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Growing Pains

A little swiss company's body-friendly shoes and the multibillion-dollar toning sneaker industry that threatens to overshadow them.

Author Alyssa Giacobbe Illustration Gary Neill

IN 2002, Klaus Heidegger was an aging former athlete and businessman with back issues when a friend introduced him to a pair of odd-looking shoes from Switzerland’s Masai Barefoot Technology, or MBT. Boasting thick, rounded soles designed to mimic the effect of walking barefoot on uneven ground, the shoes had been used successfully by physiotherapists and orthopedists to treat patients with muscle and back pain. The Los Angeles–based Heidegger, who’d spent years skiing competitively in Austria, tried them out. Almost immediately, his back and knees felt better. In addition to the stated benefits (improved posture and gait, and decreased pressure on the joints), he noticed a side effect: a nice toning and tightening of certain leg and gluteal muscles that had previously gone underused. Interesting, he thought.

Heidegger and his wife, Jami—who had recently sold her family’s skincare company, Kiehl’s, for a rumored $150 million—thought the shoes might play well among Americans, a people with no shortage of enthusiasm for the next big thing in fitness. So they started investing in the company, eventually buying a majority share in 2006.

Within a year of the Heideggers’ involvement, they had placed the $200 to $300 shoes in more than 200 stores in the U.S. Atlanta-based Foot Solutions, the first retailer to bring MBT to the market, saw upward of $5 million in sales that first year alone.

Of course, it wasn’t banged-up athletes who were buying. It was suburban moms, the elderly and anyone else lured by the promise of “toning while you walk,” as the media and retailers began to put it. Tapping into the body image market may not have been MBT’s original intent, but it was hard to argue with the numbers. Toning shoes were shaping up to be a $400 million global business. Still, says Heidegger, “the focus was always wellness and health. Toning is a byproduct, but not what we intended the shoe to be used for.” Indeed, MBT’s early stateside advertising efforts were focused chiefly on explaining the therapeutic benefits of “rocker bottom” technology.

Little did Heidegger know he was creating a monster. As MBT’s sales grew, copycat shoes began turning up, launched by companies happy to exploit Americans’ collective obsession with finding easy ways to get in shape. Reebok, New Balance, Avia, Skechers and Nike, as well as smaller brands such as FitFlops and Flojos, all introduced models that stressed “toning” more than therapeutic function. Today, toning footwear is the most lucrative shoe category in the U.S., with sales expected to clear $1.5 billion in 2010. Thanks in large part to its wildly popular Shape Ups line, Skechers is now the No. 2 best-selling shoe brand in the U.S., behind Nike.

MBT, however, isn’t celebrating. The competition’s focus on using the shoes as a means to a better rear— exemplified by a Reebok EasyTone ad depicting a woman entirely from behind—was not the direction Heidegger saw the genre taking. In fact, he seems to take it personally. “That’s putting the whole category down,” he says. Adds Jami Heidegger, “We never intended to claim the shoe could reduce cellulite”—as Skechers has proposed—“or make you look like Gisele Bündchen. And I do think that’s hindered our growth. We aren’t making these flashy claims.”

Which isn’t to say MBT hasn’t benefited from them, too. Sam Spears, MBT’s vice president of product and marketing, says the competition’s immense marketing push has helped commercialize the look of MBTs and educate consumers about the category. While MBT’s sales are indeed still growing, more powerful brands like Skechers—which spends tens of millions of dollars a year on marketing—are eating into the market at an overwhelming clip. The challenge MBT faces now is to differentiate itself from the crush of lower-priced imitators while sticking to the founding principles of wellness and rehabilitation through quality engineering. “Because of their success, it’s been tempting to market MBTs as a toning product too,” Spears says. “But we’re trying desperately to avoid that.”

Spears points out that unlike the competition, MBT is considered a medical device in 40 countries, meaning that with a prescription they’re covered by insurance. While the FDA hasn’t yet bought in, American doctors, for the most part, back up MBT’s claims. “I use them to help rehabilitate patients who are walking unevenly,” says Dr. Andrew Elliott, an orthopedic surgeon at Manhattan’s Hospital for Special Surgery. “You do use different muscles, and it will help strengthen your core and make you stand up straight.”

But MBT’s biggest problem may go well beyond simply establishing a point of difference with the competition. The sort of customer drawn in by the quick health fix is far more likely to fork out $100 for a pair of Skechers than $300 for a pair of MBTs. And once the less expensive shoes break down—the life span for a pair of Skechers Shape Ups is about a year, according to online reviews, while MBTs are designed to last more than five—the customer will be soured on the market and ready to move on to the next fad. For this reason, experts are warning that the end is near for functional footwear, with an overcrowded market risking a sort of implosion. “The category can’t support the type of growth that’s going on now,” says Ray Margiano, founder and CEO of Foot Solutions.

If a mass extinction is in the cards, MBT plans to go down kicking. The Heideggers have hired a new design team leader with a Prada pedigree to make the shoes “more presentable,” and introduced a “day-to-night” line that professionals can wear to the office. Early next year, the brand will introduce an “introductory” model that’ll sell for around $175. But the quality, Heidegger says, will not suffer. “People ask me, ‘How are you making money? I’ve had the shoe for two years and it still looks the same,’” he says. “It’s a Swiss company! The Swiss don’t just throw things out like we do here in the U.S.” Heidegger shrugs. “But what can you do?”

ALYSSA GIACOBBE promises that reading this while jogging will rid you of cellulite.

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One Response to “Growing Pains”

  1. Foot Solutions Says:
    December 12th, 2010 at 11:05 am

    It has been an interesting journey to see how Americans have adapted to the ‘toning shoe’ concept. There is without a doubt a strong correlation to price and quality and our customers who wear MBT and Chung Shi will tell you no differently. While the toning craze may fall to the wayside, alleviating pain won’t, which is where MBT and Chung Shi shine.

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