The R&D Effect

When it comes to wellness footwear, actions speak louder than words.

As more vendors in the category make health claims, ranging from improved circulation to better posture, backing them up with research has become an increasingly important piece for brands expecting to stand out. And while it’s not clear how much such data contributes to sales, most agree that an informed retail team is best equipped to discuss a product’s benefits with consumers.

“Retailers are asking for more information than ever,” said Molly Heaney, director of marketing for MBT of Portsmouth, N.H., noting that working with researchers in clinical medicine and physiotherapy adds credibility and authenticity to a brand. “Our data is critically important and the heart and soul of all we do. We’re proud of the fact that claims we make can be substantiated by numerous studies. It all starts and stops at our technology and the scientific foundation of our product.”

Doug Clark, president of New England Footwear Group, maker of Z7, said baby boomers, a target market for the brand, are particularly interested in research data. “They’re more likely to ask about the technology,” he said. “[Our consumers] are smart, affluent and care about value and how the shoes work.”

Z7’s study, done in collaboration with a vascular surgeon at Wentworth Douglass Hospital in Dover, N.H., measured the effects of its technology on the hardness of muscle groups. To help spread the message, Clark also has reached out to consumers through a 90-second video on YouTube to explain the fine points of the study.

FitFlop founder Marcia Kilgore has used Facebook to communicate with her consumers. In fact, she recently took to the site to ask fans whether they pay attention to the London-based brand’s research and development, and whether they base purchase decisions on the information. Within 20 minutes, she said, she received 77 responses: 54 yeses, 21 maybes, and two people saying they simply loved the brand.

For their part, retailers seem to agree that substantiated research is important. “The more science and technology in a product, the better,” said Jacob Wurtz, president and co-owner of Happy Feet Plus, a nine-unit comfort chain based in Largo, Fla.

Still, going through companies’ data takes time and effort. And Wurtz, who said he’s built his business around offering products that provide both comfort and health benefits, is committed to making sure the brands he carries — including Cogent and MBT — are the real deal. “There are so many claims made [that you have to see through] a lot of smoke,” he said. “We want to make sure they’re legitimate.”

Like Wurtz, Celia Tellez, owner of Total Relief Footwear in Austin, Texas, said she shies away from wellness brands that can’t back up their claims. “I pick brands based on what research has been done,” she said. “It’s what our business is built around. It’s not only about how the shoes feel, but why [the technology] is working.”

While Tellez always has such information at her fingertips, she admitted that not every customer is interested in the details. Often shoppers put their trust in her store and rely on the fact that she has tested out a product before putting it on the shelves, Tellez said. “It’s not just the studies themselves,” she said. “If the staff knows [the data], it’s a credible conversation.”

Sal Cantone, owner of Fifth Avenue Shoes in Naples, Fla., said sales reps from Ryn routinely present his staff with the documented research that went into building the line. “We use it to help sell the shoes,” he said. “We want customers to know [the claims are] backed up [by the company] and are not just what we’re saying. It gives [the brand] more credibility.”

Boise, Idaho-based Ryn said that by going to the stores and referencing studies conducted at Yong In University in South Korea, comfort independents can use the data to teach customers about the product’s nuances in a fast-growing market. “By educating retailers, [we are helping] to differentiate the brands [that can] back up their claims from those that are jumping on the [wellness] bandwagon,” said Terry Stillman, CEO and marketing director of Ryn.

Wellness brand Cogent of Wayne, N.J., also provides the results of its research, said sales director Rory Mitchell, referring to a year-long study conducted at Inje University Paik Hospital in South Korea. And to further validate its findings, Cogent is registered with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, which allows the shoes to be marketed as a therapeutic product. To receive the acknowledgement, the company presented lab studies and test results to the government agency. “It’s an important ingredient,” said Mitchell. “It says [we’re] serious and have done our homework.”

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