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Why Aren’t Minimalist Shoes Minimally-Priced?

Posted by on Apr 2, 2012 | 19 Comments

This post was inspired by a post on Reddit.  The exact questions posed for discussion were:

1. Why do people spend so much on minimalist shoes? The minimalist shoe with the best groundfeel, most toe freedom, and best value is a $10 pair of water shoes. And…

2. Shouldn’t the price of a minimalist shoe be minimal as well?”

These two questions pop up on occasion.

Question #1, Part 1

People spend so much money on minimalist shoes for a variety of reasons.

  • Performance.  If I buy a pair, I’m looking for a shoe that will provide a high level of performance for running long distances in mountainous terrain.  The shoe doesn’t necessarily improve performance, it simply allows me to maintain good form with adequate protection and traction.  Fit is critical to prevent blistering or the foot jamming into the front of the toe box.  Generally speaking, the more experience you gain, the more you require finely-honed tools.
  • Aesthetics/fashion.  Most people like to look good, which includes wearing shoes they find attractive.  Sometimes that means wearing expensive shoes, which can be a status symbol.
  • Capitalism.  We’re trained consumers.  Buying stuff makes us feel good, which includes buying shoes.  Also, we’re trained to trust higher cost equals a better product.  How many times have you tried an expensive wine and it tastes like fermented ass-juice but people rave about it?
  • Conformity.  If we see other people buying a particular shoe and we identify with that person, we’re more likely to buy it.

Very few people will actually seek out the absolute cheapest option available, which is why aqua socks aren’t the first choice of most.

Question #1, Part 2

I’ve used aqua socks extensively prior to Vibram producing Five Fingers.  I’ve run somewhere around 2,000 miles in a wide variety of brands and models.  I even ran a 50 miler in aqua socks.  They were great… until better options became available.  The problem with aqua socks is pretty simple- they move around on your foot.  They work pretty well for road running, but royally suck on trails with elevation or mud.  This relegates their use to road runners that aren’t likely putting up high mileage OR brand new barefoot/minimal runners.

Fit can also be an issue.  Using the Walmart brand as an example, they come in four sizes- small, medium, large, and extra-large.  If your feet happen to fit one of those sizes, you’re in luck.  If not, you’re screwed.

Sometimes people complain about durability, but the cost easily offsets this disadvantage.  With good form, I used to get about 300 miles out of a pair of Walmart aqua socks.  At about $8, it only worked out to about 2.6 cents per mile.  I put about 2,000 miles on my first pair of Vibram KSOs, which cost about 4 cents per mile.

Question #2

There’s an assumption that minimal shoes should have a minimal cost.  While this seems logical, a basic understanding of manufacturing proves otherwise.

  • Quality of the Manufacturing Plant: Almost all shoes are made in China.  Not all manufacturers are equal.  There are various “grades” of manufacturers, which is based on their quality control.  The best companies are far more expensive than the worst.  A company will dramatically increase their overall cost by using a high quality factory.  Some very expensive products made in relatively small quantities in the highest quality factories (like VivoBarefoot) are expensive to make.  The cheapo products (like Walmart aqua socks) can be made in huge quantities in the cheapest factories, thus the low cost.
  • Materials Cost: Most minimal shoes are made with almost as much material as a traditional shoe, with the exception of EVA foam.  Minimal shoes have minimal EVA cushioning, where traditional shoes have a lot.  EVA is dirt cheap.  Rubber (like Vibram rubber) is much more expensive, and the worldwide price continues to rise.  Bought tires for your car recently?  A shoe can have 5 times as much EVA as another shoe may have rubber, but the actual material cost is the same.  This is the reason more and more companies are making their traditional trainers with an abundance of EVA… the shit’s cheap.  Sometimes “exotic” materials or “branded” materials like GoreTex may dramatically increase costs.
  • The Cost of Business:  The cost of developing, testing, marketing, and selling a shoe goes into the final cost.  Those costs don’t change from a traditional trainer to a minimal shoe.  The reason aqua socks are dirt-cheap- there’s little development, no testing, no marketing, and they’re typically sold in big box department-like stores.  The entire process can be done for a fraction of the cost, including the retailer markup.  I’m not sure what the margin is for a pair of shoes sold at Walmart, but it’s probably a fraction of the 100% markup that’s standard in running stores.
  • The Art of Pricing: As a former psychology teacher, I have always been fascinated with the psychology of pricing.  Most products have an incredible range between the cheapest and most expensive options.  Some product pricing variability, like cars and wine, are accepted.  Nobody complains about a $140,000 Mercedes SL-class convertible or a bottle of Barolo Monfortino for $400.  If we’re not up for spending the money, we don’t bitch that a Mercedes should cost the same as a Chevy or the BMshould cost as much as a $3.00 bottle of Crane Lake (FWIW- I drive a Chevy and drink Crane Lake).  Other products, like minimal shoes, are not accepted.  There’s a belief that all shoes should be sold at Walmart prices.  People have a hard time accepting that the same rules that govern the auto industry and beverage industry apply to all businesses, including shoe manufacturers.
  • Art of Pricing, Part 2: Companies also may price their product in a way to reduce competition.  If every shoe is offered for $70, it’s going to be exceedingly difficult to break into that market.  A company can reduce the competition by moving to another price point.  Most people assume it would be better to offer a cheaper product, but that cuts into margins and requires greater sales.  If you’re a small company, that’s not an option.  A better option is to raise prices.  You’ll appeal to a different market segment, reduce competition, and increase profit margins.  It’s usually a smart move.  I’ll use VivoBarefoot as an example again.  I’ve often been critical of their barefoot coaching certification program, and people assume it’s due to the cost (thousands of dollars).  I’m critical because I’m critical of any certification program, including things like the USATF and RRCA certs.  I’m also critical of certifications like Crossfit and Pose.  Hell, I’m critical of teacher certifications.  I paint with a braod stroke on this issue.  I think there’s a better system we can be using that will result in a better dissemination of information and open dialogue.  I digress.  Anyway, VB’s pricing is brilliant.  Organizing a certification seminar isn’t cheap, so it assures profit.  The higher cost also gives the program immediate legitimacy.  People that attend are participating in an excellent program, and the pricing reflects that.  Lastly, it assures the clientele is serious.  If you’re not taking barefoot seriously, you’re not going to drop that kind of dime for a piece of paper.  That assures the program will continue to be perceived as high quality.
  • Art of Pricing, Part 3: Sometimes people point out manufacturers that have some very expensive shoes and very cheap shoes.  For example, New Balance offers some shoes that have an MSRP of around $60.  They also have a pair that retail for around $275.  There’s a pretty good chance the expensive shoes don’t cost THAT much more to manufacture.  Odds are New Balance exchanges less profit on the cheaper shoes for higher profit on the expensive shoes.  Here’s another example.  I have a friend that once interned for General Motors.  He talked about the cost of a Chevy Cavalier (their cheapest) versus a fully-loaded Chevy Suburban (their most expensive).  Both vehicles cost almost the same to manufacture since most of the cost was labor.  GM actually lost money on the Cavalier, but made HUGE profits on the Suburban.  Having a car in the cheapie price range gave the brand more exposure and assured the development of brand loyalty among first-time car buyers.  It made sense… until gas prices caused the large SUV market to crash.  Anyway, the same rules apply to shoes.

Conclusion

Why doesn’t everyone use aqua socks?  Quite simply, they’re rarely the best tool for the job.  Why aren’t minimal shoes cheaper?  The cost of business means they’ll cost roughly the same as any other shoe.

Questions?  Comments?

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19 Comments

  1. Trish Reeves
    April 9, 2012

    I love when you write articles like this one.

  2. URP Daily News | UltraRunnerPodcast.com
    April 9, 2012

    […] this Saturday, followed, of course, by Boston two days later. Fantastic post by Jason Robillard on why minimalist shoes aren’t minimally priced. And I’ll say it again, these SKORA’s are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever […]

  3. Rafael Santos
    April 9, 2012

    I’am from Brazil and here a good shoes of runnner cost $200. So, paying $100 in a good shoes for runnig is not awesome.Is nothing more.In Brazil everything from other country is so expensive. Asics, Nike, Adidas, K-siss, New Balance are too expensive. Luck of you. Ai ai ai uiui!

  4. Rafael Santos
    April 9, 2012

    I’am from Brazil and here a good shoes of runnner cost $200. So, paying $100 in a good shoes for runnig is not awesome.Is nothing more.In Brazil everything from other country is so expensive. Asics, Nike, Adidas, K-siss, New Balance are too expensive. Luck of you.

  5. Jeff L.
    April 5, 2012

    I’ve paid $100 for VFFs, and similar prices for some Luna sandals, slightly less for other brands.

    Why pay so much for sandals that are really just a piece of rubber and some strapping? Because between the cost of similar soling (it’s more than just a piece of rubber) and strapping, the time it takes to put them together, and the quality of the product, it’s worth it to me. I’ve made my own sandals, and I prefer the Lunas.

  6. Jimmy
    April 5, 2012

    One of my favorite parts of “Born to Run” was the discussion of the shoe industry. McDougal explains why a particular model of Nike shoes will only stay in the stores for a year or so – they want customers to stock up on them for fear that they will no longer be available. The conventional shoe industry is all about marketing, there’s very little correlation between actual cost to manufacture the product and the price at which it is sold. Every time I see that a famous athlete is being paid XX million dollars by Nike, I wonder how much of that money comes out of the cost of a shoe.

    I always get frustrated when I hear people complain about the price of VFF’s and other minimalist shoes. First off, they’re not more expensive than conventional shoes. Walk into a running store and most of the shoes start at around $80-90 and probably average around $100. Runners are constantly told to go to a fancy shoe store and buy an expensive shoe in order to prevent injuries, so they’re likely to spend well over $100. Secondly, minimalist shoes will last much longer than conventional shoes since you don’t have the cushioning and insoles wearing down after 300 miles.

    I think one of the problems is that people who are just thinking about trying out minimalist footwear need an entry point into the market. They might be willing to drop $40 just to see if they like the shoes, but not $80. This is compounded by the fact that there are very few stores you can go to to try them on, so you’re taking a big risk by buying over the internet, not knowing if you’ll like them, not being able to try them on or get the correct size, and on top of that having to risk a bunch of money.

  7. Nhoj
    April 4, 2012

    Being somewhat of an insider in this lovely little industry, I can tell you this: “Minimalist” shoes are priced the way they are because that’s honestly what people are willing to pay. Consumers don’t get a “better, more natural” product–they simply fork over $100 for a pair of shoes, be they a pair of NB Minimus, Vibram KSOs, Asics 2170s, or Saucony Rides because the “story” sounds nice. (In the industry they don’t call it a “marketing pitch”–instead, it’s called a “story”).

    Unfortunately, consumers love believing in conspiracy theories, and this is one easily sold. The reality is that it takes advantage of consumers who don’t understand physics, general mechanics, deceleration rates nor structural mechanics. In this case consumers are a bit like car drivers: they all think they’re better than average, when in reality their understanding is horribly off.

    But it doesn’t matter: tomorrow thousands of would-be runners will spend their thousands of hundreds of dollars on carbon rubber outsoles with plasticized mesh uppers, go and run, not understand why they’re both slower and in pain, and chalk it up “it takes time to get used to it.” Of course it takes time. If it didn’t, it would be a much tougher “story” to sell.

  8. niki_in_france
    April 4, 2012

    The aqua ‘socks’ (like Walmart ones) have soles are the same as every shoe besides the VFF, they curve in on the big toe and aren’t wide enough in the forefoot for me. I had pain in my feet for almost all my life, I wasted tons and tons on money on shoes, always hoping to discover a pair that won’t hurt my feet. Well I finally did – VFFs. They seem expensive but since they don’t hurt, I don’t keep buying shoes and I have saved money. Plus I have happy feet!

  9. Vincent
    April 3, 2012

    Great article. It’s amazing to me that people can’t grasp such simple concepts that I learned before I was a teenager. From what I’ve experienced even though material cost can often be evened out in a great deal of all products (i.e. cotton shirts and boxers) with products set out to accomplish a specialized function you often get what you pay for, and pay a premium for style as well, which for me actually counts because I like to cultivate a certain look with all of my clothes that I’m unwilling to compromise on by being a cheepskate tightwad penny-pincher like the idiot who says “who needs a Lamborghini, my Daewoo gets me from A-B” and doesn’t understand that some people are enthusiastic about cars and have fun driving them in ways that would cause said guy’s metallic rolling turd to crash and explode within minutes. It’s not my intention to totally disrespect strict utilitarians either, I just can’t stand it when they become religious about it at the expense of somebody having more fun than them.

  10. Shane D.
    April 3, 2012

    I dont care what the price, if the shoe fits and feels good, I will wear it. So be it if the $8 aqua sock feels better than the $120 Road Glove or vice versa. I think most people associate retail price with quality and companies recognize this. Shame on us for falling into this trap!

  11. Franklin Chen
    April 2, 2012

    When I think about the costs of my old life with uncomfortable, cramped shoes that caused me knee bone spurs and a shin stress fracture my doctor was convinced would never heal, it’s a no-brainer spending some bucks on minimalist shoes that result in no surgery and no injury!

  12. David
    April 2, 2012

    It’s funny – people used to (or still do) buy conventional “tank” shoes that allowed them to run with bad form. But that only worked for so long, until the cushioning started to go and then people started to hurt, feel the pain of crappy form. So they ran back to the store to buy a fresh, cushy pair and the shoe companies laughed all the way to the bank. Nice to see that’s changing now. The minimalist crowd still spends big on shoes these days because they are fun and cool, not because they hurt. I don’t mind being in the latter group.

  13. JamesBrett
    April 2, 2012

    i live in rural africa, and for the first year and a half of my minimalist running, i went barefoot or in aqua socks. on my last trip to the states, however, i bought a couple of pairs of nb’s minimal shoes. i did so for three reasons:

    1) luggage space. i go to the u.s. only once every two years and — while the aqua socks may have saved me money (questionable, methinks) — two pairs of shoes fits in a duffle bag way better than a dozen pairs of water-socks.

    2) some of the trails on which i run have some especially sharp stones, while others are chock full of small pebbles. call me what you will, those rocks really hurt my feet through the flimsy aqua sock soles. i bought a pair of nb minimus trails.

    3) those nb minimus trails are the most comfortable shoes i’ve ever put on my feet. they’re more comfortable than socks. seriously.

  14. Richard
    April 2, 2012

    I pay more for the improved posture and foot health, spine alignment, stronger muscles and reduced injury risk.

  15. Spencer
    April 2, 2012

    I love walmart aqua socks, except on trails, and that their durability is horrendous. But, the question should be, if you really need something then wouldn’t you be willing to drop money on it? It’s like when your sick, most people generally drop a lot on health. But, oh I “need” a shoe, but I can’t drop 100 dollars on it. It is that way with everything, and people don’t understand it. Or the fact, that if they don’t want to pay that much, they don’t have to, no one is forcing them to. They can just make a pair of moccasins, which lots of people used fine for a long tim.

  16. Erik
    April 2, 2012

    Man, I’m just glad that so many minimalist options are available now. I got my Patagonia Advocates for nice casual shoes, my Moc3s as back-ups when winter temps get too cold for BFR, RunAmocs for when I have to work or play outside in the winter, and I just ordered some Luna sandals to have on hand in the car for when I need to go into a barefoot intolerant store. The first three replaced shoes that cost the same or more. Only the Luna sandals cost more than what they replace–a $10 pair of rubber sandals from Target. And when you consider that the last three are hand-crafted, at least to some extent, and that I’m supporting small businesses, I’d say that’s a bargain.

    BTW, do you prefer comments here on on your Facebook page?

  17. Mike Dixon
    April 2, 2012

    I’ve been rockin’ the NB Minimus Life “walking” shoes lately. No socks, no laces… flexible and light as you could want for road-racing. Just wish they were cheap!

  18. Malva
    April 2, 2012

    Since I took off my shoes, I seem no longer willing to compromise when it comes to footwear. I’m always looking for something better. Sigh.

    Could the short answer to your first question be: barefooters are really picky when they need to put shoes on?

  19. Reachy
    April 2, 2012

    I used aquasocks when I first started, and still do on occasion. Running in ZemGear Ninja 360s at the moment and they work well without the large expense.