Can barefoot running become a year-round phenomenon?
A spate of new winterized minimalist running shoes will be available for the 2012 cold-weather season from brands including Merrell, New Balance, Vibram, Ecco and Saucony. And execs suggested the category has the potential to perform just as well in winter as it has in the warmer months. Retailers, however, remain undecided on the demand for such product.
Merrell, perhaps, has the most winterized offerings for this year, with more to come in fall ’13. Product designer Hy Rosario said the latest styles, which were announced at Outdoor Retailer this month, evolved from the brand’s popular barefoot line. “Many runners begrudgingly go inside [in the colder weather],” he said. “If we can help you extend [outdoor running], that is a really cool thing.”
Sales of New Balance’s existing Minimus Outdoor collection have also been “extremely strong,” said Bryan Gothie, senior product manager for performance. As a result, a winterized version of the 110 trail shoe will launch for fall ’12 (see sidebar for more details).
At Saucony, the running brand already has available the Hattori All Weather minimalist shoe, which was developed based on feedback from runners. “[Barefoot running] has become part of a lot of runners’ training regimen, so we have to figure out a way to make sure they keep doing it. If they are finding success, we want to make sure they keep doing it through the winter,” said Pat O’Malley, SVP of global product at Saucony.
But specialty running retailers are divided so far on the ultimate opportunity for cold-weather items.
Lisette Schermann, buyer at Brainsport, a running shop in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, said winterized minimalist product “is a logical step for the category,” and she is on the lookout for more product to add to the New Balance Minimus shoes already offered at the store.
“We’ve put all this work into getting people to try out minimal product and build it into their running routines,” Schermann said. “The warm-weather shoes are so developed that there’s this real glut of product, but [so far], whenever you talk about new weather-specific product, there’s nothing.”
Dan Loncto, owner of Fleet Feet in Buffalo, N.Y., said warmer weather conditions could be a big factor in these products’ success. His store currently carries New Balance’s Minimus trail shoe, but he’s unsure whether to bring in additional versions. If the weather does not turn colder, the store could end up sitting on too much inventory. “[Minimal running] is already so niche,” Loncto said. “At the most, it might be 3 percent to 4 percent of our business, and that’s including all the people who say they have to try it [once]. Let’s put it this way: I would never put that on a future order, but if we started off with an extremely rough winter weatherwise, it might be worth it to invest in a size run and see what happens.”
Other retailers said there is also a risk that customers who ran barefoot during the summer months might stick with their existing shoes and turn to the indoor treadmill in cold weather.
John Clark, footwear buyer at specialty retailer Skinny Raven in Anchorage, Alaska, noted there is usually no break in the icy winter conditions in his state. As a result, “people in Alaska are pretty practical about what they do,” he said. “So the very minimal stuff is no competition against something practical [such as studs on a regular winterized running shoe] because it’s almost impossible [to wear minimalist shoes] in the wintertime.”
These new styles feature added components for weather protection.
Merrell’s Men’s Pulse Glove and Women’s Tempo Glove
• water-resistant upper
• soles with Ice Trek, a pliable rubber compound by Vibram for better traction and grip
• cleated outsole like the one on the brand’s Trek shoe
• 4-millimeter EVA midsole for protection
• laminated upper with gusset tongue and taped seams for water resistance
• neoprene ankle cuff to keep out water
• micropile fleece footbed and upper lining for warmth
New Balance’s 110 Winter
• soft-shell upper with water-resistant gaiter
• 4-millimeter drop with sticky rubber outsole
Ecco’s Biom Grip
• Hydromax waterproof leather grip to keep feet dry
• tread pattern to help runners gain traction on snow and ice
Saucony’s Hattori All Weather
• water-resistant soft-shell upper for greater wind protection