The barefoot revolution is upon us.
After a banner year for new product in 2011, vendors have been reshaping the category and, in many cases, joining the race to get in on the action.
It’s a development that’s changed the shoe wall in stores, and that has retailers wondering: Where does the category — or, for that matter, the entire industry — go from here?
By spring ’12, for instance, almost every major running brand will have minimal or natural-motion product, and some will be debuting second- or third-generation styles.
Some companies, notably Saucony, have said that their forays into barefoot could influence their entire product line, not just the shoes that fall into the minimalist category.
Even given its status as one of the key drivers in the athletic category last season, truly barefoot and minimal product has been largely confined to the specialty channels of running and outdoor shops. However, it has influenced other footwear categories, including the comfort market.
There’s no denying the seismic impact of minimalism on running independents. According to Leisure Trends, the barefoot category has grown exponentially in the channel, to $22 million in sales in 2010, from $4.5 million in 2009. But it’s really taken off this year: Through July 2011, minimalist shoe sales have already totaled $30 million, up nearly two-fold from the year-ago period.
Part of the growth can be explained by power players such as Vibram FiveFingers, launched in 2006, and the more-established Nike Free, which debuted in 2004. But public awareness — spurred in no small part by the 2009 publication of Christopher McDougall’s book, “Born to Run” — made the category a hot prospect, and more and more companies have entered the fray.
This spring, New Balance launched its Minimus collection of trail and casual shoes, and Merrell’s Barefoot collection of trail styles hit around the same time. Vivo Barefoot, a U.K. casual brand, debuted a performance line of running styles, and Saucony put its ultra-lightweight Kinvara styles on the market.
“With road, race and casual shoes, in 2011 there are 19 distinct brands [in the minimalist space],” said Leisure Trends analyst Elisabeth Stahura. “It’s been pretty significant growth.”
And that growth can be seen in-store: Retailers contacted by Footwear News said the emergent category represents between 10 percent and 20 percent of their businesses.
And according to Leisure Trends, minimalist shoes account for 9 percent of all shoes sold (on a dollar basis) at run specialty stores year to date, and 6 percent of all dollars sold in the channel for the same time period.
But barefoot product has had an effect even beyond sales, impacting the larger consumer conversation. Many retailers said a larger percentage of their customers are asking about the merchandise, even if they aren’t purchasing it.
Mike Cosentino, co-owner of the Big Peach Running Co. chain based in Atlanta, said sales of minimal product represent just under 10 percent of his business, but “it’s one in five people [who ask about it],” he said. “They’re not purchasing, per se, but are including it in the dialogue.”
Storeowners noted that minimalism also has been a fertile source of new and returning runners, as well as Crossfit and P90x adherents, who are purchasing the shoes for gym use.
At Naperville Running Co. in Naperville, Ill., owner Kris Hartner said that the category, broadly viewed, accounts for 20 percent of the store’s business. “[It’s] higher than I thought,” he said. “It’s driven a ton of new people into the stores, people who wouldn’t normally buy running shoes.”
That new market is sizable, according to Robb Finegan, co-owner of the Portland, Ore.-based Fit Right NW stores.
“It’s really changed the whole footwear industry. It brought a new customer to us, one who might never have shopped at our store,” Finegan said.
But as the category makes a more permanent home in-store, retailers said they still have questions to answer. For instance, how does the new category and its ever-expanding list of styles fit into their assortment? And how do they educate their customers about a philosophy that has almost as many definitions as proponents?
Making space on the wall for the new product has been a key concern for many retailers, who are often already operating at the upper limits of what they can carry.
“The tricky party is, all running retailers have gotten better about cleaning up their walls, but now there are all these new SKUs,” Hartner said. But while some of the space has been freed by what he calls “normal attrition” of older styles — largely motion-control — the retailer has cut back on the depth of product they normally stock.
“[An inventory that] once was 24 deep, we’re now carrying 15 deep in sizes,” he said.
John Clark, footwear buyer for Anchorage, Alaska-based Skinny Raven, said that by trimming back on the variety of brands in any given category, he’s been able to make room for some of the new minimal styles. But going forward, that product will have to earn its shelf space, just like other athletic merchandise. “We have finite amount of room on the shelves,” he said.
Storeowners also are facing a public relations issue. As sales of barefoot product spread, so too do stories of injured customers blaming the footwear for their maladies. That means education in proper use of the product will be key to the category’s survival.
Step one, according to Big Peach’s Cosentino, is figuring out what a customer interested in the category means when they ask for “minimal,” whether it’s toe articulation, minimal or no heel drop, unstructured uppers or even just a lighter-weight shoe.
Austin, Texas-based running retailer Run-Tex buyer Dale Rogers said, despite the information in the marketplace, customers coming into the chain often don’t quite grasp the concept.
“We do see a lot of misconception,” he said. “The information is good and the companies are doing a good job. The message is correct, it’s just not always interpreted correctly or by the right people.”
As a result, some stores have taken this on as a particular mission. Mark Rouse, owner of Arlington Heights, Ill.-based Runners High ’n Tri, has contracted with a biomechanicist to teach a weekly biomechanics class at the store.
But others worry about being too intrusive with their customers.
Ben Rosario, co-owner of Big River Running Co., based in St. Louis, said it is and will be a fine line between guiding customer choice and telling them what to do. “We don’t let someone just come in and say they want to buy [these shoes] without educating people on the risks,” he said. “But it’s not my place or my staff’s place to tell people what to do. Our job is to educate people to let them know what’s out there.”
For retailers, though, the biggest question seems to be where the category goes next.
Okemos, Mich.-based Playmakers was an early adopter of the barefoot movement, and footwear buyer Jake Crowe said he sees signs that the explosive growth of the past few seasons could be giving way to a more measured category expansion. “We’ve stopped seeing the ridiculous growth we’ve seen [in the beginning]; we’re just leveling off,” said Crowe.
The store has seen many of its dedicated Vibram customers looking for lighter and less-structured long-distance options. That has created demand for more cushioned products such as the Saucony Kinvara and Mirage styles, and the New Balance Minimus line, he said.
And Crowe is betting that more sweeping product initiatives, such as Saucony’s, which includes plans to drop the heel height on many franchise models this spring, will appeal to his customers. “They’re taking it one step further, which is really risky,” he said. “But we believe in that. I actually booked the shoes they dropped to 8 millimeters much heavier than I expected.”
And Skinny Raven’s Clark believes more mainstream product that moves beyond bare-bones minimalism is the way of the future. He cited as examples Brooks’ straightforward, lighter Pure Project collection, launching for fall ’11; and Asics’ lightweight 33 collection that debuted last spring.
“It’s still part of that pendulum swing,” he said. “[A few years ago] it went all the way to the far left. And we just didn’t know how quickly it would go, but [we think] it will move a little bit more toward the center now. The bulk of the business is going to be right where Brooks and Asics will be in 2012. We’re going to see a lot of business go there. It fits into everything else we’re doing.”
Ted Kushion, merchandise manager and footwear buyer for the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Gazelle Sports stores, forsees minimalism influencing the entire running shoe category in the next few seasons.
“It’s going to get harder to define minimalism,” he said. “All the training shoes are going on huge diets next year. It’s going to get blurrier. There’ll be barefoot-like product at one end, and then it’s going to slide up from there. [But] I don’t know that you’re going be able to draw a line [to separate] minimal product.”
But others are concerned the continued spread of the category could be doing harm.
At JackRabbit Sports, minimalist shoes, whether specifically barefoot-like or the new breed of lighter-weight, less structured shoes, account for about 10 percent to 15 percent of overall shoe sales, according to owner Lee Silverman. But he noted there are sales implications for his store: “In our view, a minimalist shoe is a second shoe, something to augment their training,” he said. “But we haven’t seen people coming in to buy two shoes. As we go through this transition, it’s not adding on sales in terms of pairs, it’s replacing a pair.”
But more so, Silverman worries that the emphasis on barefoot could hurt mainline shoe sales.
“All the conversation about minimalism has changed the way people think about what they want from a shoe,” he said. “Four years ago, they would come in expecting the shoe to do something for them [like] add cushioning or stability. Now people come in looking for a shoe that will stay out of their way. The concern I have is that the message we’re telling people is that shoes don’t matter that much. The messaging is really doing damage or potentially doing damage for mainline running shoe [sales], and the technology they have tried and tested and that worked for 15 years. And that has me worried, honestly. The need for the stability hasn’t changed, but the perception of the need has changed.”
But many retailers said the barefoot revolution, no matter how challenging, is ultimately going to have a positive effect on the business.
“People, even the people who go back to the traditional [running shoe], are still asking questions and having that experience, and that’s a great aspect to our business,” said Skinny Raven’s Clark. “Customers are coming in looking to be informed, and that’s fantastic.”