Minimal 2.0

From one extreme to not-so-much, minimal footwear went from barely there to a tentative middle ground. Read our O.R. Daily Day 3 Feature about the future of minimal footwear.

Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2012 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 2-5. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

This SNEWS Outdoor Retailer Summer Market recap is brought to you by Cordura:

One could argue the minimalist footwearmovement started in Oregon when Bill Bowerman custom-made waffle racers for the late Steve Prefontaine before races. “Obviously minimalist footwear has been a part of the track and field category for decades,” said Outdoor Retailer Show Director Kenji Haroutunian, “but that hasn’t translated until recently into more every day consumer products.” 

For the outdoor industry, the trend, including the more niche and extreme “barefoot” craze, effectively began when Vibram brought its Classic Five Finger shoe to Outdoor Retailer in 2005. On the heels of skyrocketing sales since 2009, the momentum is somewhat slowing, according to data from Leisure Trends, but experts say while barefoot running might peter out as a fad, minimal footwear, specifically beefier models with zero drop from heel to toe, is part of the return-to-basics trend in consumer behavior that’s here to stay.

Leisure Trends calls it “Minimalist 2.0,” said Elisabeth Stahura, senior retail analyst for the company. “Minimalist 2.0 is some of your less extreme versions of minimalist and barefoot products. It’s taking some of those basic theories and basic tenants and beefing it up a little bit so it’s a bit easier for the consumer to digest.”

When sales of minimal products started taking off in 2009 (specifically in run specialty stores), there were only 10 brands offering minimalist products; now there are approximately 23 brands playing in the space, Stahura said.

While some manufacturers and retailers, like REI, have separated the two categories of minimal footwear — between minimal and barefoot — it seems most manufacturers are racing to the middle in terms of cushion with their latest products at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market. Industry experts say studies and education are needed for minimal footwear to continue its growth trajectory and for people to learn to use the products without injury.

Minimal shoes are “obviously not a fad,” said Vivobarefoot’s Elizabeth Millman, spokesperson for the company. “It’s here to stay.”

History and backlash

From Haroutunian’s point of view, the minimal footwear trend was born out of the same light-and-fast trajectory that other outdoor gear categories have experienced

“I see it attached to the ultralight movement in backpacking,” Haroutunian told O.R.D. Just as in footwear, the minimalism trend in packs has ebbed and flowed with consumer demand. A few years ago, ultralight packs were all the rage. Then consumers started quipping about pack durability and comfort. Today’s top pack trends lean more toward suspension systems than pack weight.

Racing flats aside, the minimal footwear movement began for the outdoor industry in 2005 with Vibram’s introduction of its Classic at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market that year.

Though the Classic, which Vibram’s spokesperson PJ Antonik said looked like a male ballet slipper, was originally marketed as a fitness shoe, it soon became a staple for those wanting to mimic barefoot running.

“When we first came out it was very alternative,” Antonik said. “It as very grassroots, a lot of word-of-mouth and passionate people who really believed in the whole barefoot style of fitness and running. The more mainstream it got, it took off.”

Helping that surge was the 2009 book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, leading to stellar sales of Vibram’s glove-like shoe. This effectively kicked of what Leisure Trends refers to as “Minimal 1.0.”

“The book ‘Born to Run’ has been a huge catalyst in bringing the sport of running and lightweight running to the mainstream consumer,” said Jon Teipen, footwear product line manager for Brooks.

The book made people question traditional running shoes and embrace barefoot running. While several studies have been conducted on the benefits of forefoot striking versus heel striking, such as one published by Dan Lieberman in the British science journal Nature, barefoot running without injury is not terribly realistic in our world of asphalt and artificial surfaces. Especially since some 90 percent of the running population remains faithful heel strikers, said Chris Hillyer, Teva’s product line manager.

Popularity outstripped education and many people who didn’t take the time to learn to use the new footwear found themselves sidelined by injuries, some even waging lawsuits against companies like Vibram. Barefoot running, called “risky” by the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research, became popular, maybe even a fad according to Gert-Peter Brüggemann, Ph.D., a German running biomechanics expert.

Ultra marathoner and author of “The Barefoot Running Book,” Jason Robillard, said one way to battle the recent backlash is with education, something companies like Merrell and Vibram do very well, he said.

A fad or not, the trend has led to an evolution from the barely there shoes to the beefier lightweight minimal running products we see today, including the cushier minimal Pure Project products from Brooks, which took all the characteristics people loved about minimal shoes, including the lighter weight and flexible, lower-profile shoe with lower offsets, and wrapped it into a package that featured a little bit more cushion. Plus Merrell launched its new Trail Glove and Pace Glove.

Part of the beefier angle to minimal shoes is because of the increasing popularity in trail running. “Trail running minimalist is a huge trend we’re seeing in 2012,” Stahura said, adding that sales of minimal trail products are up this year in outdoor specialty (up 108 percent), sporting goods chains (up 208 percent) and run specialty (50 percent).

Returning to basics now and in the future

Consumers are dying to go back to a simpler time, it seems. They’re striving to live sustainably, eat local, natural, unprocessed foods and purchase more “green” products.

The fact that it takes less material to make a minimal product speaks to the sustainability movement, Haroutunian said, even though it’s an “accidental benefit.” “This is an interesting proposition to the greater interest [in sustainability] at the consumer level.”

Because consumers want to return to a simple time, simpler shoes are here to stay. David Sypniewski, founder of Portland, Ore.-based Skora Running is among those newcomers to the minimalist movement. Minimal footwear, he said, is a movement back to the basics of what a shoe ought to be, which is a shoe with “a protective layer that allows a runner to go a distance longer than they probably could barefoot.” Sypniewski said he believes the future of running shoes in general is minimal shoes. Eventually, he said, “We’ll just be calling them running shoes.”

Other manufacturers argue minimal won’t become the norm in footwear because there will always be a need for the traditional running shoes that still dominate the market, Brooks’ Teipen said, because wearing lighter weight shoes is not for everybody.

“A lot of people like the shoe they currently have, are healthy and don’t want to change or experiment with anything else,” he said. Runners could benefit from both the minimal and the cushier shoes, using their shoes as tools in their training toolbox, he added. “For many runners, it is beneficial to use both types of running shoes for different types of training.”

What’s in it for retailers?

The running category continues to gain ground both with the fitness- and outdoor-oriented customer. And retailers who have paid attention have benefitted with increased sales and new consumers in their stores.

According to statistics from the Outdoor Industry Association’s Topline Participation Report for 2012, running and trail running were the most popular activities among youth (ages 6 to 24), and the activities experienced a 23 percent increase in participation among adults in the past three years. 

“People are looking for different ways to exercise and stay fit,” Vivobarefoot’s Millman said. “I do think the easiest and most cheap way to do so is to be outside —it’s so easy. It kind of relates to the going-back-to-basics, you don’t need to go to the gym and spend hours on the treadmill, you can just go outside.”

Naturally, when consumers think exercise outdoors, they think outdoor retailers. Since Vibram’s original Five Finger product came out, outdoor retailers were quick to embrace it and other minimal footwear product that came hot on its heels.

Education is key

Robillard advises both the early and late adopters of minimal products among retailers offer educational courses and minimal running workshops to one-up their online counterparts.

Chance Van Noppen, assistant store manager at the Great Outdoor Provision Company, agrees. Educating a customer to use a product properly means a happy customer who’s going to come back and buy a replacement pair and maybe other things.

“Folks come in looking for [minimal footwear],” Van Noppen said. “If they’re trying it on for the first time, it’s our responsibility to make sure they’re informed about what they’re purchasing, engaging them and letting them know that they have to transition into that type of shoe — it’s a process; it’s not the type of shoe you can take for your 6-mile run right out of the box.”

While there are good programs in place to educate consumers on how to properly use minimal footwear, Van Noppen and other retailers, like Austin Dukes at Charleston, N.C.’s Half Moon Outfitters, agree there’s not enough research to substantiate the benefits of running in minimal footwear and they’d like to see that.

The fact is, sales of minimal products have somewhat leveled off, Stahura said. Forty-five percent of run specialty retailers surveyed (outdoor retailers were not part of that particular survey) said they think that minimalist is a long term trend.

“They’re divided as to whether or not it’s going to continue to grow,” in triple-digit percentage points the way it has been, Stahura said.

Though triple-digit growth may not be in the future, Skora’s Sypniewski said, this footwear is around to stay.

“It’s not a fad and it’s even more than a trend,” he said. “It’s a movement.”

--Ana Trujillo



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