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A great article via Running Insight: Since its launch just over three years ago Vibram’s Five Fingers  Glove has shook up the running world,meanwhile tripling its own revenue numbers last year. It sounds great, but how do you sell a shoe that resembles a “Lord of the Rings” movie prop? What Under Armour did for apparel, the newly named wellness” category is poised to do the same for athletic shoes. More on the next page .

And while all the attention has been focused on Skecher’s and Reebok’s splashy, advertisement-driven-marketing campaigns, an equal but opposite force is quietly pushing back in the form of minimalist running movement, of which Vibram’s FiveFingers Glove has become the breakout buzz king.
The thrust of the minimalist movement is that all that cushioning on athletic shoes inhibits healthful foot mechanics. One of the big boys, Nike, has been in the space for a while, starting in 2004 when it launched its Free running
shoe, which was inspired by the barefoot running Stanford University track team.

Birth of a Movement

Still, nothing has punctuated the movement with as much boldness as Vibram’s FiveFingers, which was launched at retail in spring 2006. And the story goes that even its initial launch was delayed when Vibram initially reached out to other brands it already partners with on sole technology to manufacture the shoe. The objection was the glove was too strange looking to be anything more than an extremely niche item. And even then, Vibram backed into the running category, with its shoes more positioned to appeal to the outdoor hiker/trekker as both a fitness and lifestyle item. Whatever they were meant to be, there were no shortage of early adopters who immediately gleaned the brand’s potential. “[Vibram CEO Tony Post] called me in April 2006 because he knows we’re open to new and different ideas,” explains Danny Wasserman, owner of New York’s TipTop Shoes, a family
footwear store. “We knew about the [Nike] Air Rift, which had similarities and was meant to stimulate barefoot running.”John Rogers, owner of the
two-door, Maine RunningCompany, located in Portland and Brunswick,
Maine, spotted the shoe at a marathon three years ago and has been carrying in his stores ever since.

 “I was at The Running Event two years ago and thought it was the freshest thing I’d seen in years,” he said. In October, Rogers said he sold about 50 units of FiveFingers priced at $75-$90 each, with the KSO style the sales leader.The Shoe that Sells Itself Both retailers discovered the shoe fit exactly into a space the consumer apparently had been waiting to be filled. “We had people coming in with articles from the internet. Our customers turned us on to the importance of the brand,” says Wasserman. Where marketing is concerned, retailers have discovered they don’t have to do much. Now carried by 500 accounts in over 700 doors, retailers have discovered FiveFingers is practically the shoe equivalent of the YouTube wedding entrance dance.

Without spending a cent on print advertising, news of the brand has been spread across a wide-array of websites, and not just those devoted to running. Innovative, strange-looking, and attached to numerous testimonies of miracle cures, it’s been a magnet for media coverage, including The New York  Times, Wired and Time, which named it one of 2007’s best inventions. Post and the brand’s mention earlier this year in Chapter 24 of the bestseller “Born to Run,” a book about a tribe of Mexican Indians who run long distance, gave the brand a huge publicity boost. It helps that the company’s product push people seem to have an instinctive feel for the light touch, perfect for its target consumer who consider themselves not easily snookered by a hard sell.

 “[Our site] is a clearing house for all information. We think the third-party info has built credibility. We have 15,000 fans on our Facebook site, and the internet has been a remarkable tool for building this product. It’s all been word of mouth,” says Post, who estimates this year’s revenue totals for FiveFingers will land somewhere between $11 and $12 million. In 2010, he predicts the division will double those numbers.Post, who has been with the Italian-based Vibram since 2001, himself has a FiveFinger Glove story.

Like other runners before him, it had been suggested after marathon-related kneesurgery that he find another sport less tough on the knees, perhaps cycling.“We were in the final stages of testing FiveFingers. Someone suggested I try them. I said I would try a mile or two and within the first half mile I knew something was different. It was an aha moment. I ran seven miles that day and I had been able to run no more than 5 miles before then,” he explains. It Won’t Be for Everyone Post admits that the product won’t be for everyone. “We’re not imposing barefoot running on all consumers,” he admits. The same philosophy also applies to retailers the company is willing to distribute to. “Dick’s wanted to carry the product and we said no, which is a risk and takes courage. We wanted to gear it to places where they have knowledge and ability to fit the consumer. Right now we need retailers whose knowledge is the key thing they’re selling,” explains Post. While FiveFingers won’t be for everyone, who exactly it is suited for probably will turn out to be a debate without an end. Chet James, who owns Super Jock ‘n’ Jill in Seattle, who hasn’t yet tested the shoe and himself runs in Nike’s Lunaracer, has questions. “My hesitation is that until I can see it, I can’t tell you,” says James. “We’ve overbuilt shoes for such a long time but we have to find that fine line. My job is not to make a sale, but to keep my customer happy and healthy until they’re 90. If there’s one shoe that is the god’s gift to the business, I’m out.”The debate over its purpose and place as a fitness and lifestyle item is reflected in how retailers are positioning it in their doors. The product comes with a foot form and a branded, flat display shelf and some retailers merchandise it in a barefoot/minimalist running category.

Retailers also comerchandise it with socks like Injinji, capable of being worn with the glove. Each retailer, however,has different ideas abouthow where it fits in the lives of their customers. At Fleet Feet, a network of 90 specialty running stores in 30 states, FiveFingers is now carried in several of the company’s largest doors and will be expanded further in spring 2010.On positioning, CEO Tom Raynor says, “We’ll probably not sell it to anyone as their primary running shoes. For us it’s an accessory to what we’re already offering to customers. It’s part of an overall training program. It’s not about selling a pair of FiveFingers or Asics or Brooks, it’s an opportunity to sell a pair of running shoes, plus cross country spikes and FiveFingers, each with different functions.” Wasserman says he’s sold the shoe to customers ranging in age from 18 to 70. “I’ve seen people on the Upper West Side walking in them, but it’s mostly a fitness shoe you can use for a multitude of sports.” He adds, “And no, we haven’t had a problem with returns. [Vibram] has delivered on what it promised.”— Lois Sakany

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