Stalking walking

Step right up, step right up. There, you’ve gone and done it already! You, lucky ladies and gents, have just participated in America’s newest fitness trend. Did I say trend? Craze, folks, and I mean craze.

Introducing the next fitness boom — walking!

Will the American public really rally to the cry of, “Heel, toe and away we go?” Will marketers be able to convince consumers that they need special equipment to do something that they do as naturally as eating or sleeping?

“It’s just a question of waking people up to the fact that this is something they already do,” answers one shoe retailer who markets a number of walking shoes.

Walking has been a part of the sports scene for years, though it’s been an elusive marketing opportunity. To put it in a more timely perspective, race walking has been an Olympic sport since 1906. But as recently as five years ago, walking flubbed as a fad. The few enterprises that tried to make walking something Americans consciously embraced as a sport — and would be willing to buy equipment for — just never got off the ground. Nike Inc., for instance, launched the “Pathfinder” shoe in 1982, hoping to latch onto some of its running shoe customers who might have slowed down to a walk. Sales were disappointing and the shoe was phased out about a year later. Walking! Journal was launched in 1983 by Orenda Media, but didn’t fly either.

But while their timing was off, their thinking was apparently right on. According to American Sports Data Inc., which promises an in-depth look at the activity via a two-phase national research study beginning January 1987, current figures on walking suggest the time has come: 84 million Americans walked for fun at least once last year; 40 million participated at least once in brisk, “aerobic” walking; 20 million went on brisk walks an average of once a week; and 1.9 million put in at least 1,500 briskly walked miles over the course of the year. It’s official: The figures now stack up in favor of a “trend” — the magic point for marketers.

The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association didn’t bother tracking walking shoe sales until 1986. Now, not only were walking shoe manufacturers included in the association’s annual convention this year, but the group is also gathering stats on the strolling market. In the first quarter of 1986, walking shoes sold 1.4 million pairs, priced anywhere from $40 to $100, with retail sales totaling $36.6 million. For the same period, running shoes sold 3 million pairs and rang up $86.1 million in sales. By year end, walking shoe marketers are hoping to stroll away with a healthy chunk of the nearly $8 billion athletic shoe market.

“I really believe the potential market for it is much larger than it was for running,” states Richard Polk, owner of a group of Colorado-based stores that sell walking shoes and paraphernalia. “Also, the lifecycle of the market is potentially much longer. You can do it ’til you drop and, if we’re right about [its benefits], you can drop a little later.” Polk’s stores, each called The Pedestrian Shop, sell things like walking guide books, walking sticks, walking shorts and pedometers. He opened the first shop eight years ago, now has three and says he is looking to franchise others across the country.

Two walking-oriented magazines, Walkways published by Walk Inc. and The Walking Magazine from Raben Publishing Co., have sprung up to get in on the trend. The Walking Magazine, launched in May 1986 with a guaranteed circulation of 300,000, will grow to 500,000 after its fourth issue. In addition to selling ad space to walking shoe marketers, the book boasts advertisers like General Foods, pitching its cereals and Sanka decaffeinated coffee, Casio televisions, Maserati cars and MacGregor tennis rackets, as well as some apparel makers. And the magazine itself has an ongoing print media plan of its own, with buys in trade and consumer magazines.

There are a number of facts that support the notion that walking could be the next big money-generating sports craze. The number of fitness walkers is expected to grow to between 80-90 million by 1990 (you rate the title “fitness walker” if you hit speeds of 2.5-to-5 mph). The number of walking events grew from 2,500 in 1985 to 10,000 this year. The number of running marathons, in contrast, declined 38% between 1980 and 1985. The number of people who called themselves joggers dropped, according to a recent Gallup Poll, to 15% of 1985’s respondent sample from 18% in 1984.

But perhaps the most significant statistics of all has to do with the aging of the baby boom generation and the growing percentage of senior citizens.

As exercise becomes a more important and accepted part of life for Americans, more older people make walking their exercise of choice. They currently make up the bulk of what manufacturers see as their market. Older people especially enjoy it as an activity that lets you go slow enough to enjoy the scenery and socialize, yet fast enough to get some aerobic benefits. Walking also allows the participant to avoid the injuries that both running and aerobics are known to cause.

Injuries are where the baby boomers come in. Starting in the 1960’s, they were the ones who made running/jogging a big business. But over the last several years, sales of the flip flops for plantar fasciitis have declined as runners aged, developed injuries that called for cutting back on runs, or stopped running altogether. “If you watched what was happening in the marketplace, it seemed to be diversifying,” comments Nike spokesperson Mary Marckx. “As people were getting into more strenuous activities, they began hurting themselves and began looking around for gentler, yet still strenuous exercise.” According to research, a brisk walker can burn up 100 calories a mile.

Also, the sweat set may just be tired of the fitness rat race. “Psychographics have something to do with it,” suggests Beverly Daane, vice president of marketing at Rockport Co., the company that is by most accounts the market leader in this emerging category. “People are not so much into the burning pain of running.”

In addition, comfort is an important part of the equation. A couple of years ago, Nike reported its market research showed that 60% of its running shoes for bunion sufferers were being bought for uses other than running. Shoe comfort is “in,” even in the notoriously toe-cramping, ankle-turning realm of women’s fashion footwear. “Comfort is becoming more important in footwear in general,” states The Pedestrian Shop’s Polk. “Comfort used to be associated more with geriatric concerns than with fashion, but not anymore.”

Walking’s got something else going for it: It’s cheap. The walker doesn’t have to belong to a club or buy any fancy equipment — only a comfortable pair of shoes.

So, to marketers, the shoe’s the thing. Over 100 of them have reportedly launched casual walking shoes, and at least 25 of those have marched out shoes for the fitness walker. The marketing challenge is to convince consumers that their sneakers, loafers or even old running shoes aren’t appropriate for distance walking.

They might have something there, says Dr. Elliott Hershman of the Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “It’s true, the running shoe was a great improvement over the regular sneaker, and that’s probably true for walking shoes, too.” Hard to believe, but you can injure yourself walking. “Absolutely,” he says. “Even walking, you can develop stress fractures” and good dress shoes for high arches can help prevent that, he adds.

Marketers have already gotten behind the concept with lingo emphasizing the “biomechanical” needs of feet and legs. Currently, the most common design feature that distinguishes a walking shoe as such is a lower midsole than a running shoe, and more padding on the inside, less on the outside. “Some of the permutations and claims people are making are unfounded, but shoes with proper modifications and cushioning can be a real benefit,” says Hershman.

The Rockport Co., a Marlborough, Mass., company in business for 15 years, is credited as the market leader both in terms of brand identity as a walking shoe company and in terms of sales. Rockport’s 1985 sales reached $64.5 million and are expected to hit the $100 million mark for 1986. The company’s sales have grown, on average, over 40% a year for the last five years.

While it also markets hiking shoes and sandals, Rockport currently pushes several lines of walking shoes that range from casual to race shoes. The company has relied heavily on word of mouth and public relations efforts, like establishing walking events around the country, to get its name known.

Last year Rockport spent $6 million on its total marketing effort, according to Daane. While grassroots-level support and word of mouth will still figure heavily into its marketing plan, the company plans to back ad efforts more strongly now. Having just taken on Chiat/Day as its agency — which until recently had the Nike account — Rockport plans to spend $3 million to $4 million on media alone in 1987. The campaign will probably echo a number of print buys made in the past, which included co-op newspaper ads with retailers, as well as ads in Prevention (which launched its own walking club in April), Reader’s Digest, American Health, Travel & Leisure, Savvy, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, as well as a number of trade books.

The company recently established a separate division just to handle the sport walking market. Its first line of shoes, ProWalkers, will be out next March and are expected to sell for between $50 and $85. The line will be a fitness shoe that’s a cross between current Rockports and a running shoe.

This fall, Rockport was bought by exercise-shoe giant Reebok International Ltd. for $118.5 million. The purchase, says Daane, took some at Rockport by surprise, as the company was just preparing to go public. But she says the sale should produce some of the same results the stock sale would have. “We are growing so fast that we need capital. We’re not in financial trouble, but we have to maintain a service level to our distributors and retailers.”

She notes that the sale will help each company increase distribution of its shoe lines. Rockports are mainly sold through family-oriented and department stores, while Reeboks are found mostly in sporting goods stores and specialty footwear shops.

James E. Barclay, president of Reebok’s footwear division and executive vice president of Reebok International, says the buy will give his company diversification beyond its signature aerobic market. And, he adds, Reebok is launching some walking shoes of its own. “I don’t want to give you the impression we bought them just for their walking shoe,” states Barclay. “We plan to be very competitive with our own walking shoe and we will compete with Rockport.”

Even though its sale to Reebok should give the smaller Rockport more marketing clout, it’s going to have to watch its step. It doesn’t have this market to itself anymore. Nearly every big- and medium-sized shoe company has climbed into the ring. Converse, for instance, is easing into things with one line of walking shoes, the Hampton, which will retail for about $80-$90. Other shoe marketers entering the chase include New Balance, Brooks, Danner, Dexter, Clark and Red Wing.

Foot-Joy Inc. markets two lines of JoyWalkers for men and women ($40 to $55 at retail). While Robert Seiler, director of marketing/athletic, says sales to retailers are exceeding company expectations, he admits that “some retailers are saying, ‘I’m not sure what the walking market is going to do.'” Foot-Joy plans to double its ad budget next year, much of it giving a push to its walking shoes. (Leading National Advertisers reports total ad investments of $711,300 for the first six months of 1986; of this, $486,300 went for its sporting footwear, while the remainder was allocated to its golf shoe lines.) Ads will appeal both to the 25- to 45-year-old set, as well as older people. Buys will include People, Sports Illustrated, The Walking Magazine, Prevention, 50 Plus and trade books.

Nike could, perhaps, be Rockport’s most formidable competitor. It not only has a strong marketing department, but extensive research facilities. The company recently introduced the EXW, for exercise walkers, and the Healthwalker, a less technical version. Marketing, says spokesperson Marckx, will begin in New York, San Francisco and Boston, because those cities have strong grassroots support already. In addition to magazine ads, she says, Nike will feature its walkers in newspaper ads and on billboards. It’s also going to pound the pavement for its shoes by hiring some people to walk around with sandwich boards pitching them. In addition, Nike will be sponsoring walk-ins in various cities.

“We consider walking one of our important programs for the coming year,” says Marckx. “Our feeling is, physical fitness as a part of life in America is here to stay, and we see walking as an important part of this.”

There’s little doubt that walking, already popular, will be taken up by more and more people. But can it be turned into a sport, complete with a full-fledged marketing mechanism?

And if so, is it just a case of P.T. (“sucker born every minute”) Barnum redux? “To be honest with you, there’s a little bit of hype in it,” chuckles Matt Zale, president of U.S. Marathon Ltd., a national marketer of athletic footwear. “People don’t need [walking shoes], people don’t need running shoes, tennis shoes, whatever,” he says. Manufacturers just did a good job of making consumers think they needed different footwear for every activity. And U.S. consumers do have a penchant for gear. All agree that once shoppers decide they are “into” a sport, they get a yen for any and all equipment that goes with it.

And, last but not least, there’s the all-important vanity angle to be taken into consideration. Walking shoes have less of the highly engineered, yet oddly flat-footed look of running shoes. “For 10 years, people have been asking me for running shoes, ever since I opened my first store,” says Zale. “Now we finally have a hook: cosmetics. The running shoe look is dead.”

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