Can Minimalism Make It in the Broader Market?

When it comes to mindshare, minimalism rules.

For the past two years, barefoot-like product for running, water sports and gym use has been influencing designers and dominating at retail. But for all the buzz surrounding the category, the conversation has largely taken place in the specialty market. Sales of minimalist product at running independents and outdoor specialty retailers this year were $145 million through August, accounting for 20 percent of overall footwear sales in that channel, according to Boulder, Colo.-based Leisure Trends.

And while the explosion of brands such as Vibram’s FiveFingers, Ecco’s Biom product and Vivo Barefoot’s line has meant abundant choice in the specialty channel, placement has been less widespread at the mall and off-mall formats.

Soon, that might change.

In addition to Nike, whose Free product has been in stores since its 2004 launch, Merrell, New Balance, Adidas and Saucony have had success in the past year with minimal product online and in top-tier athletic retailers. In February of this year, Fila’s Skeletoes product started selling at mass and family retailers. Earlier this month, Brooks’ PureProject shoes delivered to independents and certain top running doors and will be available more broadly in January. And next month, Adidas will launch its toed Adipure trainer style at Dick’s Sporting Goods, Foot Locker, Sports Authority and Shopadidas.com.

Matt Powell, an analyst at SportsOneSource, said that at mall- and off-mall-based sporting-goods and family chains, sales of the lightweight category as a whole, which includes minimal styles, is projected to hit $1.8 billion this fiscal year, making the category almost 30 percent of the total running-shoe market.

But the portion of those shoes that are classified as minimal, he said, is near $500 million, or just 8 percent of the total. And, he estimates, a very large portion of those sales can be attributed to Nike Free.

“Minimal is not appropriate for the broad market,” said Powell, citing the relatively high level of fitness a runner needs to use them appropriately. “And I think it’s very limited commercially.”

Minimalism has a better chance at lasting impact, he said, in the broader lightweight running category. “The major contribution that minimal has made is to help fuel the larger idea of lightweight,” he said. “And in my opinion, lightweight is a very commercial concept.”

Others see a bigger chance for success.

“[Minimalism] fits right now with what’s in demand and how the consumers are thinking,” said Jeff Van Sinderen, an analyst at Los Angeles-based B. Riley & Co. “We already have more minimalist product in [the mainstream] channel, and I expect to see that continue. [However], some of the more extreme product will be harder to sell [there].”

Paul Swinand, an analyst at Chicago-based Morningstar, said a market for minimal styles at the mall already exists. “If you’re a serious runner, if you haven’t switched, you’re going to at least have considered it,” he said. “The influence is still growing on the broader market.”

Over the next few seasons, Swinand projects, growth in all channels is going to come from sales to the top 10 or 20 percent of runners. And penetration of minimalism within that elite group, he estimated, is only 30 or 40 percent. Still, he said, that is likely the ceiling — unless, of course, overwhelming scientific evidence emerges in favor of the forefoot-strike method.

“[Minimalism is] an area that is gaining traction — emotional traction as well as physical trac­tion. We haven’t yet seen [the category] spread its wings,” said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group.

“Look for that exact same scenario [as we saw in toning] — the more volume-centric brands will create minimalist product to reach the retailers who are going to chase this.”

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