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What Shoe Companies Will Survive the Revolution?

Posted by on Oct 13, 2011 | 35 Comments

We’re in the midst of a paradigm shift away from the antiquated “neutral, stability, and motion-control” paradigm and toward the minimal-based “shoes as tools” paradigm.  It’s easy to write this off as a passing fad or just another option to compliment the old way of doing things, but this is short-sighted.

When people make the switch to minimalist shoes, they don’t go back.

Based on the number of people making the transition AND the rate at which that number is increasing, that paradigm shift will hit critical mass A LOT sooner than most predict.  We’re in the midst of a revolution.  How will this affect shoe companies?

It depends on the company.  As a relative outsider, I base my opinions on my own observations of individuals, not things like sales data or market trends.  I’m more “old time scout” than “Moneyball.”

The future of many companies will be tied directly to their willingness to accept the ideas behind quality minimalist shoes.  The most important quality:

Develop shoes that doesn’t interfere with natural running form. 

Those that manage to do this will thrive.  Those that don’t will suffer.  Some may even go belly-up.  Such is the nature of revolutions.

The companies that will be most successful will be those that are the early adopters.  They will have gotten into the game at the right time- before critical mass hits.  This will allow them to experiment with design to find the right combination of form and function.  It will allow them to discover an important point that will doom the late-comers:

No technology can improve the function of a shoe.

Right now, shoe “technology” is marketing gold.  Adding fancy materials that provide support and cushioning or supposedly launch the runner forward is a sure way to sell a lot of shoes, even if there’s no empirical evidence supporting the claims.  Unfortunately for the companies hanging their hat on technology, consumers are getting more educated.  A growing number are looking at shoe technology with skepticism.

Adding technology to shoes seems to be addictive to some companies.  In recent years, several have developed supposed minimalist shoes loaded with stupid features that claim to improve performance.  Eventually they will learn to strip the technology and build a fundamentally sound shoe that gets out of the way of a runner’s natural gait.

The faster companies realize this, the better off they will fare in the near and distant future.

Some companies are at that point.  Others will be very soon.  Many are not and will continue plodding along with their head in the sand.  Those that are at that point are working their asses off to fully understand this new paradigm.  They’re putting in the hours that will ultimately assure their future success.  Those that are not there are playing with the idea of minimalist shoes, but don’t fully buy into the idea.  As a company, they’re content to sit on their asses and continue churning out the same motion-controlled turds.

Another variable is size.  The bigger the company, the more potential success they will have in the future assuming they “get” the first idea.  Having a well-established known brand with a capable sales force and adequate marketing,manufacturing, and distribution in order to meet consumer demand is HUGE.  The behemoths already have this.  The midsize companies do, too.  Smaller companies and upstarts… they may struggle a bit.  Still they will be in a much better position than the late adopters.

The final variable is somewhat related to the first- internal consistency.  The companies that fully buy into the ideas of minimalist shoes will have a much easier time developing good shoes than a company that produces some minimalist shoes and some traditional foot coffins.  Eventually all companies will produce variations of minimalist shoes, but the sooner they get the entire operation on board,the better they will fare.

If we can use this idea as a predictive tool, which companies will be successful and which ones will struggle?  Anyone that follows the minimalist shoe movement should immediately know the answer to this question.  By 2013, these are my predicted winners and losers:

Winners that can’t miss

  • Vibram- This should go without saying.  They will lose market share to the non-five toed shoes, but will continue to be a dominant force.  The Five Fingers division of the company meet all three of my criteria.  It helps that they produce a lot of minimalist soles for other brands.
  • Merrell- I write enough about the culture of the company to get the idea- they are definitely ahead of the curve on all three of the above variables, which places them as the company with the room for the greatest growth.  Their enthusiasm will be market-changing.  Their Spring 2012 lineup will confirm that they’ve carefully listened to their audience.
  • Newton- I’m not a fan of the shoes, but they do all the right things.  That includes learning.  They’ll only get bigger.
  • VivoBarefoot- Their size is a limiting factor, but they’re doing all three of the above very well.  Once they master the design of athletic shoes, their popularity will take off.
  • Nike- They have something up their sleeve, and I think it’s going to be HUGE.  They’ve been too quiet.  I predict they’ll abandon the old paradigm entirely,which will be the tipping point where every company will be forced to follow.  This is part of what will allow the other four above to have such an advantage.

Those that are in a great position to win, but need to work on a few things

  • New Balance- They’re learning good design with the Minimus line.  They have the size.  Unfortunately they still make a shit load of non-minimal shoes, which will present a tricky transition period.  Despite this, I’d still bet on NB becoming a winner in the new paradigm.
  • Inov-8- They’re in the same boat as New Balance without the size. This will allow them to make a faster transition to the new paradigm, but they don’t have as wide of a distribution network.  Their 2012 lineup will be impressive.

Companies that have a decent shot

  • Saucony- The Hattori is a small step in the right direction, but not enough to convince me.
  • Adidas- Their Five Fingers knock-off shows they are at least flirting with the idea.  They would benefit from a strong international minimalist movement.  If they capitalize when that happens, they could be a winner.
  • Hoka One One- Their idea, while appearing to be the polar opposite of minimalist shoes, isn’t as far off as it seems.  This is a long-shot, but their shoes allow good running form and offer something no other company offers.
  • Sketchers- Yeah, I am as shocked as you.   Unlike their Shape-up train wreck, I think they may do this one right.  Call it a hunch.

Companies that will be the losers

  • Asics- They may be the last company to still produce motion controlled shoes.
  • Brooks- The fact that they still produce the Beast is all you need to know.
  • Reebok- RealFlex.  ‘Nuff said.  Oh, and their Crossfit shoe is a joke.  After years of being on the forefront of minimalist shoes, CF took a serious step back.  P90X, anyone?

I left off some of the small companies that are doing great things for brevity’s sake.  For the most part, they don’t have the distribution capabilities to be market-changers.  Still, companies like Altra, Skora, STEM, Kigo, Sockwa, Soft Star,etc. will do just fine.  The huaraches companies, like Luna, Invisible Shoes, Branca, and Un Shoes will do well, too.

What are your thoughts?  Agree?  Disagree?

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35 Comments

  1. Arun
    October 16, 2011

    I disagree with your point about Brooks. They have a new line of shoes coming out called Pure Connect that are on the same scale as the Kinvara and the Minimus. Even though their marketing for the shoes might be puzzling (does the CEo like the minimalist movement or not), it doesn’t change the fact that it might be a cool shoe.

    Those FiveFinger knockoffs were from FILA, not Adidas. And even though Adidas doesn’t have any minimalist options, they do have some good minimalist racing flats such as the Adizero Rocket (again on the Kinvara/Minimus scale).

    Nike is done. I think they’re sticking with what they got. Even though it is not a minimalist shoe, the Nike Free Run is immensely popular, and I don’t think that Nike is going to change a high-selling product. Their Nike Free 3.0v3 is their most minimal option right now. The fact that they still make the also popular Pegasus and Lunarglide tells me that they are not going to move into the minimalist market.

  2. Erik Lee Skjon
    October 14, 2011

    For me the real shame is that companies are adapting so fast and so many new brands are popping up that a lot of people may forgo trying barefoot running altogether. They’ll switch immediately to minimalist shoes, despite running in conditions–relatively warm temps, good asphalt, short to medium distances, etc.–where shoes are completely unnecessary, and never give barefoot running a chance.

  3. Brant
    October 14, 2011

    Que paso with all the running sandal companies? Aren’t huaraches the next big thing? Brancas, Lunas, Invisibleshoes, and Unshoes all have a shot, eh?

  4. Dave
    October 13, 2011

    I’m rooting for Stem Footwear. I just got a pair of their recently released Primal Origins. I have been doing minimalist running for 8 years now, and they are the best shoes I have run in. Super-light, super-flexible and super-comfy. I hope they can compete with the big boys.

  5. John
    October 13, 2011

    Money. If people continue to shell out more money for less shoe (the $60 Hattori, and the huaraches like the Invisible Shoe are anomalies price wise) then the shoe giants will latch on with dollar sign-fueled tenacity. I am beginning to accept the fact that the minimal running shoes will most likely carry a $100 + price tag…and seeing how the average runner has more than one pair, that’s at least two Benjamins, and if you see a market of 1,000,000 or more runners blowing two Benjamins on shoes, that spells cash cow to me.

    • Wiglaf
      October 17, 2011

      Well, at this stage, maybe it’s a cash cow. “Minimalist”, in general, can’t exactly be patented, though. As more players enter the market, you’ll have more competition. The market will get saturated. Prices will drop even for the higher quality shoes. In order to get you to keep spending benjamins, they’ll have to patent and “improve” upon the minimalist shoe. New never before seen technology in minimalism! No reason to think it won’t happen. If you want minimalist shoes in -20 degree weather, then we’ll need new minimalist insulation technology! :-)

  6. Jesse
    October 13, 2011

    As much as I like wearing less shoe, I think people should just put aside what others think and pick a shoe that helps. Though I find hokas to look hilarious, there are simply too many people praising them and backing it up with great performances(speedgoatkarl=probably the greatest example). If I could get my hands on a pair without spending almost $200 dollars, I would, even if they made my toothpick legs look even more rediculous.
    With regard to ultras, the current group of well-known elites wear a wide variety of shoes for both racing and training. If a person *needs* a certain amouunt of groundfeel to run an ultra, than that could just be one of their limiting factors to further success, just like an old injury or ailment.

    • Jesse
      October 13, 2011

      …aaaaand I just realized that this doesn’t even relate to the post that much. My bad.

  7. L3vi
    October 13, 2011

    Hi Guys,

    Recently I had a chance to travel and run around Europe. I have been in England and Ireland, France, Malta, Hungary, Italy …
    I cannot see that this minimal line is booming on the way it is doing it in USA at all. Actually there is no one in my close community who is running in any sort of minimal shoes. Asics is still one of the best sellers, also Nike Adidas Salomon. I run exclusively in Inov8s, they work for me well, no injuries no problems. Yous should see the look of people that I am not wearing the traditional high heel sneakers, and I am talking about athletes too, not just recreational joggers.

    What do you think ? Will the boom reach Europe ? I think that is one of the reason the Barefoot coaching can be a good thing, to break down language barriers and educate people.

  8. Mondo
    October 13, 2011

    Brooks just came out with their Pure Project line. I tried it on and wasn’t too impressed but most blogs/reviews around the net are positive.

  9. Nick Pang
    October 13, 2011

    I go by my hunch and what I see when talking to runners, marketers, and trade show staff. It’s more than running – it’s the whole minimalist lifestyle (shoes for hiking, casual, dress, golf, cross fits, etc.) including apparel.

    With that said, BIGGEST winners are Merrell, New Balance, VIVOBAREFOOT, and Nike (coming out party is Spring/Summer ’12). Skechers and Under Armour are sneaking up…

  10. Fred
    October 13, 2011

    I’m a dedicated minimalist runner wearing Hattori and MT10 and I just issued (in French) a 32 pages booklet titled “Minimalist Tips and Buyers Guide”. Although I would like to see more real “barefoot” shoes on the shelves, I predict that they won’t go mainstream.
    Having reviewed Pure Connect, Skechers GoRun, Newton MV2, I guess that this particular type of shoes with a sole which induces you into middle-of-the-foot striking without having to spend months of transitionning and without having to work by yourself on your stride (the shoe does it for you) will be the real winners since people will find them easy and quick to use.

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  12. Josh W
    October 13, 2011

    I think there are a couple of things you have to look at here.

    First how diverse is a companies shoe line – ie Nike who has basketball, football, golf etc. or even Reebok and Sketchers. Versus those (mostly) running shoe companies like Brooks, Asics or Inov8. How big is running compared to basketball? or even compared to MBT style shoes. The running shoe only companies have a lot more to loose if they aren’t providing shoes that consumers want.

    Second how much profit is there in a NB Minimus versus some NB motion control marshmellow or NB MBT style shoe. I don’t know the answer but i’ve worked at enough CPG companies to know its not all about sales volume and market share.

    And finally there is the local human factor. Here in Atlanta the two big running store “chains”, Big Peach and Phidippides (owned by Jeff Galloway) were very slow to bring in minimal shoes. They have some now (Vibram, Newton, Minimus) but they also have Hoka’s. If you go in and want running shoes they (at Big Peach) still put you on a treadmill and look for over pronation etc. It’s the language they know how to speak. They did this with my wife (I had to promise to keep my mouth shut). Meanwhile, the sales guys were also taking pictures of my huaraches :-). Meanwhile Abbadabba’s, the alternative shoe stores in Atlanta, brought Vibram’s in when they first came out, carry a huge assortment of minimalist shoes when they are launched but don’t know a damn thing about running.

    Amazing how much I think I know about this stuff since I haven’t bought a pair of shoes in something like 3 years (homemade huaraches for me).

    Josh

  13. Josh
    October 13, 2011

    I am not so sure. I love my minimalist shoes. The have greatly improved my running form, and made running fun again. BUT. I am the only one in my running group who is really sold on it. That makes it less than 10%. Really, the others do fine with their “traditional” shoes. I.E., they can run fast and far with no injuries. And even now, I am nursing a bruised foot from a trail run in 5″ of snow. I could have used a thicker sole, and am looking for something a little less minimalist for my trail running.

  14. Wiglaf
    October 13, 2011

    I think the revolution will be slow. A hefty percentage of runners just don’t want to deal with the transition.

  15. Julien
    October 13, 2011

    Very interesting article !
    i really don’t know the “running market” but i can’t just imagine big brands like asics or brooks falling down by missing the minimalist trend (or jumping in lately)

    Can Merrell compete with asics or saucony in dedicated running stores to gain enough market share ?
    (adding the fact that in my mind they’re not a running manufacturer brand but mountain / trekking)

    i really like my trail glove since 6 month, but stay sceptical :)
    Anyway i really like this challenge, and will be very curious of 2012 line up…
    - nike free next step ?
    - vff : just new colours ?
    - brook pure project / saucony minimalist lin-up (kinvara, mirage, peregrine) ? too much padding ?

  16. Kim
    October 13, 2011

    I think you forget that if people come from ordinary shoes and no training and want to run a marathon within a year it can not be done barefoot or in minimalist. I do not think that the body can go from 0 – 42 km in a year barefoot – you have to get the support and aid from orinary running shoes (and will be balancing on the edge of an injury… ) to succeed.

    I now that it would be the correct way to wait a year or to, but …

    I have run for 1½ year and the last 6 month in merrells an s aucony Kinvara. I still can not run more than 7 miles in the merrells.

    My guess is that the market for minimalist will grow way bigger, but 40-60 % will still be for the supported shoes that can help people run “to fast to soon” and get and injury – but off course that is not because of the shoes …

    • Jason
      October 13, 2011

      The time needed to transition will be a limiting factor, but there’s a lot of effort being put into teaching good form these days. I think that will help negate the speed of transition issue to a degree.

      I also agree- there will always be the runners that prefer the cushioned, supportive trainers… but that number will drop significantly.

  17. Speedgoatkarl
    October 13, 2011

    In my opinion, minimalistic shoes are great for around the house, and can help make feet stronger, but they don’t do much for running. They hurt feet, “feeling the trail” is not necessarily good. :-)

    The Hoka One One will survive, and survive well cuz’ they are so comfortable, they go above and beyond any minimalistic shoe. They also have cushioning, which will ultimately help the body pounding in the long run. WE really don’t see many runners in minimalistic shoes, at least on trails.

    Great post!

    • Wiglaf
      October 13, 2011

      I like to run barefoot on trails unless the acorns are dropping. It’s a massage for the feet. :-) Minimalist shoes and barefoot have completely changed my running experience for the better. I ran a speed workout last night. I haven’t done that in a while. Last time I did it after not doing it in a while (and not minimalist), I struggled to get around 6:10 for a mile time. This time, I had a nice controlled 5:52 (and that was after doing a 1/2 mile at 2:56), and the leg movement was the easiest part (breathing, the hardest).

      To be honest, my feet do get sore, but the good kind of sore. Point is, it is very possible to enjoy minimalist/barefoot running without pounding. I did 10 miles barefoot on Saturday and my knees feel great. That did not happen as a cushy shoe wearing heel striker.

    • Jason
      October 13, 2011

      In a weird ironic twist, I almost posted that my Mafates are my favorite casual shoes for around the house. It’s liberating to no longer need a ladder to clean the gutters. ;-)

      Seriously though, Hokas didn’t work well for me. I have several problems that are probably pretty specific to my own preferences and cannot be generalized to a wider population. The biggest problem- they turn trails into traffic-less roads. Good for speed, bad for the experience of trail running. However, the premise isn’t without merit. I actually prefer them to Newtons or any traditional running shoe.

      Now if only we can get people to pronounce “One One” correctly…

  18. Eli
    October 13, 2011

    hey Jason I just wanted to put a race in your mind and that is the Wilcat 50k in wildcat den state park muscatine, IA for more info go to cornbelt.org and then go to calendar and look for it. The Race is free if you don’t donate (although I recomend it) or bring food. also, the race is november 25th and is a trail race. plus it is very small scale and and 6 mile loop coarse.

    • Theo
      October 13, 2011

      I’m thinking about running this but isn’t is on November 13th?

      • Eli
        October 13, 2011

        yes it is thanks for correcting me

  19. Mike M.
    October 13, 2011

    Jason,

    Thanks for the insights. I have just one comment about “technology” and your belief that it needs to be completely stripped from a shoe for it to be a successful minimalist shoe.

    I completely disagree. What needs to be stripped is the kind of “technology” that you talked about (gimmick like cushioning materials, etc. that make the shoe bulkier and divorce the runner from form). But I guarantee you that every company you listed as a “winner” will have put a ton of research and “technology” into each of their shoes. Just look at Newton. There is a tremendous amount of technology in their energy return concept as well as how they attempt to provide ground feel in what is essentially a cushioned trainer/racer.

    • Jason
      October 13, 2011

      I think I would disagree about the technology assessment. Companies claim to spend a lot on R&D, but I suspect most of their money/time is spent designing stylish shoes. In specific regards to Newton, I’d like to see them abandon the whole energy return system. The idea of something in the shoe springing you forward doesn’t make much sense, otherwise these would actually work as advertised: http://www.travelizmo.com/archives/spring-shoes.jpg.

      I think you are right about the elimination of cushioning. When using good form, it accomplishes nothing.

      • Wiglaf
        October 13, 2011

        Ha. Those spring shoes are ridiculous. Then I saw this “legit” site for what appears to be a similar design.
        http://www.zcoil.com/
        I cringe at the idea of wearing them. Plus, they just look stupid despite the effort in the pictures to look fashionable.

      • Mike M.
        October 13, 2011

        In this economy, a company is not going to spend money anywhere they don’t have to… and they certainly aren’t going to pour millions into (or tens of millions) of dollars into “R&D” when it is really for shoe asthetics. If for no other reason, companies should want to research materials for the soles that provide for (a) good ground feel and (b) good durability while still providing for the thinnest possible sole. Whether you realize it or not, that is still “technology”

        (By the way, I’m a patent attorney, so my whole world view is in incremental technological improvements)

  20. Jamoosh
    October 13, 2011

    I think you also have to figure in the fact that your list of “losers” do much more than just running shoes. So I don’t see them falling by the wayside. My concern is that some of the smaller companies who have done great things begin to lose their niche because the bigger companies adopt the same principles about running as they have, thereby putting them at risk. Overall, it’s great for runners, but we still could lose some innovators.

    • Jason
      October 13, 2011

      I agree, which will make it hard for the upstarts to survive. If they can develop a GREAT product, they have a chance. Otherwise, I can see them being swallowed up by the big fish.

  21. Steve Reed @ Wild Runner
    October 13, 2011

    Great article Jason.

    Companies have to adapt to change in demand and also the general consensus about, in this case, running shoes.

    Those companies that have, or are adapting will thrive, the others may not. That said, some of the forums that I go on are still full of people worrying about cushioning, pronation, inserts etc etc.

    It makes me think that a lot of the companies that do nothing will continue to thrive. The evidence in favour of minimalist running shoes and barefoot will take many years to erode a lot of the mistruths that were told in support of the running shoe.

    Here’s hoping that the competition in the minimalist market will continue to push innovation and design for those companies that get on board

    Cheers

    • Jason
      October 13, 2011

      Many of the laggards will survive, but they’ll occupy the part of the market currently populated by companies like Converse and Pony. Just another wild prediction. :-)