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Toning Shoe Category Explodes

The idea of a toning shoe softly came into the American marketplace in 2008. A year later, it had blossomed into a $300 million business. This year, projections have the business at an astounding $1.5 billion.

Skechers Resistance Runners hit shelves in July.
Source: Skechers
Skechers Resistance Runners hit shelves in July.

The ergonomically built shoe that promises you everything from reducing joint stress to burning more calories to increasing the size of your calf muscles, has single-handedly brought Reebok back from the dead and has turned Skechers into the No. 2 best-selling shoe brand in America behind Nike.

Avia is back in the conversation with its “Iburn Double Rocker,” New Balance couldn’t help but join in the fray with its “rock&tone” and Walmart is selling its own version with the Danskin brand on it.

Meanwhile, Nike’s avoidance of the market, choosing to push its Nike Free product instead, has had its cost. Nike’s share of the women’s footwear market has fallen by 7.5 percent as compared to this time last year, according to market retail tracking firm SportsOneSource.

It’s the most out-of-nowhere story I’ve ever seen in a decade of covering the athletic shoe business.

The genesis of the shoe, described as kinetic wedge technology, came from a company called Swiss Masai that made $250 versions of the anti-shoe called Masai Barefoot Technology. After catching the eye of executives at other shoe companies who made a similar type shoe for cheaper, the rest was history.

How hot is this business? How about the fact that 8.5 percent of all sports footwear sold in the U.S. in May was toning footwear.

SportsOneSource has the market leader, Skechers, at 54 percent of the market, while Reebok has a 40 percent share and Avia has 3.6 percent. Skechers—whose main brand is called “Shape-Ups”—is being incredibly aggressive in this space.

And who could fault them after reporting first quarter net sales of nearly $500 million, the highest quarterly sales in the company’s 18-year history? The company is selling the uniquely shaped shoe in sandal, hiking and cross trainers and in July, they’ll unveil the Resistance Trainers, its first running shoe.

To keep up the momentum, Skechers hired Leonard Armato to be the president of its fitness group a couple months ago. Armato, who represented the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and is the former commissioner of the AVP, brought on Joe Montana of all people to endorse the brand.

“This shoe category originally started with the walking mom, who just wanted to do something because she was so time starved,” Armato said. “But the men’s business is definitely growing too.”

Whether toning is a fad or a real category, it’s too early to tell. It could come crashing down as fast it went up and the market leaders will be faced with massive inventory they can’t get rid of. Of course, the other side of the story would be that this does in fact become a force in the athletic shoe business and those who choose not to play in the space might one day regret it.

Matt Powell of SportsOneSource is betting on the latter. "Puma and Saucony are getting into this business next," Powell said. "The more companies that become part of this market, the less likely it is to fail. Crocs and Heely's were one-brand, one item concepts. Here we have multiple brands, multiple channels, multiple technologies and all of that adds up to arguing for sustainability."

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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