Toning shoes slip out of popularity

07/31/2011 6:27 AM

07/31/2011 6:27 AM

LOS ANGELES — Fitness shoes that wobbled into major-league popularity last year with names like Shape-ups, EasyTone and TrueBalance are getting a tough workout these days.

Heralded as the secret to tightening your buns, thighs and abs, the shoes — equipped with uneven soles designed to put muscles into overdrive — flew off the shelves last year as Americans, by one estimate, scooped up nearly 10 million pairs amid the latest fad in the finicky footwear industry.

One year later, the shoes have fallen in popularity in a now-flooded market for the workout shoes, and companies are focusing more on lighter-weight shoes. Meanwhile, studies and lawsuits have repeatedly questioned whether toning shoes may really whip a flabby body into shape.

Although they have been around for years, most Americans became familiar with toning shoes in 2009 and 2010 as companies hawked pairs for around $100. But now with the glut, prices have been cut and sales have dropped.

Reebok, New Balance and other brands have played a big role in the shoes' popularity, but no one more than Skechers, the California shoemaker that makes Shape-ups and Tone-ups. The company's sales and stock price soared in 2010, but no more.

On Wednesday, the company said it lost $29.9 million in the second quarter, compared with a profit of $40.2 million during the same period last year. Sales fell 14 percent to $434.4 million.

Company officials blamed the loss mostly on a tough market for toning shoes.

"We aggressively reduced our excess toning inventory during the second quarter by selling 2 million pairs of our original Shape-ups for a loss of $21 million," Chief Operating Officer David Weinberg said in a statement.

"Every business faces challenges as they grow, and at this time last year we were experiencing record growth and were the leaders in an explosive new category of footwear," Skechers CEO Robert Greenberg said in a statement.

Skechers is currently rolling out a whole new line of lighter-weight, athletically styled Shape-ups and Tone-ups with smaller soles; those shoes were renamed "fitness" rather than "toning."

"We are producing more lighter-weight Shape-ups for people who want a lightweight package and still engage in — let's call it fitness," said Leonard Armato, president of Skechers' fitness unit. "We are evolving Shape-ups, and we are excited about that evolution."

On a recent afternoon, retired salesman Keith Parker, 45, checked out a newly renovated Skechers store in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Pop music played while an audio recording urged shoppers to "step into your new body."

Parker wasn't so excited. His favorite shoe? A dark-brown European-style slip-on. He said he had no interest in exploring the store's new wing, which held the company's fitness and toning shoes.

Nearby, a cutout of Kim Kardashian proclaimed "the newest move in fitness is... tying your shoelaces!"

"That whole marketing pitch doesn't float my boat," the retired salesman said, looking toward the new room. "I'm in good enough shape just walking around."

Others have also expressed similar skepticism since toning footwear took off.

Lawsuits have been filed against Skechers, Reebok and New Balance alleging deceptive marketing. The companies have responded by standing by their products.

Last year, the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise funded a study that found Skechers Shape-ups, Reebok EasyTone and Masai Barefoot Technology toned one's muscles no more than normal running shoes.

And Consumer Reports, citing the shoes' instability, recently said they "could send you to the couch with your foot in a cast."

"Like any other high-heeled shoes, you've got to follow directions and instructions," which for the original Shape-ups is walking, said Skechers' Armato.

Skechers CEO Greenberg called the criticism nonsense, citing thousands of unsolicited letters from customers and company-sponsored studies that say his company's shoes tone the body, relieve back stress and improve posture.

"I know in my heart we have helped so many people," Greenberg said.

Maureen Dipasqual is a Skechers booster. At first her Shape-ups made her feet and ankles sore, but now, she said, daily hourlong walks have lessened her lifelong back pain.

"You feel like you are rocking, but they are great," said the Arizona resident, 57, while helping her daughter move into a beachfront Marina del Rey, Calif., apartment.

Analysts predict the record sales of 2010 won't return — caused by diminished or flat demand coupled with dropping prices to clear a flooded market. And that drop has touched all that sell shoes designed to tighten muscles.

In April, toning-shoe sales hit $33.2 million, down 55.5 percent from a year earlier, according to market researcher NPD Group. The volume of shoes sold is also down — 23.6 percent in April and 3.7 percent during the first four months of 2011.

Reebok saw its North American toning-shoe sales fall during the first quarter — although overall North American sales grew, a company spokesman said. But adjustments are being made.

Ads have evolved. Reebok has settled for a subtler "reflection" campaign in which women are comfortable with what they see when they look in a mirror or a shop window, no longer citing specific percentages that women can expect EasyTone to boost their workout.

"We have reviewed the messages we get out there to make sure we don't intend to mislead women," said Martina Jahrbacher, head of Reebok's women's division. The change was a seasonal adjustment and had nothing to do with lawsuits, the company said.

Although sales may be declining compared with last year, toning shoes are here to stay, analyst Marshal Cohen of NPD said. The real question, he said, is what comes next.

"How are they going to migrate it to the next level?" Cohen said. "How about the real benefits of it? The comfort factor and the wellness factor — and tapping into that market."

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