Nearly three years ago, as the fitness boom began to wheeze and stumble, the $2.7-billion athletic shoe industry was overjoyed to discover the little-known scientific finding that vigorous walking is a better exercise than jogging and aerobics. To the industry, the vision was clear and tantalizing: millions of people walking in millions of walking shoes.
By the beginning of this year, more than 40 companies, including Nike, Reebok, Adidas and Puma, were going after America's sole with such evocatively named walking shoes as Windwalker, Strider and Dynacoil. To get consumers into walking shoes, the industry's publicity machines have been promoting walking as "the new exercise of the '80s."
"If you look at the fitness boom as ripples on a pond, then jogging was the first ring, aerobics the second, and we think walking is the third," said Kevin Brown, advertising director for Nike, the second-largest U.S. manufacturer of athletic shoes (1986 wholesale sales: $550 million).
According to a survey by the National Sporting Goods Assn., Americans have been getting the walking message. Nearly 20 million people in 1986--an increase of 42% from the year before--were walking for exercise at least twice a week.
Trouble is, the industry has not been able to convince Americans that walking shoes, priced from $40 to $85, are any better than old sneakers or ordinary jogging shoes.
"People are not walking in walking shoes," said Floyd Huff, president of Footlocker, the world's largest retailer of athletic shoes, with nearly 1,000 outlets.
So far, sales of walking shoes have accounted for less than 1% of the athletic shoe market, said Jim Spring, president of Sports Marketing & Research Technology, a Connecticut firm that monitors the athletic shoe industry. "We're not seeing a helluva lot of activity in walking shoe sales," he said.
According to industry observers, the public isn't buying the industry's claim that walking shoes are essential to exercise walking. The problem is that these new walking shoes don't really look any different from athletic shoes, although they are lighter and have been designed with a flexible mid-sole to accommodate the foot's natural rolling motion when walking.
But from a technical standpoint, it hasn't been proven that walking shoes offer an advantage over other athletic shoes.
"Rather than investing in an expensive walking shoe," said George Holland, co-director of the exercise physiology department at Cal State Northridge, "it would be just as smart to buy a less costly running shoe that provides good stability and shock-absorption capabilities."
Only Rockport Co. of Marlboro, Mass., has managed to gain a significant foothold in the market. Last year, Rockport's ProWalkers racked up sales of more than $15 million, no doubt because of Rockport's running start on the competition.
First Shoe Introduced
It was about 2 1/2 years ago that Rockport introduced its $85 ProWalker, the first exercise walking shoe. It wasn't until 18 months later that Nike was able to rush its $54.95 EXR model to market. By the fall of last year, most of the industry's other heavy hitters had put their walking shoes in stores or had plans to do so, and they began hyping exercise walking as a trendy, safer alternative to the high-impact sports of jogging and aerobics.
"Back in the early '70s, shoe manufacturers got into jogging because of public demand," said Alex Vergara, director of advertising for Athletic Attic, the fourth-largest retailer of athletic shoes. "But just the opposite happened with walking. Rockport originated exercise walking, and the industry created the demand for walking shoes. The public had to be told that walking is a legitimate exercise."
Reebok, which overtook Nike last year as the largest U.S. manufacturer of athletes shoes (1986 wholesale sales: $841 million), bought Rockport last fall for $118 million. Avon, Mass.-based Reebok will come out with its own line of walking shoes this spring but will keep the Rockport brand as well.
Bruce Katz, president of Rockport, is credited with promoting the health benefits of exercise walking. Three years ago this June, Katz commissioned a University of Massachusetts cardiologist, Dr. James M. Rippe, to do laboratory research on the biomechanical and physiological effects of vigorous walking. Similar studies had already been done, but they focused primarily on heart patients and sedentary people. Katz told Rippe to study normal, healthy people.
Rippe found that walking three times a week for 30 minutes at the brisk pace of 4 miles per hour (3 m.p.h. is normal walking speed) can enable the average person to reach and maintain a training heart rate and keep it there long enough to strengthen the cardiovascular system, improve endurance, tone muscles and burn calories. In other words, get in shape.