Heartbreak Hill Running Co. Aims to Be the Supreme Specialty Run Retail

Running retailers are facing numerous challenges, but Boston-based Heartbreak Hill Running Co. is succeeding with a nontraditional approach.

“The typical business model is failing,” explained co-owner Dan Fitzgerald. “There is an opportunity to merge culture, style, speed, training excellence — all of these things — in a new way.”

Rather than rely solely on sales, Fitzgerald and co-founder Justin Burdon have made community building the backbone of the business.

To establish bonds with runners near and far, for instance, the duo created the Heartbreakers, a group of running enthusiasts who pay anywhere from $100 to $220 annually to enjoy exclusive membership perks. Benefits include coaching Q&A sessions via Facebook Live, weekly emails with workout plans, online and in-person training programs, shopping discounts and more. To date, the retailer has roughly 1,000 members.

“Running stores are notoriously high service — gait analysis, the long relationship that develops over a single sale,” Fitzgerald said. “Those things are important, but they’re not the linchpin anymore. If you’re doing business well, your retail space has an experiential component.”

This approach to business has impressed even its highest-profile brand partners.

Nike Running sales director Scott Gravatt said, “They look at the culture of running as opposed to the business of a running store. The bookings don’t matter too much to us because we have a lot of outlets to sell shoes. Authenticity and the culture of running matters.”

The retailer’s attention to running culture also manifests itself in its footwear selection.

“They’re more in tune with fashion and style. They’re willing to embrace higher levels of innovation, brighter colors and deeper storytelling,” Gravatt added. “Run specialty typically overlooks or struggles to embrace that segment of runner, but Heartbreak embraces it.”

That may be, for example, with Nike’s Epic React Flyknit colorway that harks back to a 1990s ACG classic or a capsule collection paying tribute to its original name in the 1960s as Blue Ribbon Sports.

Heartbreak Hill Running Co.
The product selection inside Heartbreak Hill Running Co.
CREDIT: Josh Campbell

Aside from the Swoosh, Fitzgerald and Burdon said they only carry best-in-class shoes from its other top-performing brand, Brooks, and more customer favorites including Asics, Saucony, Mizuno and Hoka One One. But the duo isn’t only interested in carrying inline product. They want to create shoes exclusive to Heartbreak Hill, something synonymous with the streetwear world.

“We have a strong interest in doing footwear collaborations,” said Fitzgerald. “My true aspiration would be almost like a running Supreme. That’s a great model of how we could then push online.”

Continuing with the development of its brick-and-mortar business, Fitzgerald and Burdon opened a store in Chicago in June, its first store outside of Massachusetts.

“Chicago is a natural progression of what we’re already doing in Boston.” Burdon said. “They have that urban active consumer who is young and looking for something to be part of.”

The 2,000-square-foot location is located in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood and boasts premium services for Heartbreakers, including a strength training and recovery area, treadmills and more.

Their expansion isn’t done. By 2021, Burdon said they hope to add a West Coast presence.

Heartbreak Hill Running Co.
The treadmill studio inside Heartbreak Hill Running Co.’s store in Cambridge, Mass.
CREDIT: Josh Campbell

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