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Minimalist “Barefoot” Casual Shoes: Why Don’t We Have More Options?

Posted by on Feb 4, 2012 | 20 Comments

“Can you recommend a pair of casual or business minimalist shoes?”

I get this question at least once every week.  There aren’t too many options.  Merrell made the Tough Glove.  Vivo has a good few models.  The new Stems are good options.  A few non-minimalist companies produce workable solutions.  But for the most part, the market is still barren.

I’ve always wondered why.  After all, there’s A LOT of demand.  Once people make the switch to minimalist running shoes, they invariably look for the same features in a casual or business shoe.  So what’s going on?

There are a few variables that play into this, though I’ve been experiencing one first-hand.

A shoe company we’ll call Mr. Happy’s Shoe Company developed two excellent minimalist shoes that could be used as casual or business casual shoes.  They’re zero-drop, have a roomy toe box, flexible sole, and look cool.  And they’ll most likely be gone by fall if they make it to the market at all.

Why does this happen?

It’s a function of the way the shoe industry works.  Here’s a quick non-insider primer (apologies to the shoe industry for gross over-simplification here).

  1. Shoes are designed by design teams.
  2. Shoes are wear tested by select people.
  3. Changes are made based on wear testing.
  4. Samples are made and distributed to sales representatives that take orders from shoe buyers at retail stores.
  5. Shoes are distributed to bloggers, magazines, etc. for reviews.
  6. Shoes are manufactured, distributed, and sold to the public

Step four is the critical step.  This is where some great shoes die.  If the manufacturer doesn’t get enough orders from the retail buyers for any given model, they don’t manufacture the shoe.  It’s simply a matter of scale.  A certain number are required by the plants that produce the shoes.  Smaller numbers can be made, but they’re crazy-expensive.

This is why some rumored shoes never make it to the market.   This is why we see some formerly-popular models disappear.  I’ve talked to a few shoe buyers over the years.  Their selection criteria varies greatly.  Some use market data.  Some use customer feedback.  Most use their own sales data.  Some just pick the stuff they think is cool.  One overlooked detail- they can only have so many shoes (often called “SKUs”) on the wall.  This requires them to pick only the shoes that they believe will sell.

This brings us to the conundrum of the minimalist casual shoe.  The market is so thin, there’s no data.  Or customer feedback.  Or sales history.  On top of this, many outdoor or running stores aren’t going to waste wall space on casual shoes when athletic shoes are the heart of their business.  This is doubly true for a new shoe category (minimalist casual).

So shoe buyers pass on the casual models.  And the manufacturers scrap them before they’re brought to the market.  And we clamor about the lack of casual shoes.

What can we do?

The trick is to convince shoe buyers there’s a huge potential market for minimalist casual shoes.  Since we can’t rely on sales to send that message, we have to rely on direct contact.  Email or call the managers of your local outdoor or running stores.  Ask them to start carrying a few minimalist casual shoes.  Have your friends do the same.  Spread the word on Facebook.  And Twitter.  And our forums.  Collectively, we can convince the shoe buyers to begin stocking the shoes we seek.

All we need is a trickle… just enough to convince the retailers this will be profitable.

Oh, and Mr. Happy’s Shoe Company- worry not.  They’re replacing this year’s models with other casual/business models.  We’ll have another chance to bring them to the market.

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20 Comments

  1. Jimmy
    February 16, 2012

    I have the Vivobarefoot Ra and it works great as a dress shoe for work.

    http://www.vivobarefoot.com/us/mens/ra-8.html

  2. Bob Garlitz
    February 13, 2012

    Terra Plana’s Aquas and Evos are fine for dress. I wore a pair of black Evos to the Paris Opera last November and no one said a word or batted an eyelash.

    Why should we worry about other office workers eyeing our shoes strangely anyway??

  3. Eric Villanueva
    February 8, 2012

    Don’t forget Soft Star. I wear the Runamoc Dash’s everyday at work and LOVE THEM! Before I got the Dash’s I was still able to get away with wearing the original Runamocs. If you get the Dash’s with smooth leather they are totally passable as a casual/work shoe as long as you don’t need steel toes, but if you talk to the elves they might even come up with a solution for that.

  4. Marco
    February 6, 2012

    So true!
    New to minimalist shoes and after buying Vivo’s for running i am now looking at their casual shoes.
    They also do womens and even a kid range and have a few outlets in London.
    Other than that there is too little “work” shoes available.

  5. Kohhal
    February 6, 2012

    I’ve been wearing the Stem shoes now for 4 months- everyday! They are by far the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn, like being in slippers all day except they pass for regular shoes no problem and look good too.

    I have to say I can’t fault them. Well the upper is mesh so not brilliant in the rain, apart from that – savage!

  6. Steve
    February 6, 2012

    Some very valid points are presented.

    A large part of the issue is that, among barefoot/minimalist enthusiasts, they seem to have wildly differing personal needs/preferences for a dress shoe.

    Oh yeah, I’ve tried Tom’s before. Love their mission, but their toe box is very narrow and sizing varies quite a bit depending on the material used for the individual model.

  7. Brian G
    February 5, 2012

    Eric: so, a list of shoes, huh? No better time than the present to start.

    Manufacturers currently selling casual shoes or running shoes that could easily pass for casual shoes or (hopefully) coming. My list is not all-inclusive by any means.

    Casual
    ——
    Merrell. (See their Barefoot Life series for men and women. The men’s full grain leather one has the same feel as their Gloves.)

    Stem. (I swear these feel like you’re walking around in comfy house slippers all day long.)

    Tom’s. (Just this morning I had an ad in my browser for Tom’s Ballet Flats for women. Why I got this I don’t know. Anyways, they seem very similar to the women’s flats that were popular in the 80′s.)

    Sanük.

    Vivo.

    GoLite Footwear.

    Dress
    —–
    Primal (coming soon)

    Anyone want to add to the list?

    • Brian G
      February 5, 2012

      Oops. Forgot this

      Patagonia. (Advocates)

      • Erik
        February 5, 2012

        Thanks Brian!

  8. Erik
    February 5, 2012

    Thanks for the insight Jason. Those shoes Richard linked to look pretty nice. I have a pair of the Patagonia Advocates, and my wife allows me wear them when we step out, so they must be OK. They’re a little hot in the summer, but they have pretty good ground-feel and are well-constructed.

    It’s a bit of a hassle shortening the leg of one’s casual pants, but I’ve left a few nice pairs as is for heeled occasions like weddings, etc. None of the non-running minimalist shoes I’ve seen are dressy enough for formal functions.

    Someone needs to put together a review list of all the minimalist casual shoes already available (hint, hint), as well as one for minimalist kiddie shoes, both sneakers and casual.

  9. niki_in_france
    February 5, 2012

    I haven’t found a good option. I have a pair of Vivos but the toe box is too pointy for me, they felt OK the first 30 minutes then started really hurting. After a summer of wearing flip-flop style shoes to work, I wore my VFF. I was worried that my co-workers would make fun of me, the boss tell me I wasn’t allowed to wear shoes like that. But it wasn’t that bad, in fact 3 co-workers ended up buying pairs for themselves! We’re only 25 people so that’s pretty good. Although I have to admit I did get a few laughs.

  10. Mountain
    February 5, 2012

    Hey Jason,

    My name is Mountain and I’m the founder of the Primal Professional barefoot dress shoe. Since May 2010, we’ve been developing a shoe with all the features you’ve described above, and I’m happy to say we’ll be shipping this year. As we’re getting an official site set up, I’d like to share with you our crowdfunding video, where you can learn more about our story and innovative features that reconcile the barefoot and dress worlds, at http://www.BarefootDressShoe.com/ I’d love to get your feedback or answer any questions.

    • Richard
      February 5, 2012

      Very nice Mountain. I love the fake heel. Good luck!

    • Anne
      February 5, 2012

      What a brilliant idea! Can you make one for ladies too, please? And ship to the UK…

    • Chadisbarefoot
      February 5, 2012

      Yeah, for $300!!!!

      Sorry for sounding snarky, but geez! I am sure they are high quality and all, but people nearly had a heart attack over $160 VIVO Evos while they were pretty much the only legit minimalist shoe on the market. $300 is absurd.

  11. briderdt (David)
    February 4, 2012

    I see a different possibility. How about this:

    When wear testers are contracted to try out the shoes, they sign non-disclosure agreements which prevent them from creating the demand (blogging about them) early enough in the process for the stores to order. How about we change this? I’m not saying scuttle the NDA’s entirely, but if the shoe companies unfettered us early enough, we could create the demand and communicate it to the brick-and-mortars in time for them to order them for stock.

    Changes the process, but hey, isn’t that what we’re all about here anyway?

  12. .:Ash:.
    February 4, 2012

    So true. I’ve been wearing a model from the Simple brand, which, as you may or may not know, is no longer making shoes. So, after the hemp canvas on my super flat, super comfy Simple shoes tears, I’ll have to go searching for another minimalish business-casual option.

  13. Richard
    February 4, 2012

    I think if I had to return to an office environment I would maybe give Toms a try. I have never seen these in person but they look good online.

    http://www.toms.com/review/product/view/id/25846
    This review says “Barefoot runners will appreciate these shoes”. Not sure about the reviewer.

    Anyone use these?

    • John
      February 5, 2012

      Yes, Tom’s toebox is extremely narrow, and definitely not natural or anatomical. I could never recommend them to anyone. They are trendy hipster shoes.

  14. Fitz
    February 4, 2012

    Sanük has some models that bear consideration in my opinion. Especially if you stretch more toward the casual side of the scale.