Jennifer Hart was in the market for a new pair of fitness shoes last fall when her girlfriends began to talk about toning shoes, touted in ads as a route to better buttocks and leaner legs, simply by walking around.
She bought a pair, and now Ms. Hart feels like she's stretching her calf and hamstring muscles more than usual when she's out for a stroll.
"It makes sense that people try to maximize their workouts with what little time we seem to have nowadays," said the 35-year-old Vancouver real estate agent and single mother of a 10-year-old.
Toning shoes, which challenge the wearer's muscles by upsetting their balance slightly, are the latest trend in athletic footwear aimed at today's multi-tasking, fitness-craving soccer mom.
Shoe heavyweights from Reebok to Skechers are betting on toning shoes to woo back Ms. Hart and other time-crunched women who have increasingly abandoned performance shoes for fashion footwear.
Now, a growing number of athletic footwear makers - from Avia to New Balance - have also stepped up their offerings, introducing toning shoes not only for walking but also for running, hiking, training and basketball, with versions for men and children too.
The initiatives are paying off. By the first quarter of this year, sales of U.S. women's sports shoes perked up "in the high teens" after having slid into "the mid-single digits" in 2007 and 2008, according to researcher SportsOneSource of Charlotte, N.C.
Today, toning shoes are on track to become the first major new category in athletic shoes in roughly 15 years, when cross-trainers made a splash. The trend has grown so fast that some wonder whether toners truly have legs or are a short-lived craze, like Crocs clogs or wheeled Heelys of the mid-2000s.
"This is very different," said Christopher Svezia, a senior analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group in New York. "This is bigger. It's multi-branded. It provides a psychological benefit, and maybe a physical benefit to someone who's wearing it … It's here to stay. I don't think it's a fad."
Skechers and Reebok weren't the first to dream up a rocker-shaped sneaker bottom. More than a decade ago, the MBT "anti-shoe" was launched, an expensive - about $300 today - clunky model, pitched as a techno-orthopedic alternative rather than a shoe that firms calves and buttocks.
Skechers took the idea of the MBT but slimmed down the shoe as well as the price, said Jane Harshorn, co-ordinator of Skechers' Canadian fitness group. The company tested its toning Shape-ups, now priced from $120 to $150, at the end of 2008 and launched them with an ad campaign the following fall. They were a smash.
"This has completely revived our women's category," Ms. Harshorn said.
Nike Inc., the largest athletic footwear and apparel company in the U.S., has sidestepped the toning trend and scoffed at the notion that instability can yield a real workout, even as its women's footwear sales continue to lose ground.
For the three months until the end of May, Nike saw its women's shoe sales fall into the high-single digits, analyst Matt Powell at SportsOneSource said. "If Nike were in the toning business in some way today, they would be making up those losses."
Instead, this fall, Nike will relaunch its Nike Free training shoe - footwear that provides the sensation of being almost barefoot, according to its marketers who say it can be worn "to the gym, at the gym and on the way home."
"Unlike toning products of today, we will not ask the consumer to compromise on stability, flexibility or any other performance characteristics as they train," Nike vice-president Trevor Edwards said last month.
Despite Nike's indifference, there are strong signs the instability shoe movement is taking off. In the three months to the end of May, toning shoes made up 6.5 per cent of the $17.5-billion (U.S.) U.S. athletic footwear market, from virtually zero a year earlier, according to SportsOneSource. Forecasts say the shoes are on their way to generating at least $1.5-billion (U.S.) of sales this year and $2-billion in 2011.
Amid a tough economy, producers and retailers appreciate the bump in sales premium-priced toning shoes provide. For Reebok, the challenge has been keeping up with demand.
"The explosion of growth in this space in such a short period of time eclipses nearly everything I have witnessed in the industry over the last 25 years," said Herbert Hainer, CEO of parent Adidas AG.
Another bonus is that customers are beginning to buy the toning shoes along with another pair of shoes.
"So it's not in lieu of, it's in addition to," said Ken Hicks, CEO of sporting goods retailer Foot Locker Inc. "That's why we're seeing it as a plus to the business."
Calgary-based Forzani Group Ltd. which runs Sport Chek and other sporting goods chains, is also enjoying the toning lift.
"It's not taking away from the other existing categories we have," president Tom Quinn said.
Even Ms. Hart is looking to expand her athletic shoe count. She recently began to run a few times a week and is now looking for runners to go along with her Reebok EasyTones.
"I am really excited to check out the running version, so I can take my workouts to the next level," she said.