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TORONTO (Reuters) - It looks weird, like someone put a glove on their foot, but Tony Post insists his company's new shoe is the future of running.
"Anytime you wear these out of the house, it's hard not to get stopped," said Post about the Vibram Five Fingers (www.vibramfivefingers.com) running shoe that barely covers the foot and sports five toes. "We tried to get as close to a barefoot sensation as we could."
Post, the CEO and president of Vibram USA, Inc., said the Concord, Massachusetts-based company developed the Vibram Five Fingers shoe four years ago to capitalize on a grassroots movement promoting barefoot running. Five Fingers is the off-shoot startup of Vibram, a 75-year-old sole-producing company originally founded by an Italian mountain climber who applied car-tire technology to shoes. Post added the new venture was entirely funded by the parent company.
Post is not only the spokesman, he's also a client.
"I'm a person who actually had knee surgery about five years ago and I wouldn't be able to run if I didn't change the way I was running," he said, adding the new design encourages a forefoot strike, which is "far less impactful on your body, on your knees, your lower back, your ankles" than the traditional heel strike. "It takes some time to get used to running that way, but when you do, it actually is a more comfortable way to run."
Post said Five Fingers targets young, active people interested in a variety of sports, from fitness training, running and outdoor activities and even yoga.
"In the beginning, it was pretty unusual to try to sell this kind of a product -- a product with five toes," said Post, who noted initially consumers were skeptical. "It was a hard sell just because people didn't know if it was a serious product."
The running shoes, which retail anywhere from $85 to $100, seems to have caught the attention of runners. Post said the number of distributors handling the shoes has grown from 24 to more than 700 in North America since the brand was launched. Post said the company has "never run a single ad" and credited consumers for growing the brand.
"It's all been social media, grassroots marketing, a lot of one-on-one conversations frankly is what it's been that's built this business," he said, adding that strong relationship is what will ultimately protect Five Fingers from copycats. "People will always find a way, even if it's not an exact copy to design around something, so at the end of the day it's really about your relationship with the consumer."
Global sales for athletic footwear, which fell roughly 2 percent during the recent recession, is expected to rebound to reach $96 billion by 2012, according to a 2009 report by apparel and textile industry research firm Just-Style (www.just-style.com).
"We'll probably double our distribution over the next year or so," said Post, adding that would mean Five Fingers being sold in as many as 2,500 stores across the country. He added that would likely accompany a doubling of his 75-person staff to accommodate the demand. "It's doubled the last year and over the next year we'll probably double or triple that workforce again."
Post sees the large growth as the company's biggest challenge.
"The rate of growth today is so much faster than it was even five or 10 years ago. Our business will grow almost five times what it was last year this year," he said, noting his focus is on maintaining a strong corporate culture and infrastructure as they ramp up production. "I think those are the challenges for us: how we maintain a quality product, are able to service our dealers and still be able to manage this kind of very rapid growth."