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Three Different Takes on Minimalist Shoes

Posted by on Mar 5, 2012 | 7 Comments

Over the last week, I’ve been traveling throughout the Pacific NW and Mountain West to do a series of Merrell Bareform clinics at various shoe retailers.  It was fascinating to see how different retailers handled minimalist shoes.  Three of the stores were what would be considered “run specialty”, the designation the industry uses to describe stores that cater primarily runners.  One was an online retailer.  The last was a minimalist-only running store.  Here are some thoughts on each:

Run Specialty

The stores consisted of Super Jock and Jill in Seattle, Foot Traffic in Portland, and Shu’s Idaho Running Company in Boise.  All three had far more non-minimal shoes than minimal shoes, but still had at least three different brands including Merrell.  The Seattle clinic was presented to the store staff only, the Portland clinic was a shortened version presented prior to a group run, and the Boise event was more of a meet-and-greet book signing event.

Super Jock and Jill agreed with many of the tenants of minimalism, but had reservations about teaching better running form.  I’m finding this is a MAJOR reason why more run specialty stores hesitate to actively sell minimalism.  For years and years, the idea was to fit people for shoes that would correct flaws in their gait so they could begin moving immediately.  Strike while the iron is hot.  If you sell people shoes that require them to learn better form, most are unlikely to do so.  This isn’t some hypothetical belief; this is what actually happened in the past.

The difference today is simple- thanks to the efforts of manufacturers, researchers, the medical community, and us (the barefoot/minimalist community), there’s an emphasis on the idea that there’s a right way to run.  The people in run specialty have known this for some time.  After all, what WE teach is no different that what any decent running coach teaches.  The difference is the general public awareness of good running form.

Anyway, Foot Traffic in Portland seemed to have a slightly less regimented methodology, though I didn’t have a lot of discussions regarding their process.  The store staff was VERY receptive to the message.  Many had toyed with minimalism and barefoot.  Kelly, the store manager of their new store, actually trained with barefoot legends Todd Byers and Ken Bob Saxton.

Shu’s in Boise was crazy busy.  I basically sat around as the store staff feverishly rushed to personally help each and every person that came in the store.  Their fitting process appeared to be just like any other I have seen- the store employees would ask what the shoes will be used for, what shoes have they used in the past, what is their athletic history, injury history, etc.  The interesting thing- several staff members actually recommended minimalist shoes without the customer recommending it first.  They clearly understood how and why someone would be a good candidate for making the transition and proceeded accordingly.

Three different stores, three different approaches.  Each one obviously accepted the idea of minimalism to some degree.  Each one could have been used as a model for other run specialty stores to introduce minimalism along with their other offerings.

I’ve spent considerable time contemplating how run specialty could be more effective at selling minimalist shoes.  Based on my observations at these three stores and the previously-observed stores, all could benefit from at least one “minimalist expert” on the floor at all times.  This would be a person that could answer specific minimalist questions, fit minimalist shoes (since the criteria is different than traditional trainers), and teach some basics about transitioning and better form (I’d recommend the ABC’s). :-)

Online Retailers

While in Seattle, I shot some videos, gave a clinic and had a discussion, and did a group run with the good folks at Online Shoes.  It was immediately obvious their entire staff was thirsty for knowledge.  They realized minimalist shoes were the future, and they wanted to know what they could do to help their customers select the correct shoes and learn to transition to them without injury.

Online retailers aren’t burdened by the same issues of past experience that plague run specialty, so they have considerable freedom to teach their customer base.  It was clear OnlineShoes realized this and was working hard to provide relevant content for their customer base.  It wasn’t a question of “Should we incorporate minimalist shoes in our offerings?”, but rather “How can we maximize the minimalist experience for our customers?”

Minimalist-Only

My last stop in Seattle was Born to Run, a minimalist-only store that stocks pretty much every minimalist shoe imaginable.  They obviously accept the idea of minimalism to the point of rejecting other paradigms.  The minimalist-only stores have a HUGE advantage- they can offer customers the opportunity to try various models in one sitting and teach HOW to use the shoes.  BTR actually used a iPad and TV to film people running before and after instruction, which is something Jon Sanregret, other Merrell friends,  and I do at our BareForm clinics.

BTR is at the cutting-edge of minimalism, and it shows.  The conversations they have with their customers are far different than the conversations at traditional run specialty.  Instead of assessing what shoe would be best for the person, they work to build good form then fit the shoes that will allow that form.

What Does It All Mean?

All three business models are successfully incorporating minimalism.  All three are taking slightly different approaches; all three are spreading the idea.  It’s clear minimalism is here to stay.  In run specialty, some store are hip to the change.  Some are not.  Those that are tackling the tough questions are succeeding.  Those that aren’t… well, there’s still time to change.  I was happy to see all three of the stores I visited are in that former group.  Still, this is the most minimalist-conservative group.

The online shoe industry is going to continue to grow.  Minimalism will be a major part of that growth.  OnlineShoes was different in that they understood the education bit.  The shoes require a change in form for most people and some degree of transition time to “rehab.” Online retailers are the minimalist moderates.

The minimalist shoes have what I consider to be the perfect approach- teach form than fit the shoes.  Ultimately they will force the rest of the industry to adapt new shoe-fitting methodology.  Minimalist-only are the minimalist liberals.

Think of the stores around you.  How would you classify them?  How accepting are they of minimalism?  How does your local running stores deal with minimalism?  If you’re lucky enough to live near a minimalist-only store, describe the experience?

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7 Comments

  1. James
    March 6, 2012

    Fyi “BareForm” link is broken

  2. Jeff Gallup
    March 6, 2012

    Going to be in Seattle over the weekend… gotta check out the BTR store… thanks!

  3. Erik
    March 5, 2012

    Interesting post Jason. Thanks.

  4. Jason
    March 5, 2012

    Great seeing your presentation at BTR in Seattle and chatting with you afterwards. I’ve been barefooting it for almost two years now and came away with some good tips / information. Much thanks to you and Merrell for putting this tour on!

  5. Nick
    March 5, 2012

    Jason I think you forgot to mention the fourth type of store that we talked about the other night here in Portland. That is the type of store that flat refuses to sell a true minimalist shoe and believes that everyone needs a protective shoe. There is the one store I was telling you just down the street from me that is a specialty running store that I now refuse to go in because they tell me I’m going to ruin my feet with minimalist shoes or barefoot and they are pretty rude about it. That’s also coming from the owner/operator of that particular store.

  6. MC
    March 5, 2012

    Jason, could you elaborate more on this: “This would be a person that could answer specific minimalist questions, fit minimalist shoes (since the criteria is different than traditional trainers)”

    If all I’ve worn are trainers, and I know how they fit, then what is different about the feel of minimalist shoes that I should be looking for as a good fit?

  7. Brian G
    March 5, 2012

    “reservations about teaching better running form”

    This is like someone beginning weightlifting — or beginning Crossfit as that seems to be the Word Of the Day — with the trainers being hesitant to teach proper weightlifting form. That’s just crazy talk. I don’t get it.