Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rocker Sole Shoes - What's "In" and What's "Out" for 2011


The fitness and toning category of footwear has experienced explosive growth over the past 3 years. According to the NPD group, sales of fitness and toning shoes were $17 million in 2008. Sales grew eight-fold to $145 million in 2009, and estimates are currently over $1 billion in sales for 2010. MBT (shown at left) has brand awareness on its side, and Skechers fueled mega-millions of advertising dollars into their "Shape-Ups" shoes. Reebok followed suit, pumping millions of dollars advertising their EasyTone shoes.

What do these brands have in common? They are all designed to induce instability in all planes of motion. The pitch behind these shoes is that they make your core muscles work harder to overcome instability. Manufacturers claim these shoes make walking on concrete feel like your walking on the beach. Others claim the shoes simulate standing on a "wobble-board" all day. While these brands have gained legions of fans, they have also drawn criticism from skeptics. A recent article in USA Today questioned some of the manufacturer's claims, and a recently class-action lawsuits have been filed alleging deceptive advertising practices and product safety concerns.

What's "In" and what's "Out" for 2011?

"Stable" is in, "Unstable" is out
A growing number of new arrivals in the rocker-sole footwear category are aligning themselves on the "stable" side of the category. Stable rocker sole shoes roll straight ahead, and feature excellent medial/lateral (side-to-side) stability. People that wear stable rocker sole shoes have much better stability and control when they walk. There is far less of a tendency for ankles to roll-in or roll-out when wearing stable rocker sole shoes. Most of the stable rocker sole shoes have adequate depth to accept prescription or over-the-counter orthotics, if needed.

Ryn (shown above), Finn Comfort ("Finnamic" series), Sano by Mephisto and Cogent are all examples of stable rocker-sole shoes that have been on the market. New entries to the stable side of the category are "Body Works" by Aetrex, "Dynamic Walkers" by Waldlaufer, and "Walk and Roll" shoes by Spring Footwear. At the World Shoe + Accessories Show (WSA), I noticed a marked increase in new "stable" rocker sole shoes, and very few new additions to the "unstable" side of the category. On the stable side of the category, Ryn offers the perfect combination of stability and cushioning, coupled with excellent durability and craftsmanship.

"Unstable" shoes are falling out of favor. They should really be worn only on flat, hard, level, predictable surfaces. When wearers spend good money for a walking/exercise shoe, they want to be able to wear the shoes on pavement, in the backyard, at the park and on trails. Unstable rocker sole shoes perform poorly on uneven surfaces, because the memory foam will "collapse" wherever the terrain takes the shoe. This can make walking on grass, hills and cobblestones uncomfortably challenging, since the wearer must focus on finding a secure place for the foot to land, to avoid "tweaking" an ankle. Wet weather is also a concern. MBT cautions wearers to avoid exposure to water since it can prematurely break down the sensor. If you get soaked in an MBT, the manufacturer recommends placing the shoe in its side, allowing it to completely dry out before wearing them again.

Quality & durability is "In", Poorly-made shoes, counterfeits are "Out"
When consumers pay more than $100 for a pair of rocker-sole shoes, it's reasonable to expect a shoe that feels great and lasts over a year instead of just a few months. Most of the better made comfort shoe brands are manufactured in Pusan, South Korea or in Germany. Ryn, Cogent, Z-CoiL and Tenevis (a new arrival) are all examples of high-quality, durable shoes made in South Korea. Ryn and Z-CoiL shoes have a reputation of feeling great every day and lasting for years. Finn Comfort and Waldlaufer are high-quality German-made shoes. Finn Comfort shoes feature replaceable footbeds, and they offer a service that can refurbish and re-sole the shoes for many years of wear.

Many of the "unstable" shoe brands have been criticized for wearing out too quickly. Foam sensors breaking down prematurely, uneven wear, outsoles worn smooth within months are common complaints with many people that have worn unstable rocker-sole shoe brands. The internet is full of complaints about poorly-made, unstable rocker sole shoes that wear out too quickly. Maybe it's a quality-control issue, and maybe it's planned obsolescence. If a company invests mega-millions in advertising, do they really want consumers to buy a shoe that lasts for years? Or do the want consumers to wear the shoes, enjoy them, and replace them often?

Counterfeit shoes are another problem. MBT has been besieged by a rash of cheap, Chinese-made counterfeit MBT shoes sold online at bargain-basement prices by unauthorized outlets. The shoes bear the MBT logo, marketing and packaging, but they are poorly made, cheap knock-offs. People are complaining that they thought they purchased an authentic MBT, only to receive a cheap, poorly made product shipped directly from China.

Buying quality shoes not only saves money, but it is the socially responsible thing to do. According to Soles4Souls, the shoe charity, over 300 million pairs of shoes wind up in US landfills every year. That's roughly the equivalent of 40,000 tractor-trailer loads piled-up in a landfill. Shoes take forever to break down in a landfill. If Americans bought good shoes that lasted for years, not only would we feel better, but there would be far less shoes in our landfills. Quality and durability is "in", poorly made, disposable shoes are "out".

Truth in Advertising is "In", Deceptive Advertising is "Out"
Rocker sole shoes protect the foot and the body against repetitive impact with concrete, tile and hard surfaces. When your body is protected, you feel better. When you feel better, you may want to walk longer. If you walk longer, you will burn more calories. If you burn more calories and eat sensibly, you may lose more weight. The simple act of lacing-up a pair of shoes does not mean that we will get into shape, and we all know that. Movement is the key to leading an active and healthier lifestyle. Brands that promote active lifestyles and healthy living habits will be rewarded.

Deceptive and misleading advertising is out. "Buy our shoes and skip the gym" advertising campaigns have grown tiresome. We all know that we need to move to lose weight, and experts are growing irate at the fact that companies are getting away with false or misleading advertising. Generally speaking, the more outlandish the advertising claim, the less popular the brand will become.

Conclusion:

Rocker sole shoes are here to stay. They offer excellent protection against concrete and hard surfaces. New brands will emerge with excellent feature sets and styling, and others will disappear. The entire category is shifting toward the "stable" side of the equation, and I personally applaud this trend. Stability, support, comfort, durability and longevity will be the key factors that determine the winning shoes in this category.

Baby boomers want to enjoy active lifestyles without having to endure aches and pains. People that work in occupations that require long hours of standing want shoes that protect their bodies from pain and fatigue. Rocker sole shoes do an excellent job of protecting the body against repetitive impact, and represent possibly the most exciting innovation in footwear technology in decades. This is a very interesting time for the footwear industry.

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