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Sole Man: What Running Retailers Say About Shoe Trends

Here's what retailers think about minimalism, maximalism and everything in between.

Here’s what retailers think about minimalism, maximalism and everything in between.

New running shoes will start to hit running stores in late January and early February. In the meantime, we’ve polled several of America’s best running shops to see what their shoe experts thought about running shoe trends. Overall, most believe the minimalism trend has cooled, but agree that it’s definitely not dead. Furthermore, several say, the best aspects of minimalist design (i.e., lightweight materials, new fabrication techniques, an enhanced feel for the ground) are now appearing in more traditional neutral and stability models — which remain the two biggest categories in the business. The motion control category continues to dwindle as more runners (and retailers) now generally believe a shoe with moderate or little structure is a good thing for most runners. The hottest new trend for 2014 will be the high cushioning category (aka “maximalism”) — the oversized cushioning concept originated by Hoka and now pursued by several other brands, including Brooks, Pearl Izumi, Adidas, New Balance, Skechers and Vasque, among others.

One of the biggest differences in recent years, retailers concur, is that is the trends are so much more customer-driven. It used to be that runners would mostly rely on what they learned upon walking into a retail store or via magazine reviews and advertisements. But with a lot more information about footwear, biomechanical studies and other information available on the Internet, customers walk into stores much more informed, says Jon Beck, co-owner of Red Coyote Running and Fitness in Oklahoma City, which was one of the four finalists for the 2013 Running Store of the Year award.

“Customers coming through the door now, they know what they want and know everything about the products they want,” Beck says. “And that comes back on us. Our staff has to know as much as possible about a lot of stuff, so we’re always ahead of the curve of what’s out there. Five to 10 years ago, the shoe brands were driving what people wanted and customers were saying, ‘Yup, I want that.’ But after the ‘Born to Run’ book came out [in 2009] and helped launch the minimalist trend, I think the consumer has kind of turned that around and the vendors are now saying, ‘Here’s what we know the consumer wants, so we need to make that kind of product.’ It’s been a big change over the past few years.”

Here’s what a few more of the country’s best retailers think about current and upcoming running shoe trends. (Each of these retailers were ranked among the 50 Best Running Stores in America in 2013.)

John Benedict, Playmakers
Okemos, Mich.

“We see the running shoe market heading in a number of different directions. Traditional stability and neutral cushion shoes (like those from Brooks, Asics, Saucony, Mizuno) are still strong with lower, lighter shoes gaining ground. We do well with Hoka shoes in our store and also very minimal shoes like Vibram, Altra and Merrell. It seems that many runners prefer to own a number of different types of shoes; possibly a Hoka for recovery days, a stability shoe for medium to long runs and a minimal shoe for faster runs, as an example. It certainly is an exciting time to be in the athletic footwear industry.”

Reneé Grant, Runner’s Depot
Several locations in Florida

“We never delved deep into minimalism. It was and still is a little trendy. There is plenty of science to back it up but, like most trends, people go back to what works for them and, as far as running is concerned, that means what keeps them injury-free. Hoka is very popular brand because it offers the best of both worlds. Brooks is stronger than ever, with Saucony a strong second. Color is hotter than ever. Although function is still No. 1 with running specialty, fashion is a must more than it ever has been.”

RELATED: Shoe-Fitting Insights From America’s 50 Best Running Retailers

Ray Pugsley, Potomac River Running Store
Several locations in the Washington D.C. area

“The pendulum has swung back in the last 12 months to more conventional platforms as the minimal movement has slowed. We are seeing the lightweight changes to all shoes as a reaction to minimal footwear take shape with significant improvements from where models were in the past. The lightweight stability category in particular seems to be the sweet spot. In our case, it is too soon to say whether maximal shoes will grow to be a permanent fixture in the market, but in looking at how minimal exploded and then contracted, it will be a while until we see if these shoes stand the test of time.”

Travis Hildebrand, Salt Lake Running Company
Salt Lake City, Utah

“The momentum of the running market seems to be heavily moving toward a world of color. With more color being offered by vendors and with more customers pre-shopping before they enter our stores, customers are becoming less and less inclined to settle for just the one or two colors we show on our walls if they “think” the can find a different color relatively easy.

“Another trend is the merging of traditional shoe technology with lessons learned from the minimal category. Lower heel drops in traditional shoes and cushioning and stability technology added to minimal shoes. Hoka shoes will also continue strong, but it will be interesting to see if any of the other brands will be able to duplicate Hoka’s success in the oversized category.”

Ed Bice, Live4Sports
Houma, La.

“With the great variety of shoes out there, I don’t see the pendulum swinging very much to one side or the other. We have seen a great deal of interest in our natural running shoes (minimalist) — mostly in the shoes that offer minimalist characteristics with good cushioning.

Mike Rush, Rush Running
Bentonville and Fayetteville, Ark.

“Momentum in the running footwear is forever changing. It has been so interesting to see what the consumer gravitates towards and how public opinion can be so easily swayed as it pertains to the footwear industry. As a specialty store, we field a lot of questions about smaller running companies and unique footwear options. We’ve seen this be the case for the past several years. Minimalism, maximalism and several different footwear technologies become super popular, then fade away only to return a few years down the road.

“The one constant in the specialty footwear game is your classic, prototypical running shoe (i.e., Brooks Adrenaline, Asics Nimbus, Saucony Guide, etc.) We try not to heavily invest in phases of super unique footwear, but we like to have everything so the customer can experience each of these unique products (Vibram, Hoka, Newton, etc.). We like to educate our customers. It’s a delicate balance. In our stores, the stability category (the mid/moderate stability to be specific) has always dominated our sales. We’ve found that 80 percent of our customer base tends to pronate in some capacity and benefit from a stability shoe. The minimalism bug hit our store big time in 2012, but it has all but died since. People are getting back to the basics.”

RELATED: Naperville Running Co. Named Top Running Shop For 2013

Leone Rusher, Shu’s Idaho Running Company
Boise, Idaho

“I see the momentum of the running shoe increasing steadily just like it has been for awhile now. I believe the minimalism is changing some. People are wanting a little more cushion and protection under their feet with the lower drop. Brands like Hoka One, Saucony, Brooks, Scott and Pearl Izumi to name a few do offer some of those lower drop shoes with cushion and protection.”

John Stephen, Fit2Run
several locations in Florida

“The trend in the running shoe category will continue with the shift from minimal footwear back to more traditional “cushion” and “support” footwear. New and updated midsole and upper technology in key models from the top brands will drive sales for the winter and spring seasons. The stability category remains strong as the brands continue to improve this category with lighter and more flexible models. The minimal segment while slowing down, is still alive and well. These are not shoes for all runners all the time, but there is definitely a place for them in every runner’s arsenal. The high cushioning shoes from brands like Hoka are an innovative addition to the marketplace. Time will tell how successful they are.”

Jen Ryman, Fleet Feet Sports Schererville

Schererville, Ind.

“It seems that the momentum is combining the best of the minimalism movement and the traditional shoe styles. Customers are gravitating not to one extreme but to somewhere in the middle, for example choosing a light stability shoe over a high stability shoe.”

Doug Alred, 1st Place Sports
several locations in Florida

“Footwear is trending back to traditional shoes. The minimal trend is cooling down and taking a back seat to the traditional footwear. There is still a place for lower-drop shoes, but not the craze that was a few years ago. Neutral shoes have taken a little more piece of the pie compared to years past and motion control continues to decline. Hokas seem to be gaining momentum, but is still a small part of the market. There are some great updates being launched for spring in a bunch of brands. I’m really looking forward to all shoe updates in 2014.”