Cam White, co-owner of Total Relief Footwear, may shy away from the label “comfort retailer,” but his focus on wellness is clear.
“Comfort is a suggestion; it’s a fuzzy word,” said White, who opened his 2,300-sq.-ft. store in Austin, Texas, in 2004 with wife Maria Tellez. “We focus on pain relief. I’m less interested in brand names than how a particular technology works.”
A certified fitter of therapeutic shoes, White introduced the store’s first wellness brand, MBT, in 2007. He has since added Ryn, Tenevis, Z-Coil and FitFlop, and the category now accounts for about 65 percent of sales.
To help get out the message on wellness, White is a regular YouTube contributor, with 60 videos on the store’s mini-site “Walk Without Pain.” White uses the page to provide information and demonstrate new technologies. Most recently, he debuted two videos focused on rocker bottoms.
“It’s a frank discussion of the category,” said White, stressing that he’s not a pitch man for any one brand. “[Wellness customers] go online, read reviews, find out about technology. So when people come into my store, many times they’ve done their homework.”
FN: How do you distinguish between wellness and toning footwear?
CW: The fitness and toning monikers are on the way out. The category is being rebranded as wellness. MBT [initially] identified itself as physiological footwear. It had roots in wellness. People who sold MBT in Europe were physical therapists, orthopedic surgeons and pilates instructors. When it came [to the U.S.], it went into [mainstream] retail channels and became less of a specialty product. Its message turned into toning, fitness and calorie [burning] because that was a fun message to sell. But if a brand suggests that the mere act of lacing a pair of shoes can make you magically lose weight and cellulite, you [create] a ton of skeptics from the personal training and exercise communities. And many doctors [are saying], “Show me the proof.”
FN: What benefits can wellness shoes deliver?
CW: [They] make [people] feel better and allow them to do what they enjoy. If their objective is to walk for exercise, but they find walking painful because of arthritis or obesity, [maybe] I can put them in a shoe that reduces or eliminates heel pain, hip or back pain, and allows them to be more active.
FN: How has marketing impacted the category?
CW: They’ve done the market a great service because they’ve gotten people into footwear that has tremendous benefits. [However], once people [experience] that feeling over time, they’re going to make some decisions. When their Skechers wear out, they’re going to evaluate that shoe and say, “Did I get what I was looking for, or should I consider some alternatives?” They may discover something they like better.
FN: Is there a risk of oversaturation in the wellness market?
CW: Certain brands are going to stay, and [others] aren’t going to make it. The wellness and toning categories will shift over time. There will be new trends that emerge. There will be winners and losers. Unless brands continue to evolve and re-engineer themselves, they typically have limited lifespans.
FN: How do you account for the rapid growth in the category?
CW: The category was born to fill a growing need. It’s not about fitness, toning or even wellness; it’s about feeling better and pain relief. Take a look at [the brand] messages: FitFlop [claims it] has a gym built in. That attracts people to the brand. But when you look at the user feedback about any one of these brands, they don’t talk about how these shoes helped them tone up. What they say is their heel pain is gone, their backs hurt less. The promise of fitness and toning got them sucked in, but what they were really looking for was a shoe that would make them feel better. Once they get that feeling, they don’t want to let it go.
FN: How do you determine what wellness brands to carry?
CW: [I look at] how the shoe functions. Finn Comfort’s Finnamic and Ryn are stable shoes. MBT, Skechers and EasyTone are designed to be deliberately unstable. Styling is important. If I can achieve both of these at the best possible price, I have a winner.
FN: Who’s your wellness customer?
CW: It’s divided into several segments. It’s baby boomers and their children — people between the ages of 40 and 70. … The wellness category is also being used by Hollywood A-listers. They’re dumping stilettos in favor of comfort. And, down the road, these brands will acquire younger customers.
FN: Why has the wellness category attracted more women than men?
CW: Women tend to be the first adopters. However, [their] husbands are rapidly adopting those wellness brands that are a little bit more conservative in their styling. If [men] can achieve wellness benefits and have a shoe that looks fairly normal, they’ll buy it in a heartbeat. You can have a heel-to-toe rocker sole, [but] if it looks too much like a boat, and has bright colors or huge logos, men will tend to resist it. If the shoe looks conservative, men will feel more comfortable wearing it.
FN: What prompted your videos about rocker bottoms?
CW: At the [February] WSA Show, I walked the floor and identified about 50 brands of rocker-sole shoes. [It seemed] everybody had or was about to come out with one. And I thought, “Wow, this is amazing.” I also thought that this could be massively confusing to the consumer and the retailer. That’s when I discovered many of the brands were designed to be unstable, following the MBT model, while other brands were stable. Some have very low rockers, making them more comfort shoes, and others have more aggressive rockers, making them more fitness and toning. And all these brands have some [proprietary] technology — or knock off another technology — at price points from discount to premium. That’s a lot of information to digest.