OR Panel Weighs In On the Barefoot Craze

SALT LAKE CITY — As performance product continues to ignite the athletic footwear market, execs are betting that consumers are willing to pay more for less, according to a panel of experts at the Outdoor Retailer show, moderated by Footwear News.

Their take: Barefoot, minimalistic and lightweight footwear styles are leading the running market, re-engaging consumers and spurring interest in running.

“I’ve been selling shoes for 17 years, and I’ve never seen a movement like this, where people are so interested in how to run,” said Christopher Peake, director of performance for Henderson, Nev.-based Zappos Merchandising Inc., part of Zappos.com.

And pared-down technologies could soon migrate into other categories, panel members said.

But even as vendors and retailers embrace the new trends, questions remain: What’s driving demand? Where does this new product fit into the traditional retail picture? And is all this newness a flash in the pan?

The participants at the Aug. 5 event were Peake; Galahad Clark, owner of U.K.-based Terra Plana and Vivo Barefoot, which launched its first performance running shoe earlier this year; Patrick O’Malley, SVP of global product for Boston-based Saucony; and Katherine Petrecca, special business unit manager for Boston-based New Balance, who oversaw the brand’s barefoot-inspired Minimus collection that launched at OR.

What follows are highlights from an in-depth discussion about pricing, training the consumer to use less-structured shoes, predictions on the performance trend and whether it has the legs to continue.

FN: Why has there been such an explosion of interest in new categories — from lightweight and minimal to wellness and toning — among both vendors and consumers?

Christopher Peake:
There’s been a lot of marketing, especially in the toning and the wellness market, that has really driven consumers to come to these categories. But the industry has been waiting for something like this for a while. You know, “Born to Run” [Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book on barefoot running] is definitely something that triggered this whole thing with consumers. And with the Internet, new ideas spread so quickly. Not a day goes by that I don’t see a blog or some kind of response from our customer loyalty team about the barefoot movement or natural running. It’s definitely exciting to people, and that’s what’s been driving that whole category for us.

Patrick O’Malley: The PR behind all of this has given us the license to do it. In the past, we were always kind of handcuffed — consumers were conditioned as to what they wanted. To me, that’s the most exciting part of this whole movement: It’s opened everybody’s eyes to building things differently. We see that there’s been much more willingness to try something different.

Katherine Petrecca: We’d been making more minimal product and extremely lightweight minimal product for our ultra-runners, but to our own frustration, never got the distribution and the interest we wanted. The book “Born to Run” and the adoption of Vibram FiveFingers by a much wider population really kicked things off in a big way last summer. And with the recession, there were a lot of people scaling back to basics, stripping things down and thinking about products differently. It was about that time that our advance products team came to us with a new last that they had built to support natural motion.

CP: It’s a very technical movement, but it’s a very fashion-driven, trend-friendly movement, as well. You have so much color and so many interesting models coming out that, while there’s a core consumer out there who is definitely getting into this and using this, it’s also become a way for people to get out of that normal running shoebox and say, “Hey, look at my shoes, look at me.” And that’s really exciting for our business because we thrive on models that are different, and we thrive on consumers who are shopping for alternate categories. It’s been such a great thing to have all these interesting shoes that two years ago we thought would never sell — and now they’re selling.

FN: Everyone seems to be talking about barefoot, minimal and lightweight technologies, often all at the same time. But are those terms all synonymous?

PO: There are two different kinds of stories going on: There’s the barefoot movement, and then minimalism — or the natural movement thing — has a little bit more traditional shoemaking in it. Retailers look at them as cousins, but they’re two separate opportunities within the industry and for runners. There’s a relationship there, but they are two different animals at the end of the day.

KP: I would say we’re on the same path at New Balance with our thinking. We’re looking at barefoot-inspired and minimal as being on the same path, and then ultra-light on a different path, which would be more of a traditional shoe construction, just extremely lightweight.

CP: We allow the consumers to decide that. We’d had this movement of lightweight for so long, but in the last couple of seasons, we’ve seen a lot of transition from that lightweight movement into minimalism and then into the barefoot movement.

Galahad Clark: From our point of view, natural motion is as close to barefoot as possible.

FN: What are the benchmarks we should be looking for: What’s lightweight, what’s minimal and what’s barefoot?

GC: We’re total purists: Every sole is made as thinly as we possibly can make it and as lightweight as possible. [The categories] are totally symbiotic.

KP: At New Balance, we really define minimal by three things: the overall stack height of the shoe, the heel-forefoot drop and the weight of the shoe. And ultra-light would just be defined by the weight.

PO: Midsole height is a big part of the definition for Saucony and how we build our shoes. The lightweight thing is just sort of a natural byproduct of the heights of the shoes and using less material.

FN: Is this a market reaction to something more? Did athletic and outdoor shoes get overbuilt?

GC: With much respect for these other companies here, the simple answer, for me, is yes.

PO: There has been a lot of pressure in the industry to add details, to add visual technology or added value to shoes. It’s easy to say we should do everything minimal, but there have been a lot of people who have run a lot of miles in some really good shoes over the years, and by no means do I think this trend is going to make everything else we’ve done in the past obsolete.

KP: There’s been somewhat of an arms race in some areas of stability and motion control. The exciting thing now is that companies are pushing each other to deliver benefits … with less in the shoe. And that’s what we’re going to see transform the rest of people’s lives outside the realm of footwear.

FN: Are these shoes appropriate for the everyday consumer? Or is it limited to the elite running market?

KP: The only people we say to exclude right out of the gate would be people who have existing injuries. Other than that, used wisely, this product can be for everybody. We get a lot of questions about weight or age, and we really feel that doesn’t — and shouldn’t — factor into the decision.

GC: If you look at a 4-year-old running around, they land with a forefoot strike, with perfect posture and an incredible bouncy, elastic cadence. [Then] you get to age five and the kids go to school and they start hunching over their desks and start wearing padded shoes, and you see it immediately: The kids develop bad posture and [become] heel strikers. I agree there are circumstances where people shouldn’t rush into it — the transition is important — but it’s absolutely for everybody, and kids are the most important bellwether of that.

PO: You just have to take the transition carefully. You can go to the extreme too quick and go, “Oh, this doesn’t work.”

FN: What kind of education should companies offer?

GC: We make a DVD with [running technique specialist] Lee Saxby, which shows basic drills you can do that get your posture and your form straight, and that’s a reasonable first effort. But hopefully there will be many more things like that.

KP: I absolutely believe it’s our responsibility to train people. We did something similar [to Terra Plana] with an organization called Good Form Running, started by Curt Munson at Playmakers in the Midwest, where they will be training all of our reps on good running form. We’ve done a video, too. We’re excited about the conversation, but we feel a big responsibility. We’re going to have an information packet available with purchase and as much information as we can possibly provide online. We actually talked to some of the dealers yesterday to see if there is a way we can make somebody watch a video before they put something in their basket. That’s the ideal: Before you even go to your basket, you’re required to watch.

CP: Not for us. For us, the ease of purchase is definitely more important. People are taking it upon themselves to get out and educate themselves more than ever. I’ve been selling shoes for 17 years and I’ve never seen a movement like this, where people are so interested in how to run.

FN: Looking ahead, how much potential is there for this new category in terms of the overall business?

KP: This is consumer-driven and performance-driven, and when you have something that’s rooted in those things, you’re going to see sustainability. The minimal business is miniscule at this point, but I would venture to say it could make up 10 to 15 percent, maybe even 10 to 20 percent of the business in two to three years.

PO: Our first foray into lightweight and minimal was with the Kinvara [which debuted earlier this year]. And by the end of the year, globally, that shoe will be one of our top five shoes as a brand. Barefoot and minimal definitely has the potential to be a significant [category] within our line.

FN: If the game before was visible technology, will the consumer push back on paying a premium for stripped-down styles?

PO: We haven’t had any pushback at all from consumers on pricing on minimal styles.

CP: If the technology works and it makes them feel better, they’re willing to pay any price for that.

FN: Have sales of minimal product been additive, or have they taken the place of sales in more structured categories like stability or motion control?

KP: We’re hearing pretty consistently from the retailers that it’s incremental business.

PO: Customers have bought their traditional training shoe and then they want to explore. For us, it’s pretty much all been plus business.

CP: Our traditional footwear business in athletic continues to be the dominant part of the business, and its growing like wildfire. The whole category is making people more aware that they need to be fit and they need to be moving. We’ve gotten new customers who traditionally haven’t worked out who are buying these categories but are still buying traditional footwear for running or the gym. It’s been a really great thing for the athletic industry, and it’s been a great thing for all of our businesses.

FN: Are there expansion possibilities in natural motion beyond running?

KP: We’re seeing a lot of interest in casual or recovery, and we’re seeing a lot of interest for in-the-gym use. You’re going to see [minimal] spreading from that dedicated, hardcore running community pretty quickly into other product categories. We’ve also looked to address it in the running line as a whole. We’re actually taking one of our larger models and as we update it, doing some things in terms of the last and the stack heights that will make a lot of our stores very uncomfortable. But we want to take the [idea of natural motion] to heart. With the new technologies, the new foams, it’s easier now to make all our shoes more minimalist, and you’re going to see that translate throughout the entire line. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s going to be a transition over a couple of years.

PO: We’ll definitely take some of the learning and put it into our everyday core tech models. We see this as an opportunity to create a long-term [business], and overall, it’s going to make us smarter and a better shoe company.

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