Dude, Where's My Shoe?

As a former specialty running retailer, my most consistent customers were also the ones who were least likely to change their run model from year to year. They'd come into the store, ask for the same version of what was on their feet, try them on, and move on. Heaven forbid if you brought out the new model of that same shoe. "They changed it! Again! Why? I just started to get used to what they changed from last year!" But we'd usually get them on their feet, things would feel more or less the same, and we'd be on our way.

That way of thinking started to turn upside down from 2008 to 2012, as we cycled through minimalism, the introduction of Kinvara, and the proliferation of HOKA One One and its impact on the running community at large. The combination of cushioning, low offset, and bucket seat construction (whereby you are enveloped by the midsole, as opposed to sitting on top of it) led to significant overhauls of every single brand's product line. Saucony, for instance, stopped making shoes with a heel-toe offset greater than 8 millimeters. Brooks went heavy on cushioning and became the #1 brand in specialty running. And then there's the proliferation of carbon fiber models, which all started with Nike's VaporFly.

So, what happens when a brand is evolving a shoe? We talked with Colin Ingram, Director of Product at HOKA One One, about how that happens specifically with a given brand.

First, a primer on shoe product cycles. Speaking generally, a given model of a shoe will be on the shelves for 12 or 18 months. There are rare exceptions to this rule where a shoe might carryover for 24 months without a change; these tend to be specialty models like the Brooks Beast. But in order for that shoe to wind up on the shelf, it's usually an 18 to 24 month cycle of drawing, concepts, initial sample manufacturing, revisions as necessary, and then showing the shoe to retailers to begin futures orders.

To put that in perspective, retailers are booking their fall product sales now. Shoe manufacturers, meanwhile, are looking at fall 2022 and spring 2023 releases now. It means they're looking at what trends exist today, and attempting to predict where the market is heading. This is an advantage for brands like HOKA and Saucony, which are part of Deckers and Wolverine Worldwide, respectively; they can draw on data from their lifestyle brands like UGG and Teva (Deckers) or StrideRite and Sperry (Saucony) to help influence design trends. According to Ingram, at least in the case of HOKA, they are viewed as the technology pushing brand within the Deckers portfolio, but there are elements of try-on feel or fit that can be passed across brands.

That's the basics of the manufacturing process. But back to the original example of people who hate change of models. For instance, Dan wrote in his review of the re-released Bondi B: "I hope HOKA remembers the Bondi B; that it starts fresh, adds what it’s learned about uppers and foam, but respects and honors what made this shoe such a favorite among triathletes, and eventually road runners." For some runners, the loyalty is tied to a specific model. Dan's benchmark shoe is always that Bondi B; you can see that across his reviews of the recent Mach 4, or the Carbon X 2.

Talking with Ingram, HOKA's approach is to have loyalty to the experience in the shoe, and not necessarily the specific model. HOKA's brand motif is to have an exceptional amount of cushioning for the weight, and to align its products accordingly based on marketplace trends. When HOKA first launched, for instance, it was targeted to ultra runners and elite athletes. This led to lighter, softer foamed shoes. As HOKA product has expanded over time, however, the target has shifted. The average American male weighs 198 pounds. The first batches of Bondi, or Mafate, simply didn't stack up to the lifespan expected due to how soft the foam was. In order to give the heart of the marketplace the intended experience, the shoe had to get stiffer; had to get bulkier; had to evolve. When told that Dan self-describes as a heavier runner, Ingram laughed: "he's absolutely not."

This is why, for those who adored the original Bondi, you need to look beyond the model name. According to Ingram, you have to figure out the feel of the shoe you're seeking, and see then how it aligns with the model line-up in a given year. That's what made the Mach 4 a home run for Dan; it has become that shoe in the line-up that offers the stability for his orthotic, the fit around the foot, and takes into account the vast improvement in uppers that Ingram and team have put into place. (Ingram is formerly of Mizuno and New Balance; you can sense a few of those old upper elements kicking around in those shoes if you're an old shoe geek). What someone likes out of shoe doesn't change; instead, what shoe it is in the model line-up does. In Saucony speak, it's why I went from the Mirage to the Fastwitch, back to the Mirage, then onward to the current Freedom and Triumph. I like a little more cushioning than I did when I was 25, but otherwise, I want the same basic things out of my shoe.

In summary, then, it's not enough to just eyeball the specs of a shoe to try to make the determination as to whether or not you'll like a particular shoe year-over-year. Brand loyalty will exceed model loyalty, at least for now.