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.
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.
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.