Robin DeRuwe grew up near Kahlotus, Wash., population 193.
She played B basketball in winter, but farm chores prevented her from turning out for track.
“So the coaches gave me a training schedule, and after my chores were done, I would run along a dirt road, my mom following me in her car.
“I qualified for districts in the two-mile my senior year,” she recalled, “but then Mount St. Helens blew and they canceled districts. So I never got to go to state.”
Having fun took precedence over sports at Washington State University, where DeRuwe earned a degree in clothing and textiles. But after graduation and marriage, she rediscovered her athletic muse and combined it with newly learned merchandising skills to launch Fitness Fanatics, which caters to performance-conscious cross-country skiers, cyclists and triathletes.
This weekend is Fitness Fanatics’ “garage sale,” where summer inventory is discounted to make room for winter gear.
During a recent interview, DeRuwe discussed the challenges of competing with big-name stores in a tough economy.
S-R: What was your favorite sport as a youngster?
DeRuwe: Running. My parents believed in work, work and work. So my dad would drop me off in the back 40, and I would chase the cows home.
S-R: Where did you learn retailing?
DeRuwe: After college I got a job in Spokane with the JC Penney Co. When you start at JC Penney, you go through a training program. If you’re good, you get promoted to merchandising manager, and then senior merchandising manager. I was on the fast track, and was offered a senior merchandising position, but I turned it down to stay in Spokane.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
DeRuwe: Yes. Mr. Frank Perry was my store manager, and he was good at showing me what I needed to do. I was like a sponge – I wasn’t afraid of long hours, and I wanted to learn all I could.
S-R: What’s something he taught you?
DeRuwe: You can never go wrong by giving good customer service.
S-R: What’s your management style?
DeRuwe: I lead by example. I like to be out on the floor. I hate paperwork. That’s why I have a bookkeeper.
S-R: Was Fitness Fanatics successful from the start?
DeRuwe: We struggled the first three years, then started to show more black than red on the bottom line. And it continued to grow every year until ’08 and ’09, when everybody had this little economic hiccup and we had to rethink things. But we’ve started to take off again, and this year we’re doing really well.
S-R: When you first opened, did you offer fitness classes?
DeRuwe: I taught aerobics from ’89 to the mid-’90s.
S-R: Does that explain the store’s name?
DeRuwe: Yes. My then-husband was on the phone trying to get a deal with a product rep, and the rep asked, “What’s the name of your business?” He looked at me and said, “The … name … of … our … business … is …” And I said, “Fitness Fanatics!” It came purely off the top of my head.
S-R: Why did you decide to locate along a remote stretch of East Trent?
DeRuwe: It is a weird location for a retail store. But I started out focused on inline skates, and the Centennial Trail is right here. I figured we could rent skates, sell them, offer lessons, Wednesday-night skates and put on races. Interest was very strong at first, but in the late ’90s the sport kind of died.
S-R: What did you do?
DeRuwe: I closed for the summer in 2000. That’s when I entered my first triathlon, and decided Spokane needed a store that catered to triathletes.
S-R: Looking back, were there any memorable mistakes?
DeRuwe: Lots of them. One time I bought a bunch of cross-country ski boots for $5 a pair, sure I could sell them for $25. But their binding system was becoming obsolete, and I couldn’t give the boots away. I learned you’d better really know your product and understand your customer when you buy closeouts.
S-R: Besides inline skates, what products have you tried that didn’t catch on with customers?
DeRuwe: There have been a few over the years. We didn’t do well with snowboards and tele (telemark) skis. Ice skates didn’t go over real big. Oh, and Heelys – those shoes with a wheel in the middle of the sole. We sold 90 percent online, and only sold a couple of pairs in the store.
S-R: Anything you wish you’d done differently?
DeRuwe: I don’t regret anything. I love learning new things, and I’m challenged every day. I have wonderful customers, and many of them have become friends of mine.
S-R: Anything you’d like to offer but don’t?
DeRuwe: Since my store manager and I are certified triathlon coaches, if we had the money, we’d add a pool so we could offer swim-bike-run workouts. It would be fun, but I don’t know that there’s a lot of profit in it.
S-R: Do you cater more to women?
DeRuwe: I’m no different than most girls – I like my clothes, and I wanted to offer a big selection of women’s workout wear for cyclists and triathlons. We serve everyone, but three-quarters of the store is women’s biking and triathlon clothing, and we carry women-specific bikes.
S-R: What distinguishes you from REI and other retailers that sell some of the same things you do?
DeRuwe: We really concentrate on customer service, and try to know our products better than anyone else in our market.
S-R: What’s your biggest challenge?
DeRuwe: Having the right inventory at the right time at the right price. Manufacturers want us to book it a year in advance and take all the risk.
S-R: How much inventory do you have?
DeRuwe: Right now there’s close to $400,000 worth on the floor.
S-R: How did the recession affect business?
DeRuwe: Sales flattened off. That’s fine if you plan for it. But if you don’t, you end up with too much merchandise. I always have more than I should, according to those who think they know, and they’re probably right.
S-R: What impact has the Coeur d’Alene Ironman had on your business?
DeRuwe: It’s huge. People watch the energy and excitement of Ironman – every age, every size, every ability and fitness level – and they think, “Gosh, I’d like to do that.”
S-R: How about other events?
DeRuwe: Whenever the Tour de France or the Olympics come around, it gets people thinking about trying new sports. The women’s Olympic triathlon finish was very close this year, and everybody was talking about it when they came into the store.
S-R: Any events coming up?
DeRuwe: We have an annual sale and ski swap the weekend after the Mount Spokane Ski Patrol Ski Swap (which is Oct. 26-28 at the Spokane Fair & Expo Center). We encourage everyone to take their stuff to the Ski Patrol swap, and if it doesn’t sell, we give them one more opportunity to get rid of it and buy new equipment on sale.
S-R: How do you relax?
DeRuwe: I swam this morning in Lake Coeur d’Alene. The water was flat. It was great. To me, that’s relaxing.