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The Price of Ignoring the Barefoot Running Trend = Death in the Marketplace

Posted by on Jan 19, 2012 | 14 Comments

There’s a simple rule in any changing paradigm- the new thing isn’t as good as the old thing… in the beginning. That simple fact keeps the old guard from embracing change. It also eventually leads to the kiss of death for those that cling to the old paradigm. Why? The new paradigm gets better over time. In the age of the Internet, this happens at blazing speeds because the Interwebs allow people to connect and share ideas.

For years, the running industry worked feverishly to build their industry off a misguided concept- form didn’t matter. How you ran could be corrected with the right shoe. Simple idea. Logical even. In fact, I would argue our medical community did a fantastic job solving the problems this paradigm created. Excessive cushioning, motion control, and custom ortohotics were fairly ingenious. Good methods, good solutions. Wrong problem.

Fast forward to today. It’s apparent we’re undergoing a dramatic paradigm shift. Minimalist ‘barefoot’ shoe sales are skyrocketing. Interest in running form, including barefoot running, is unprecedented. Organizations like the Barefoot Runners Society are growing at breakneck speeds. More research is supporting the premise. Medical professionals are re-examining the ideas. Manufacturers are teaching about good form.

There’s a problem, though. The new paradigm isn’t quite as good as the old paradigm… yet. Well, at least in the eyes of the old guard. There’s still a lot of unanswered questions. Lots of gray area.

As a result, the old guard isn’t really accepting these ideas. Why should they? Even though the market share for the oldies is decreasing, there’s a lot more money to be made making and selling the motion control. Executives are comfy. Salespeople are complacent. Retail shoe stores still dedicate their wall space to the oldies. After all, they’re still where the profits lie. It’s not all a matter of profit- many still buy into the logic of the old paradigm- people are flawed and need shoes to correct those flaws. If it worked yesterday, it will work tomorrow.

Some people are in the know. Some stores see the writing on the wall. I’ve met these store owners, shoe buyers, and retail salespeople. They know where the future is heading, and are ready. They educate themselves. They may still keep most of the oldies on the wall, but they’re ready to make the switch immediately. These are the people that will prosper tomorrow.

Most aren’t ready. They’re using the past to predict the future. They see this as a fad, a trend that will fade in time. After all, barefoot running has sprung up before. And died. Of course, those other spikes didn’t have the benefit of the Internet…

Most of the skeptics don’t realize this movement has momentum. They see it in the present state and declare it’s not valid. It’s a niche; an annoyance to tolerate until it disappears. Their strong faith in the old system blinds them to the trends happening in the research, medical, and shoe industry. It blinds them to the grassroots connectedness of the movement. It blinds them from seeing the future.

After all, we still have biomechanics professors still teaching how to fit shoes. We still have doctors prescribing custom orthotics as a first line of treatment. We still have plenty of motion control shoes on the market. Arch support abound! The old paradigm still seems like a good idea… especially when it’s compared to the apparent chaos of the barefoot/minimalist paradigm.

The record industry thought the same thing about Kazaa. The U.S. auto industry thought the same thing about the Prius. The phone companies thought the same thing about Skype. The newspaper industry thought the same thing about the Huffington Post. Blockbuster thought the same thing about Netflix.

How many times do we have to see this trend to understand how it works?

Who will succeed in the running world over the next ten years? I’m betting on those that embrace barefoot and minimalist shoe running.  Most of the shoe manufacturers see it coming.  Most of the outdoor retail world see it coming.  Sadly, not all of our local running stores see it coming.  This is even more troubling because the local running store is such a foundation for our local running communities.  They direct and sponsor races, serve as a meeting point to connect runners, host and manage local running clubs, and generally promote health and well-being.

Let’s hope I’m wrong.

What are your thoughts?  Is this assessment accurate?

 

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14 Comments

  1. Mo
    January 22, 2012

    I remember the big leather belts that dudes wore to lift weights in the 80s. Then we figured out they were causing back trouble…
    Now every trainer is focused on “the core”.
    I look forward to us seeing arch support and motion control the way we now see those big leather belts, and every trainer talking about “foundation” as they teach people how to use their weakened feet!

  2. dogrunner
    January 21, 2012

    I consider myself a minimal-shoe runner. Have been for years (long before BtR). I bought your book and found it very helpful. Have a pretty good library of other “barefoot running” reading material.

    So I am completely sold on this style of running for myself.

    But I think you are Wrong about the industry as a whole. Minimal running shoes are a fast growing segment because it is so small. You are so embedded in the “movement” that that is what you see around you(I realize I am being argumentative, for the sake of devil’s advocacy).

    But MOST… the VAST majority of people I see running are still running in standard shoes, mostly unaware of alternatives, and mostly NOT caring in the least. They are not interested in form, or performance, or evolutionary or anatomical arguments. Running is not their passion, just something they do as part of their personal fitness routine. They are just as happy to jump on the elliptical trainer as to run. You can ignore this segment if you want, declare that the only relevant population is dedicated runners, whatever, but that would just be a reflection of YOUR bias.

    So keep on promoting good form, keep harassing shoe companies to make decent shoes, but your pronouncements of the death of standard shoes are, I respectfully submit, premature. IMO.

  3. Thomas
    January 21, 2012

    Just for the sake of argument, I would rather foresee that there will be two different markets for the foreseable time. One market for “traditional shoes” and one for “barefootshoes”. Both market will grow an prosper. The “barefoot market” will grow faster, but from small numbers.
    Since the transition is risky, runners will get hurt if they dont to the transition by the book, it will take much longer time than any other paradigm shift. If you change an old Nokia phone to an iPhone, you will get the rewards at once, this is not the case with changing from traditional to barefoot shoes.

  4. Paul Wallis
    January 19, 2012

    I agree with most of what you said. One minor thing, remember the “new paradigm shift”, is really not new. People have been running barefoot for millions of years, you know this I’m sure. I understand what you’re trying to say.

    Also I think the future of any running store looks bleak if they continue sell exclusively the old foot coffin shoes that are mostly used by runners today. My local running store is very anti-barefoot (as you know I’ve mentioned before). However I can understand the reluctance to change. It would take a complete overhall of the stores philosophy, and a restructuring of most of the running clinics. It would take quite a few resources to do this, and to catter to just a few runners may not be profitable at this time. Eventually it won’t be the same as more runners adopt a minimalist or barefoot perspective, but hopefully I’ll have my own clinics running in the area by then….

  5. Mike M.
    January 19, 2012

    I think minimalist shoes (I still can’t bring myself to use the oxymoronical “barefoot shoes”) will still be somewhat of a niche segment of the market for at least a couple more years, but I think we have already passed the tipping point (or maybe “point of no return” is a better metaphor). I agree that there is too much momentum for this to go away completely, but there isn’t enough critical mass for the paradigm shift that we know is coming.

    That being said, I see the market shaking out like this:
    1) Two or three minimalist-only manufacturers will emerge as the “standard” for minimalist shoes (right now, the most likely candidates seem to be Vibram and Merrell (I know, technically not “minimalist-only,” but I had never even considering them anything but a hiking or casual shoe company until I started looking into minimalist shoes), and maybe Vivobarefoot). Several other companies will become small, niche manufacturers or will disappear.
    2) One or two “traditional” shoe makers will step up their game and offer a strong offering in minimalist shoes (while still keeping their “normal” running shoe lines). I would have thought Nike was the most likely candidate, but right now New Balance seems to be the only company really trying to develop in the minimalist space. The company or companies that successfully embrace minimalist shoes first and best will also eventually emerge as the industry leader in all running shoes, no matter how small their current market share currently is.
    3) The vast majority of local running stores will not embrace minimalist shoes until it is too late (as you predicted). These stores will all be gone within five to ten years. The stores that at least have a small selection of minimalist shoes now, or have the knowhow to start selling them quickly, will survive and thrive. Hopefully, some new running stores will open that fully embrace minimalist shoes to replace the ones that folded.
    4) Any local market of any appreciable size that does not have at least one local running store selling minimalist shoes will turn into an internet-only market within 5-10 years. As customers transition to minimalist shoes, they will buy them online (where the prices are better anyway). Once most customers buy their shoes online, they’ll realize that they don’t need a running store anymore (this makes me sad… but unfortunately, it is true).

    • briderdt (David)
      January 19, 2012

      “3) The vast majority of local running stores will not embrace minimalist shoes until it is too late (as you predicted). These stores will all be gone within five to ten years. The stores that at least have a small selection of minimalist shoes now, or have the knowhow to start selling them quickly, will survive and thrive. Hopefully, some new running stores will open that fully embrace minimalist shoes to replace the ones that folded.”

      What shocks me even more now is how minimalist-only stores (like the Born to Run store in Bellevue and Seattle, WA) can stay in business.

  6. Erik
    January 19, 2012

    I’m skeptical, but whatever the outcome, you’re well-placed to write a good history of this period in a few years’ time. Your blog and experiences will provide a lot of data.

  7. Dave
    January 19, 2012

    I agree that there is a reluctance of local running stores to embrace barefoot/minimalist footwear. These stores are often owned by long-time serious runners, and may be somewhat set in their ways.

    However, until we reach a tipping point of shoe sale volume, the small guys can’t afford the shelf space to carry what is essentially a specialty item (for now). Having said that, my local store did do a brief (and reluctant) foray into carrying VFFs, and has carried NB Minimus for the last year.

    These guys are not stupid and will carry a running shoe if they have evidence that makes them think it will sell well, whether that means thin-soled barefoot shoes, foot coffins, wooden clogs, or whatever the next big thing is.

  8. briderdt (David)
    January 19, 2012

    Jason — I don’t think we’re talking about CDs vs. vinyl here, or DVDs vs. video tapes, or fuel injection vs. carbs. I seriously doubt that minimalist shoes will ever completely take over the market. But one can dream…

  9. Rob Youngren
    January 19, 2012

    I think it just takes more education and coaching. I strongly benefited from an early active role my highschool/college coaches took but making us do barefoot striders on the grass football field every other day after practice. A little bit goes a long way when it comes to barefooting and this isn’t such an extreme way to get folks to:

    A) Try barefooting
    B) Learn/Teach good form
    C) Begin to slowly strengthen those lower leg and feet muscles.

    By teaching ALL runners to try to incorporate the barefoot striders we’ll help improve their form (I know it did mine) and it isn’t a radical, “throw your shoes away and just run barefoot” approach. Got to be softer with folks.

    Thing is, from the striders they may well try and take it further; let them. If not, at least they can learn good form so that no matter shoe they wear (hopefully lower heel-to-toe drop) they’ll still be a better runner for it.

    The barefoot trend itself I see will make people begin to question the way shoes are constructed. I think that in the long run (no pun intended) shoe companies are going to have to offer shoes that are a bit more minimal in the sense of:

    1) Low or no heel-to-toe drop
    2) Lower overall stack height
    3) Ample toe box for toe spread
    4) More flexible mid/out sole

    Those four things, in my experience, are the most important factors. Ground feel and other factors are less important for the most part as long as the runner has good form. Far more important, especially for long distance runners is to have a bit more underfoot protection i.e. cushioning.

  10. Brian G
    January 19, 2012

    Absolutely agree, Jason.

    Kodak (you know, the folks that practically invented cameras) filed for bankruptcy protection today, a victim of not keeping up with the trends and technologies in the marketplace and staying old-school for too long. With the speed at which this barefoot transition is occurring — many thanks go to the internet for this — I bet the same thing will occur with many in the shoe industry, mostly smaller store that don’t have a large capability to follow trends. And this is especially true when many local running stores have owners say things like what I heard: “Yeah, I wear those shoes but I would never run in them.” *sigh*

    Their myopic view, inability to see and follow the going’s on in the industry — something that can take a lot of time away from their normal business operations — and confirmation biases when it comes to data will create a lot of hardship for them. Very unfortunate.

  11. David Repp (NotSoDoomed)
    January 19, 2012

    I think there are always going to be more people who prefer the cushions because they think it is more comfortable. But I really like your point about how people tried to put a different shoe on instead of better form.

    In Austin, Rogue is a local running store that has an entire wall of minimalist items and they seem to know their stuff.I had been going to a different store and was treated rudely when I asked about a minimalist item. So now I go there and try to let people know about it as much as possible.

    • jeff
      January 19, 2012

      “I think there are always going to be more people who prefer the cushions because they think it is more comfortable”

      Totally. I can fondly think back to buying a new pair of (cushioned) shoes. They were the same model as the one I had before, just with 300 fewer miles on them. Oh, the first run with a new pair felt like I was running on a cloud!

      Switching to barefoot involves developing new muscles… and those muscles tend to complain at first. There’s definitely a hump to get over before one can do the same sort of running as before with the same good feeling.

  12. Stan
    January 19, 2012

    Can’t disagree with any of the points you made. I personally think it’s only a matter of time when the “tipping point” is reached, especially now where information moves at the speed of the internet.

    Whereas information could be tightly controlled in years past, these days you can’t even go anywhere without letting people know where you are, inadvertently or otherwise.

    People are more informed these days than ever (of course, there’s all this junk that one would have to wade through) and it’s only a matter of time when old school thinking will become, well, just old school