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At What Point Will We Have Too Many Minimalist Shoe Choices?

Posted by on May 28, 2011 | 15 Comments

This post is inspired by Barry Schwartz and his theory that modern Western industrialized societies have too many choices, which ultimately leads to anxiety and unhappiness.  Read about his theory here.  He wrote a book, too.

The premise is pretty simple.  We like choices… to a point.  If too many choices are offered, consumers are stricken with paralysis.  There is so much information to sift through, they simply choose not to decide.  Even if they do make a decision, the expectations of choosing the best possible product will almost always lead to some degree of disappointment.  After all, maybe they could have chosen a better one.

Back in the day, we didn’t have too many minimalist shoe choices.  We could buy some type of sandal, a racing flat, or an aqua sock.  None were especially well-suited as a method to protect the foot while maintaining the feel of barefoot running.

We rejoiced when Vibram released the original Five Fingers, then rejoiced more when they released the KSOs, Sprints, and Flows. This was a pretty good solution for the majority of barefoot runners in a majority of situations.  Hell, I used a pair of KSOs to finish my first 100 miler.

Over the next few years, a handful of alternatives entered the market.  Companies like Terra Plana started producing shoes to compete with Vibram.  None of the options were great, but they served the purpose pretty well.  Slowly more companies trickled their products into the market, but choices were still limited.  It was easy to figure out which shoe worked best for you.

Fast forward to 2011.  Some major players like Merrell and New Balance got into the game and started producing some excellent shoes.  Many would agree that these new kids on the block provided more choices and more variety.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Over the next 12 months, pretty much every major and minor manufacturer will begin producing a shoe that could legitimately be called a “minimalist shoe” based on my definition.  Right now we can still count our quality choice on two hands.  By May of 2012, we may very well have 25-50 choices.

Good right?  Not according to Schwartz’ theory.  He predicts (and I agree) that too many choices will ultimately lead to less satisfaction.  There will simply be too many choices available… too many options to consider. We will have crossed the tipping point of too many choices.

What does this mean?  This is something that’s impossible to predict, but I’ll take a stab anyway:

  1. The job of shoe reviewer will die. As choices increase, so will the reviews.  This will result in a lot of noise.  Overwhelmed consumers will simply stop researching shoes through blog reviews.  Some of the more prominent reviewers will keep churning out reviews due to a high Google ranking, but the smaller gigs will die.
  2. The companies that keep it simple will reign. There’s a tendency to flood the market with a million different shoes to meet the demands of a fickle market.  The smart companies will limit their offerings to reduce the number of perceived choices consumers will make.  How many different iPhones does Apple produce?  They understand the beauty of simplicity, and they have the customer base to prove it.  Like any good restauranteur knows, a simple menu perfectly executed attracts a lot bigger crowds than a lot of half-assed dishes.
  3. Barefoot running, as a percentage of total runners, will increase. This will be a direct result of consumer paralysis.  People will buy into the principles of natural running, but will balk at purchasing minimalist shoes immediately.  In that interim, they will be more likely to try true barefoot running.
  4. Current runners will be less likely to try minimalist shoes. This is a direct result of the consumer paralysis idea.  Companies (or barefoot running educators for that matter) that can figure out how to simplify the perceived number of choices will be the most successful.
  5. Those that are in the market right now have the greatest likelihood for success. They are creating a legion of loyal customers that will not be swayed by new shoes hitting the market.  The companies that produce kick-ass products and connect with their customer base on an intimate level will enjoy a sizable advantage.

What do you think?  Am I completely off-base?  Do you think there is such a thing as too many choices?  If so, do you have any predictions you’d like to make?

 

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15 Comments

  1. Running links for your enjoyment | The Running Bran
    June 1, 2011

    [...] At What Point Will We Have Too Many Minimalist Shoe Choices? [Barefoot Running University] – A legitimate question that I’ve already thought about when considering my next pair of running shoes You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. [...]

  2. Brandon
    May 31, 2011

    Anyone think that Vibram themselves have nearly reached the point where they just have too many options? My last pair was the Sprints (had the KSO’s before that) and now it seems every month they have a new model out. If I was to buy a new pair now, I might be a little anxious and worried that I’d pick the wrong pair. Maybe I’d end up just picking the style with the best color combination due to my lack of being able to decide :-)

  3. Shoshanna
    May 30, 2011

    Totally agree with the “too many choices” problem. I am a tremendously waffly shopper and am glad when I bought my minimalist shoes there were only a couple options in stores. I bought the Merrell Trail Gloves, largely due to what bloggers and commenters have been writing online. I think the role of independent review bloggers will thrive, as they afford a pretty extensive, unbiased opinion – plus those of dozens of commenters – which is really valuable for getting the straight dope. Anyway, it has only been a few weeks since I bought them and already even Merrell has a confusingly varied minimalist offering and increasingly more shoe companies are getting into the mix. I think it’s a good thing overall if the market accommodates different people’s feet (I found the NB Minimus uncomfortable, for instance), but it makes the shopping experience more of a headache.

  4. Matthew
    May 30, 2011

    I think the explosion of shoe choice may also hamper progress by shifting new minimalist runners’ focus from body and form (which is where the attention should be) to gear (which is largely a distraction). It’s inevitable, and it’s a good sign for minimalist running that it has penetrated enough that this is happening, but it creates a myth that performance, enjoyment, and health are based on a product not on something intrinsic to the runner, which runs counter to what BFR is all about and may ultimately temper the movement’s successes. Personally as a relatively new barefoot runner I’ve certainly given a lot of research and money to minimalist footwear that would have been much better invested in running form.

  5. Randy
    May 28, 2011

    I am on both sides of the fence, i think its great if it exposes the barefoot running more to the world… is that not the idea? to help more people and to make them more knowledgeable on what it truly is.
    Yes it may be doing it in the wrong way, or maybe its doing it in the right way. People will research more, it will expand the internet market with blogs/websites/stores, more events, more clinics and books.
    I think that is the very goal for the barefoot runners all around, to teach what they do so it can grow.
    Yes there will be the outcome of a lot of high priced horrible minimalist shoes on the market, but those who gain the knowledge that we are here to teach them will make the right decisions on what to do.
    Nothing will ever stay “underground”, life is expanding everyday, everything evolves especially in sports.

    So its coming no madder what we think or want, we need to grab it by the reigns, and go with it, but lead the ones we can on the right path. Just as long as those stay to our roots, keep gaining the knowledge everyday and share what we know with our fellow barefoot/minimalist and those wanting to live this lifestyle we will still be doing the right things.

    & Follow my blog barefoot/minimalist/running & health at therealrandy.tumblr.com

  6. Mondo
    May 28, 2011

    I haven’t been able to buy many pairs of barefoot/minimal shoes, but if I had the money you bet I’d own a pair of almost everything out there, just to try.

    I think the average consumer will be overwhelmed with the options and stick with the known/established presence in minimal shoes, like Vibram or Merrell.

    I haven’t seen anyone rock Fila’s toe shoes yet.

  7. Tyro
    May 28, 2011

    I hate to say it, but I also disagree with almost all of your predictions.

    What’s the worst case scenario? The world converts to minimalism and supportive shoes become a rarity. The easiest way to predict the future is it look at the present.

    1 Shoe reviewers – shoe reviews are big business so if anything, as choices grow the job of reviewers will grow too. No problem there.

    2 “The companies that keep it simple will reign.” I doubt it. If anything, a century of marketing has shown us that companies who offer lots of variation will attract more consumers and will marginalize competition. Look at Nike today – they’re the king because they have so many options, not because they’ve gone simple. Apple is an exception because tech itself is so complex that simplicity is a virtue – the same can’t be said about shoes.

    3 “Barefoot running, as a percentage of total runners, will increase.” Possibly but I think minimalist shoes will increase far faster for the same reasons people always wear shoes – smoother social fit, better protection, faster adoption rate (no need for months of pain, toughening the skin).

    4 “Current runners will be less likely to try minimalist shoes.” Strongly disagree, if only because minimalist shoes are already a tiny minority and can’t get any smaller :) But really, the more a style is seen in stores, ads and trails, the more accepted it becomes and the more likely people will try. As long as there isn’t infighting insisting that the Minimus is the One True Shoe, no the Trail Glove, no the VFF, no the Hoka One, no… If they’re all seen as fitting in the same class, people will just find one that fits them. Same as they’ve done for the past few decades.

    5 “Those that are in the market right now have the greatest likelihood for success.” Maybe. I doubt that there’s much First Mover advantage. And since the minimalist shoe community is so small, almost all of the people that will be using minimalist shoes 10 years from now won’t know or care who started what. Your talk about brand loyalty is on the money but it will mean that Nike wearers will seek out Nike, Adidas users will seek out Adidas, etc.

  8. Tyro
    May 28, 2011

    I think you’re wrong, let me explain.

    First, greater choice can lead to dissatisfaction but only under certain circumstances. If we are forced into making a firm decision which is irrevocable, then our minds quickly adjust and we become very satisfied with our choice. That happens even if the choice was random! This has been shown in many studies. It’s one reason that Consumer Reports advises us to, before we buy, seek the opinion of people who are looking for a purchase and avoid the opinions of those who have already bought, since they will be seeking to reinforce their decision and their objectivity will be gone.

    As it happens, this fixed choice already applies to the shoe market. Once we buy a shoe, it’s very difficult to return it once it has been used. That means we’re already working to convince ourselves that we made the right decision.

    Which leads me to point two: there’s vastly more choice in shoes (and shorts, shirts, hydration packs, vests, headlamps, watches, etc.) already than there is in the tiny niche of minimalist shoes. Consumers still buy supportive shoes and find comfort and happiness. Talk to them – you’ll find brand loyalty and all of the other signs of attachment and happiness despite the wealth of options available before purchase.

    If minimalist shoes get more options, we’ll see the same. People will find shoes that meet their peculiar needs and will stick to their choices with a fanatical loyalty.

  9. Chris
    May 28, 2011

    I like the Shwartz concepts applied to shoes — how many great shoes do I need? One, as long as it works for me. (okay, three — vff’s for barefoot days, instincts for when i need a little cushion, and my old shoe as i complete my transition from heels) Obviously there need to be options, as what works for me won’t work for everyone, but there is a limit to the variety that is practical. Much of it will be just to sell shoes. It’s always driven me nuts how shoe companies roll out the new “model” every year, with “improvement.” Just make the damn shoe good and leave it alone.

    Also, there will be “enough” when someone makes a minimal shoe in widths. RIght now, I can’t find any minimal shoes in 2-3E, which I wear. I can wear VFFs and the Altiva Instinct has a wide enough toe-box for my foot, but those are my only options. I want to try the Soft Star dash, as they hand make their shoes and can do custom widths.

    I agree with Patton re: the role of shoe reviewers. I completely distrust any major shoe company and their PR, so I always read multiple reviews of a shoe before I try it out. As Maple Grove said, most of these “obscure” shoes are only available on-line, so I’m trusting my feet to a third party review. The only reason I was willing to take the plunge and by the Instincts untestes was Patton’s Natural Running Store offered such a fantastic return policy. (Its just an amazing company all around, though I should stop lauding Patton constantly on-line, or he’s going to suspect I want something from him.)

    I do agree the companies who have been making minimal shoes for a while will be the ones that survive. Not only do they have a loyal customer base, but they have been working with runners and seem to believe in what they do. A lot of the companies jumping on the bandwagon are just in it for money and to ride the trend. Obviously every company is in it for money, but some believe in what they do. This is one case where I think the market will let the devoted companies survive and the coat-tail riders sink.

  10. Joe
    May 28, 2011

    Couldn’t agree more but it will be a slow painful death for traditional shoes. I don’t see Nike and Reebok going down easily from the running market even though both have had “minimalist” offerings. It’s still slow to transition for some loyalist as well. People are just reluctant to change and others embrace. I’ve ran in Vibrams and totally bare for about 18 months and wouldn’t consider going back.

  11. Patton Gleason
    May 28, 2011

    Great Barry Schwartz reference. His Ted talk is really good to. However, I may have a different perspective on a few points. I believe the roll of the independent shoe reviewer will become even more important. BRU, MGBG and other bloggers have a very personal and authentic brand. The BFR, MR philosophies have created a ton of skepticism among runners and athletes of traditional shoe companies. I have seen a huge lack trust particularly as there is more valid data and research on running and running form. This is especially true for traditional running publications that review shoes and then feature advertisements of those shoe.

    I think we will also see more athletes trying minimal shoes. On a gut level I think the roll of form and technique is going to have a greater voice in running. I think this is going to make the sport more accessible to more people. My experience is that the running dogma is fueled by parts of the running & medical industry, not so much by athletes. The better an athletes form is, the less of a role a shoe performs.

    It is a very exciting time in running and the running industry. I am hopeful and optimistic that the running experience is making it’s way back to where it belongs…on the feet of the people.

  12. Nora
    May 28, 2011

    Yes I think there are. I personally have tried many in order to run. I actually ran in Nike frees last yr(don’t throw stuff at me) and wound up with a tibial stress fracture.. I’m still searching because I’ve got a half IM in August. Too many choices for me and frankly I have no idea what to chose!

  13. phil
    May 28, 2011

    I agree with both of you. I have been wearing 5 fingers for 6 months after wearing orthotics for 20 years and I am not orthotic free. I have had a hard time finding minimalist shoes that fit me right and that don’t bother my feet. So far the vibram 5 fingers and merrell trail glove do the trick. I have been able to wear a slip on boat shoe from ll bean for work that does the trick. I have had a heck of a time finding the shoes though. It seems like a shoe with too much cushioning bothers my alignment and hurts my back and neck. But the 5 fingers and merrells with pretty much zero cushioning and drop are perfect for me. I tried the new balance minimus trail which I really like, the sole was perfect, not too cushiony, but the heel toe drop killed me, felt like I was running in cowboy boots compared to the 5 fingers. You guys rock and your blogs are fantastic. Keep it up

  14. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
    May 28, 2011

    I already see a lot of customer paralysis because virtually all minimal shoes are only available online. It doesn’t matter how many reviews you read (unless you read mine of course), it’s hard to buy shoes without trying them on first. So I think there are already too many choices. I’ve released a new shoe review almost every week since January. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could get these shoes in stores.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this. Good post Jason!

    • Brandon
      May 31, 2011

      Good point. The way I see it is until the huge sports stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods carry multiple minimalist options, the general public will have a hard time getting into them as they generally like to try on shoes before buying them. They also don’t always want to go into a small running-specialty store and being interrogated by a clerk who wants to analyze their gait (which is assuming that these small stores even carry minimalist options!)