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These Shoes Are Made for WALKING : But Customers Aren’t Running to Buy Them

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

The growth of exercise walking, which has nothing to do with the Olympic sport of race walking, couldn’t have come at a better time for the athletic shoe industry. Aerobic participation dropped by nearly 500,000 people last year, according to the National Sporting Goods Assn., which represents 18,000 dealers. And an A. C. Nielsen Co. study shows that participation in jogging went down nearly 40% between 1979 and 1985.

Industry analyst Michael Kormos of Kormos, Harris & Associates of Nashville, Tenn., said unit sales of men’s athletic shoes, which include jogging shoes, fell 1.4% from 1984 to 1985.

Despite the public’s indifference toward walking shoes, industry experts still expect the market to turn around. “By the end of the year, walking shoes will have 2% to 3% of the business, and that’s not bad for a new category,” said Bill Wallace, vice president of Sports Marketing & Research Technology. “We’re not seeing a helluva lot of activity in SMART. You’ve got to remember, aerobic shoes now have 20% of the market, but four years ago they had nothing.” Indeed, 20% of the market would mean $800 million in sales.

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Retailers’ resistance is beginning to soften. Footlocker stores now stock nine brands of walking shoes. Huff said he is confident that “this is the year for walking shoes. They’re going to become a major part of the business. It’s just a matter of time before the public starts switching to walking shoes.”

The National Sporting Goods Assn. expects that by 1990, 90 million Americans--70% of them women--will be walking for exercise. The athletic shoe industry is betting that exercise walking will appeal to a broad range of people: senior citizens as well as the same baby boomers who launched the fitness boom, made jogging and aerobics an essential activity in their lives and were willing to spend money on it.

Some Aerobics Harmful

The industry is hoping to lure people to exercise walking at a time when there are a growing number of injuries suffered from jogging and aerobics. Joggers suffer from shin splints, heel spurs and stress fractures, and runner’s knee--an inflammation of the patella caused by overuse. It has also been discovered that some aerobic exercises are actually harmful, particularly to the back.

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Biomechanical research has shown that running produces a force on joints equal to three times a person’s body weight, walking only a third of that.

To change the public’s mind about the necessity for walking shoes, the athletic shoe industry has been funding scientific research.

“To say that walking shoes aren’t really necessary is flying in the face of how technology has been applied to sports,” said Dr. Rippe, whose lab uses high-speedphotos and computer analysis to design walking shoes for Rockport. “As sports evolved, technology has always responded with better designs for safer, higher performances.

“What would happen if you walked in canvas sneakers? The same as if you ran in them. They’re heavier than walking shoes and don’t offer as much support. You’d risk sore heels; your leg muscles would tire; you’d expend more energy.”

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Walking is going through an identity crisis. Rockport is promoting “fitness walking.” Other companies are advertising power walking, health walking, aerobic walking and exercise walking.

City Sports, an influential California monthly magazine with a circulation of 200,000 among West Coast fitness fanatics, has published two special issues devoted to “striding” and loaded with ads for walking, er, striding shoes.

In the summer of 1985, City Sports sponsored the first San Francisco Hill Stride. More than 3,500 people showed up, proving, said Katz, “that there was a helluva lot of grass-roots interest in fitness walking.” The 1986 event attracted more than 7,000. Last May in Pacific Palisades, the first Los Angeles Hill Stride drew 3,000. The 1987 event is set for June 21 in Santa Monica.

Shoe companies and shoe stores won’t be the only beneficiaries if legions of arm-swinging striders begin padding across the American landscape. There are now walking authors, walking Jane Fondas and a bimonthly walking magazine named--what else?--Walking, which claimed a circulation of 500,000 after only three issues. Walking accessories include walking sticks, belted “fanny packs,” Talk-A-Walk tapes and digital walking pedometers.

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There is even a self-proclaimed “walking guru.” Victor Steele, 55, once heavily involved in the gravity-gym business, said he has come up with a system called “body shrinking.”

By wearing heavy weights--up to 90% of his body weight--during a walking workout, Steele said, “a person will change from lard to lean in 120 days.” He says he invented the system by using himself as a test subject. Every day for four months, he left his West Los Angeles home wearing a silver latex body suit, weighted black bandoleers across his chest and black weights embracing his ankles. He says he lost 30 pounds off his 6-foot body and six inches from his waist.

It probably shouldn’t surprise anybody that health clubs are beginning to offer exercise walking. One such club is Paradise Dance & Aerobics Club in Encino. Walkers, most of whom are still wearing running shoes, are let loose into the streets, led by Jeff Sacher, who is required to be a combination trail guide and cheerleader.

“Take the next left!” he shouts high in the Encino Hills early one Saturday morning. “That’s it, guys, work those arms! Do the Groucho!”

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Sacher shifts into high gear and walks like Groucho Marx on fast forward. A disheveled housewife opens her front door to let out the dog and does a double take. Parading past her house are 20 strangers. They are wearing workout clothes, she notices, but they don’t seem to be working out. They are pumping their arms, but they aren’t running. They are sweating and they are puffing, but all they seem to be doing is walking.

Not exactly. Sacher calls his version “power striding.” At 8 o’clock in the morning, two days a week, he leads his band on fast-paced walks of two to five miles over hilly terrain, which makes the workout tougher but more beneficial.

“Without shoe company promotion, fitness walking would have taken a lot longer to catch on,” Katz said, “but it’s an idea whose time has come.”

With or without walking shoes.

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