, when we were both back in St. Louis when on a run we decided to seriously give it a go. We had nothing to lose, tons of energy and were too dumb to realize just how much work it was going to be!
TC: What was the biggest challenge to bringing your idea to reality?
MH: Our biggest challenge was coming up with the capital to make Big River a reality. I mean two good looking guys without two nickels to rub together didn’t get far with the banks. The only assets I had were a dented Mercury Sable and my baseball card collection. Luckily friends and family stepped up for us and were nice enough to loan us enough money for us to get our doors open. We did it on a crazy tight budget and lived like poor college kids (Ramen anyone?) for the first two years putting every penny back into the store. The other big challenge was convincing vendors to take a chance on us and open our account. When we opened in 2006, Asics, Saucony, Nike and Adidas all refused to open us!
TC: If you knew then, what you know now, would you do anything differently during that first year of business or during the run-up to the grand opening in ‘06?
MH: We knew nothing in regards to operating a retail store, so managing inventory, buying, merchandising would have been done completely different than the way we did it. Definitely learned a thing or two those first few years.
TC: Who came up with the name, “Big River”? Can you share any alternative names you and Ben considered?
MH: Ha, that’s a good one. We spent a ton of time brainstorming names and actually had a legal pad full of names. Too bad we don’t still have it as there were some good ones on there! Ben originally wanted to use our names in the store name as many famous stores across the country have used that concept (Hanson’s in Michigan, Garry Gribble’s in KC, Bob Roncker’s in Cincy), but I was not a fan of “Matt and Ben’s Running Shop.” In the end we wanted a name that tied us into St. Louis without using the arch or St. Louis in the name and Big River (one of the translations of Mississippi) was a name that we both really liked. When we came up with it, we were sold!
TC: Walk us through the progression and timeline from one store in ‘06 to the current Big River empire of 4 stores and recent store expansions in West County and South City?
Aug. 2006 – BR West County opens
Feb. 2008 – BR South City opens
May 2010 – BR O’Fallon opens
Feb. 2012 – BR West County moves and expands within same retail center
Nov. 2013 – Big River acquires Missouri Running Company, which becomes BR University City
Mar. 2014 – BR South City expands
TC: From the very beginning, Big River has focused on serving and supporting the local community beyond just being a local retailer, why is that important for a small, specialty retailer and how much do you think it has contributed to the company’s overall success and eventual expansion?
Katie Helbig: The business was built with community as the founding pillar. It’s truly our passion. We wanted to connect with runners and athletes on a multitude of levels, not just as a place to purchase gear and shoes. And we believe that because we do it in an authentic way, customers will reward us with the opportunity to help them as they pursue their fitness goals and will be loyal. Authenticity is key though. We truly love what we do and when we implement community programs, sponsor events and clubs, make donations, it’s because we care about our community and the athletes in it, not because it necessarily will increase our bottom line.
TC: Running can be a solitary, introspective, quiet activity, but it can also be a social experience. Talk about how your Monday night store runs all the way to the monthly Pub Runs make group running a fun alternative to those solitary miles.
KH: Solo runs can definitely serve an important purpose for an athlete. Improved mental state, decreased stress level and time for reflection can all come out of a run. But more often than not, you will run more often and farther if you have a group to run with. Our Monday group runs are just a great way to start the week off on the right foot. The best thing is that anyone can do it, no matter your pace and you will find a group of people who are accepting and encouraging. Miles fly by when you are talking with your running buddy. Pub Runs take those group runs to another level! They are all about having fun and socializing. We love to have fun at Big River and Pub Runs are just one way of sharing our love for running and fun with a huge group of like-minded people!
TC: Your training groups, from the spring/fall marathon/half marathon training teams to the Start 5K and 10K groups to my personal favorite, Summer Speedwork, extend that concept of social running to a group training environment. What is it about these training groups that resonate with many runners?
KH: It’s hard to get out of bed early in the morning to do a long run when you’re marathon training. It’s hard to talk yourself into doing a tough workout on the track by yourself. That motivation is not intrinsic in all runners, so you need something else and that motivation comes in the form of people! When you are training for something, accountability is huge. If you know someone will be at a Speedwork Session or Training Team run, then you are more likely to go! You’re also more likely to push yourself if there are others around. You are less likely to quit when the going gets tough, which probably has to do a little bit with peer pressure, but also the positive encouragement of others. It’s just more fun to train with people. We see deep friendships form from people who have met at our various training opportunities and that’s really cool!
TC: Big River hosts several educational clinics throughout the year. Many may not know that a portion of the proceeds of these clinics are donated to local organizations. What organizations have benefited from these donations in the past and what organizations are the current beneficiaries?
KH: We try to find organizations that have a connection to running and fitness. If they have a focus on youth we love that, too! We have donated to Girls on the Run St. Louis, Let Me Run, St. Louis Blazers, L.I.F.E and we helped cover the cost of the Read, Right and Run program for students at The French School. All are great organizations and it feels good to tell our clinic participants that their registration fee supports these programs and causes.
TC: Did any clinic, event, race, begin as an idea or suggestion from one of your customers?
KH: Our Adult Camp that we call the Winter Running Retreat was a direct result of customers seeing our high school camps and asking if we had anything similar for adults since it looked like so much fun. We’d get a few calls each year and finally we did it! The inaugural Winter Running Retreat was last January and it was a blast! Most of our events, clinics and races have been brainchildren of our amazing staff. For example, The Skippo is Skip MacDowell’s baby as he grooms the trails at Castlewood State Park and lives for endurance trail running! Deb Siewing our South City manager came up with Women Run Wednesdays to cater to women who feel more comfortable in an all female setting and may not be available to make our regular 6 p.m. runs. The Running through Pregnancy and Beyond the Marathon (Ultras) Clinics came as a result of specific staff members’ interests and they were a hit with our customers as well!
TC: What’s the biggest difference in the running-specialty business from ‘06 to ‘15?
MH: A lot has changed in the run specialty industry since 2006. First and foremost, running has soared in popularity! This has been great for the run specialty channel, but it has also attracted a lot of additional competition. Our deep-pocketed big box brethren have made “run” a huge priority of their business model and internet has continued to grow in popularity. As an independent, locally owned business we’ve continued to offer the latest running gear as well as innovative programming and tons of training opportunities for the St. Louis running community. Run specialty will continue to thrive as long as we maintain our focus on superior customer service and keep our focus on our community.
TC: How do you decide which shoes make it on to the coveted shoe wall?
MH: Choosing the shoes on our footwear wall is a mix of art and science. To a certain extent retail is all about the numbers, and sales both at our store and the rest of the run specialty channel help guide our shoe selection. Runners are creatures of habit so dropping and adding styles all the time would drive many of our customers crazy. We’ll typically look at the wall every 6-12 months and drop a handful of slow moving models to make room for new ones. Customers can count on us to carry their favorite models and understand the tweaks that are made to them each year. We do however have to remember what makes specialty special and that means carrying hard to find products and being on the cutting edge of new product. Big River was the first dealer in the country to carry Yurbuds, the first to carry Janji Apparel and we were the first Hoka One One dealer in St. Louis. Being able to introduce new products that WOW our customers makes our job rewarding and fun.
TC: How do you choose and evaluate which products/brands to stock in your stores? Nutrition for instance.
MH: Nutrition is so much fun for us. Every year there are tons of new innovative products that hit the market. We love bringing in new products all the time for our staff and customers to try. Many of these products go through stringent taste and performance tests performed by our staff which helps us decide what we’re going to bring in for our customers. We also listen closely to our customers and try to bring products in they recommend or request. We’re always looking for the next delicious training treat.
TC: Do you have a favorite brand campaign used to launch or promote a product/line?
KH: One of my favorite recent campaigns was last year when Saucony launched their new ISO-FIT Series Triumph with the “WHOA” campaign. They had great, eye catching images, they used their sponsored professional athletes making “whoa” faces in advertising, had photo booths and more. There were so many plays on the word “Whoa,” which made it fun to talk about. Even though it was a launch based on amazing new technology they were using in their shoes, they choose to make the campaign fun for staff and customers instead of nitty gritty technical. Right now they have another campaign going with their ISO-FIT Series that is “Things that make you want to run” and they suggest things like in-laws, gas station sushi, your inbox on a Monday after vacation, blind dates, etc. and of course … the Saucony Triumph! I love it! Saucony has been much more creative and out-of-the-box with their language and advertising lately which is really fun.
TC: During the fitting process for new shoes or a sales interaction with a customer, was there a story that stood out of why they decided to start running or the most surprising event/race they were training for?
Stephanie Hussman: There are so many great customer interactions we have on a regular basis it is hard to pick just one. It seems everyone is motivated by something unique and different. The few that really stick out in my mind are the inspirational stories of personal growth through a fitness journey. Hearing about people setting goals and realizing them through hard work and training always keep me mindful of why we are here and what we are doing.
TC: What is the average life (miles) of a modern running shoe? What is the number one sign or signal to replace your shoes?
SH: The average life-span for a shoe can vary depending on a person’s build, how many miles they are running each week and on what surface they are running. Generally one can expect about 300-500 miles on the average training shoe (sometimes more or sometimes less!). I usually have two pair of shoes that I rotate through a training cycle and as someone who has been prone to injuries, I tend to replace my shoes a little sooner than some. Some signs that it might be time to replace your shoes are aches and pains you are feeling on a run that might not be normal (I usually will feel it in my hips). Another sign is flip over your shoe and look at how the tread is wearing. And of course, if you are not sure, tracking miles on your training log is helpful or dating your shoes with a Sharpie is a good reminder too. And if you are still unsure, bringing in your shoes to Big River and having our staff take a peek at them is a great idea too!
TC: What advice would you give a runner prone to blisters when running long? Could it be a shoe issue, a fit issue, or something else?
SH: It is always important to make certain that you are wearing the proper shoe for your foot type! Being in the correct shoe can take away a lot of pain and discomfort when doing long runs. I used to blister in long runs even though I was wearing the proper shoes. I began wearing Smartwool socks and using body glide, which has really helped. Some people are just more prone to blisters than others! Finally don’t be embarrassed of your runner callouses on your toes, you put in lots of miles to earn them and that is your body’s way of protecting you!
TC: Big River Race Management now times over 150 races a year including national races brought to St. Louis like The Color Run and Hot Chocolate. How has the exposure of timing these races helped the brick and mortar business and vice versa?
MH: We started Big River Race Management back in 2007, not too long after we opened our first store. Timing races had always been something that had interested me, and after getting call after call from race directors around St. Louis looking for help with their events, I saw an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. Being embedded in the racing community has allowed us to grow our name and has introduced our brand to thousands and thousands of runners over the years. While I don’t have a ton of hard data, I think it’s safe to say race management has had a huge impact in helping Big River grow in the St. Louis market. That being said, our Race Management team takes their job very seriously. They are one of the hardest working and talented crews in the country and I’m so proud of what they’ve accomplished over the last 8 years. This year we’ll time events in over 13 states and as large as 20,000 participants. We know our reputation is on the line every time we are at an event, so doing things the right way is the only way that works for us.
TC: Any stories where things just didn’t go according to plan during a BRRM timed race and how did you overcome those challenges?
MH: Anyone can time a race, it’s dealing with the curve balls that make a good timer a great timer. And believe me, we’ve had our fair share of curve balls over the years. From equipment failures, to weather challenges, bomb scares to tornadoes. I’ve seen a lot of crazy situations. A funny one that stands out was at the All-American 5k a few years ago. A storm had blown through over night and upon inspecting the course that morning it was discovered that a very large tree had fallen and was blocking the course. One of the guys on the course that morning just happened to have a chainsaw in his truck, cleared the tree and saved the day! Sometimes you have to be good AND lucky:)
TC: A runner moves into the St. Louis area and asks you what are the top 5 must-do races in St. Louis, your answer would be?
St. Patrick’s Day Parade Run 5 Mile
GO! St. Louis Half Marathon (new course with twin bridges)
MO’ Cowbell Half Marathon
Ferguson Twilight Run
TC: How gratifying is it to see the Big River Running logo on shirts and other apparel during races and just out and about around town?
MH: I have to say that seeing Big River shirts locally and all over the country at events never gets old. To think back on our humble beginnings and to see our shirts being proudly represented all over the world tells me we’re doing special. When someone chooses to wear our logo it shows they believe in our brand. It’s a true testament to the community we’ve created around our stores and drives us to continue to support our sport in anyway we can.
TC: You’re riding an impressive streak (8 yrs running) of being named as one of the Top 50 Running Stores in America, including 2012 when you were a finalist for store of the year. What does the award mean to you and how do you celebrate it with your staff?
MH: It’s always validating to know the streak is still alive. With so many amazing run specialty stores around the country it’s very special to be recognized amongst our peers as one of the 50 best. We’re evaluated on our community involvement, our vendor relations and by a series of secret shoppers. We’re one of only 3-4 stores in the country to be able to lay claim to that long of a streak. Our staff is super competitive, and we use the streak as motivation every day to continue to offer our customers the best possible shopping experience and to make St. Louis a great place to be a runner. If the streak were to end this year, we’d survive, but it would be some serious motivation to get back on track.
TC: What advice would you give a runner who hoards empty shoe boxes?
SH: I used to hoard empty shoe boxes! I try to recycle or re-purpose. Shoe boxes make great storage boxes. I use a few of mine for my art supplies but to save space in the closet, I really do try to recycle them right at the time of purchase so I am not tempted to hang on to them for no reason!
TC: Running is traditionally the last leg of a triathlon. If you had to replace swimming and biking, what two other activities would you choose and would you still make running the last leg?
MH: I’ve always been a fan of Adventure Racing, so I’d replace the swim with a canoe or kayak and replace the road bike with a mountain bike leg. Running is always last… I like to be the hunter, not the hunted:)
Many thanks to Matt, Katie, and Stephanie, for taking the time to answer our questions. We wear Big River Running’s logo with pride and are just as proud to be considered a part of their family as we are to count them as a club sponsor. Follow Big River Running on Twitter, like them on Facebook, and most importantly, remember to continue to shop local!