Munich As a runner, Nico Russ has specialized in middle distance. The ambitious track and field athlete completes the ten kilometers in 32 minutes. However, the entrepreneurial life of the 29-year-old is more like a marathon in which Russ has to prove his endurance. Because his environmentally friendly running shoes “made in Germany” are not selling as well as the athlete had hoped when he started four years ago.
“Sustainability falls by the wayside in the crisis,” complains Russ. As early as 2021, the founder wanted to sell 10,000 pairs of running shoes from his “Infinite Running” brand. To date, there have only been 6,000 in total.
Apparently, consumers are hardly interested in the fact that Russ is manufactured in Germany – in contrast to the competition, which sources its goods from the Far East. “In the end, the well-known name is what counts,” says the young entrepreneur. And for retailers, it is the margin that counts.
The Swabian is now faced with a difficult decision: give up the big dream of a “fair and sustainable” running shoe completely? Fair because they are made for German wages. Sustainable because they last a particularly long time.
Or do you prefer to manufacture abroad? Time is of the essence: “Sales are increasing, but less and less is left behind,” says Russ angrily. The combination of sluggish consumption, higher energy costs and more expensive material is a “toxic mixture”.
The running shoes come from Pirmasens
Russ seemed to hit the nerve of the times when he competed in 2020 with “Infinite Running”. At that time, the Swabian had just developed a running shoe model whose soles can be renewed. Russ has ten round, coin-sized modules in the sole that screw-in studs are for kick boots. They can be exchanged with a special key when they expire or the user changes terrain. The athletes can also incorporate different degrees of hardness.
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However, the modular sports shoe differs not only in the sole from the models offered by the market leaders Asics and Brooks, but also by Adidas and Nike. Russ has medium-sized companies in Pirmasens produce it, so the “Infinite One” is “made in Germany”.
The origin of the goods is indeed relevant for consumers, says Enrico Wolff, Managing Director of the Berlin sports retailer Camp4: “In the daily sales process, we have already noticed that the question of the country of production is being asked more and more frequently.” But it is not the case that the People would then automatically buy items from Germany or Europe.
Sustainability also plays a very important role. “We encounter inquiries about this every day in sales,” says retailer Wolff. “Whether a higher price is then paid for an equivalent product depends on the respective customer.”
If the price difference does not exceed ten to 20 percent, consumers are quite willing to pay more for a sustainable product, adds Stefan Fuchs, head of the sports retailer “Sachen Für Unterwegs” in Braunschweig and Hanover. “But that depends very much on the purchasing power of the customers.”
For “Infinite One” the athletes currently have to pay 160 euros when ordering via the homepage. That’s a lot of money, but not exceptional for a decent running shoe. Nevertheless, Russ can hardly make ends meet. “Actually, we should ask for more than 200 euros,” says Russ.
The Tesla of sports shoes
The founder himself put 70,000 euros into the small company, investors contributed another 300,000 euros. His production partners are now also shareholders.
In the early days, the founder liked to sign his e-mails with “Greetings from the Tesla of sports shoes!” However, Infinite Running is as far from a high on the stock exchange as Russ’s hometown of Biberach an der Riss in Texas, where Tesla is based . “We never got the big leap in growth,” Russ now admits.
Since sustainability issues such as origin and longevity are often not apparent at first glance, it is all the more important to include them as an integral part of brand communication. Ortlieb Managing Director Martin Esslinger
There are not many sports brands that produce exclusively in Germany like Russ. One of them is Ortlieb: The medium-sized company manufactures its waterproof panniers in Heilsbronn, not far from Nuremberg. Ortlieb has cult status among cyclists – and still sees it as a challenge to convince consumers of the value of local production. Managing Director Martin Esslinger: “Since sustainability issues such as origin and longevity are often not recognizable at first glance, it is all the more important to include them as an integral part of brand communication.”
Especially since Russ is entering an extremely competitive market. Well-known all-rounders such as Adidas, Nike, Under Armor and Puma also compete for the favor of the runners. While running is important to the world’s leading sports companies, they cover many other sports as well.
Some established providers such as Asics, Brooks and Saucony, on the other hand, have largely focused on running. Of the start-ups, On Running from Switzerland was particularly successful in gaining a foothold in the business.
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Young entrepreneur Russ could possibly follow the example of hiking shoe specialist Hanwag. The medium-sized company has taken a middle course. The Bavarians manufacture both at their headquarters north of Munich and in cheaper other European countries – but not in Asia. This is well received by customers, says managing director Thomas Gröger. “For about two years we have been communicating the topic ‘made in Europe’ more strongly to the outside world. This has primarily met with a very positive response.”
The last chance is a high-tech shoe
According to Gröger, it is extremely important to clearly indicate the production location. “Through targeted tests, we were able to determine that one and the same shoe model is more likely to be bought if it has a logo of origin such as ‘made in Europe’.”
Meanwhile, founder Russ is thinking about offering more outdoor shoes and models for the street. He’s already included them in his range, and they’ve sold significantly better than the running shoes in recent months.
As an ambitious track and field athlete, he doesn’t want to give up running – and makes what may be his last attempt to succeed in the sports shops. He would like to upgrade his shoes with sensors and thus turn them into a digital training aid. “There’s room in the market for a high-tech product,” Russ believes. However, it is unlikely that the shoes will continue to come from a German factory in the future. Because one thing has become clear to him, says Russ: “It’s better to import the shoes and to take more care of the brand and the product.”
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