Barefoot Business on Track

NEW YORK — The class-action suit that hit Vibram USA Inc. last month is unlikely to dent momentum in the minimalist running category, said industry experts.

According to analysts who research the category, minimalist running sales in the first two months of 2012 are up 70 percent year-over-year, and are still going strong year-to-date. Meanwhile, the category’s share of the overall running business has also doubled in the last year.

One retailer said he expects the barefoot momentum to continue and the market to get more crowded.

Jake Crowe, a buyer at Playmakers in Michigan, said, “[Apart from Vibram], we do a lot of New Balance, Merrell and Vivo. Sales are pretty good on the new models.”

Discussion about the health of the category comes on the heels of a class-action suit filed against Vibram on March 21. Valerie Bezdek of Florida sued the brand for damages, attorneys’ fees and costs, and refuted Vibram’s “scientific research” that shows that their FiveFingers shoes, which range from $80 to $125 per pair, will provide “all the health benefits of barefoot running” to anyone who uses them and that traditional running shoes do not provide such health benefits.

Having paid $104.90 for a pair of Vibram Bikila shoes on April 13, 2011, Bezdek alleges that Vibram’s claims are deceptive because FiveFingers are not proven to provide any of the health benefits beyond what conventional running shoes provide. Bezdek also suggests that running in FiveFingers may in fact “increase injury risk as compared to running in conventional running shoes, and even when compared to running barefoot.”

Reacting to the lawsuit, Elisabeth Stahura, retail analyst at market research firm Leisure Trends Group, said, “This will certainly affect Vibram, just as any lawsuit would. But minimalist is not some flash in the pan or fad. When a category swings like a pendulum and settles in the center, like minimalist has now, it’s got staying power.”

Matt Powell, an analyst at Sports OneSource, noted that “[FiveFingers] really requires a very fit runner who is willing to learn to run differently. You just can’t heel-strike in a shoe that has no cushion. If I’m a barefoot manufacturer, I will make sure I very carefully explain to my consumers how to run properly.”

Crowe agreed: “You’re not supposed to wear those shoes all the time, and it says on Vibram’s website to consult your doctor if you feel discomfort.”

Vibram has a site dedicated to helping people safely transition to minimalist running or training, but management could not be reached for further comment last week. “If the suit against Vibram is successful, I would not be surprised if other people want to jump in and try to [target other barefoot running brands such as Merrell],” said Powell. “But my gut is the suit won’t be successful.”

Vibram said in a statement last Wednesday it was surprised by the action and “intends to fully defend the lawsuit.”

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