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Robert's Running ranks as one of top 50 shops in US

Jan. 12, 2014 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- It wasn't until last month at a trade event in Austin, Texas, in a civic center big enough to swallow three Big Sandy Superstore Arenas that it dawned on Robert Smith that he and his staff were doing things right.

Robert's Running and Walking Shop, which started on 4th Avenue in Huntington in 2006 and opened a Charleston location in 2010, was honored in December at The Running Event as one of the top 50 running stores in the United States.

"I didn't know anything about retail when I started," admitted Smith, a Huntington native who ran cross country and track for Huntington East High School and later cross country for Marshall University in the late 1990s and early 2000s. "It actually cost me a lot in terms of a learning curve to figure out what I was doing.

"I honestly didn't know what running a successful business was like. It didn't hit me until Texas that we were in that class."

One thing Smith did do before plunging into the world of small business retail was research. A lot of research.

"Everyone runs or walks in Colorado, but there are 10 running stores in every town in Colorado," Smith said. "I wanted to be the first running store in Huntington rather than the fifth running store somewhere else. So we looked really hard at whether a running shop would work here."

Smith ultimately determined it would, and, as it turns out, he was right, though he doesn't like to take much credit for his own success. Instead he points to his staff, and his first business partner Drew Watson, who now manages the Charleston store.

Smith didn't even want to put his name on the business, but those around him eventually convinced him to do it.

"A friend of mine told me 'Look, local people know who you are, so it needs to be your name,'" Smith said with a bit of a shy smile. "It's still weird to me when I see someone wearing a T-shirt that says "Robert's Running" on it."

Shyness aside, the business has prospered on a model of selling runners on what they need, not necessarily what's trendy or most expensive.

The store certainly has those items, but employees aren't going to force them on anyone.

Smith said the style of operation is based on the clientele the store typically sees.

"We're not a destination for elite runners, necessarily," he said. "Most of our customers are people who are looking at getting into running. And when you're first getting into shape, there are going to be aches and pains. That's where we can help."

He said middle school and high school athletes typically gravitate toward certain colors or brands, but for the majority of clientele, the store looks at finding what fits best and supports a person's own feet the best before getting into options like color.

"Trends lead people in an open market," he said. "I remember when the whole trend was making shoes that were supposed to make it feel like you were running barefoot. Well, in our culture, with our surroundings, that doesn't really make sense."

Smith said its his and his employees' job to make sure runners understand what they're buying, how it's made, and how it will help them.

"The difference between us and a catalogue or a big store is that we realize the little things that people like or don't like, and we find what's best for them," he said. "We like to guide people through their experience. When people come in here, it's their break time or it's their time after work, and we are here for them. What we do, it's not fake. If we can't help people get healthy and keep them healthy, we can't sell shoes."

Smith said he believes running is the ideal fitness plan because anyone can do it, and, while anyone can buy the latest gear and gadgets, what the activity actually requires is fairly minimal.

"You don't need a gym membership, you don't need a machine," he said. "It's a natural thing for the body. We were made to be in motion."

Though winter is settling in, it's still a good time to run, Smith said.

"This time of year, the gyms are packed. Every machine is taken up," he said. "If you get outside, once you get moving, you warm up."

But, just in case a customer wants to keep extra warm, the shop has them covered.

The store even offers headlamps to make runners visible and to light their path.

"More and more people are running in the morning or at night," Smith said. "This time of year, that means it's dark.

"The technology is amazing. You can run in an arctic climate with the things they have now," Smith added. "We have shirts with material that actually heats up when moisture hits it. We have gloves, hats and jackets.

"If you want to get out, there are ways to get out and be comfortable."

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