San Franciscans pride themselves on being early adopters, and over the years they have welcomed a range of new phenomena with open arms. It should come as no surprise, then, that the trend toward running barefoot has captured the city's imagination. Inspired in large part by Born to Run, Christopher McDougall's best-selling 2009 book about the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, growing hordes of runners are casting off their sneakers. But there's a dark side to the barefooting craze: It's driving some athletic retailers nuts.
The most popular accessory of the barefoot athlete is the Vibram FiveFingers, a slender, tough-soled running slipper resembling a glove for the foot. The fingered footwear may look ridiculous, but it allows wearers to experience the biomechanical benefits of barefoot running without worrying about stepping on stray shards of glass. Only a handful of stores in the city carry them, and some that do have less-than-glowing reviews of the experience.
Nancy Block, owner of Nomadic Outfitters in Presidio Heights, says that while the FiveFingers has created a steady stream of cash for her business, it has also attracted a particularly demanding clientele. Many who buy the shoes, she says, are nothing like the laid-back ultramarathoners and preternaturally gifted Third World athletes profiled in McDougall's book. Instead, they're affluent and driven San Franciscans bent on collecting the latest totem of fitness fashion. "It attracts an upper-echelon sort of clientele," Block says. "There's an intensity. I'm not seeing too many Zenlike people."
These customers demand a lot of attention, she says, complaining when new iterations of the FiveFingers aren't in stock or when their orders haven't arrived on time. "I'm a drug dealer for shoes. That's how I look at it," she says. "It's an addiction, like any other addiction." (Disclosure: This reporter is a barefoot runner, and purchased shoes at Block's store.)
Sasha McGowan, online customer service manager for See Jane Run, another San Francisco–based retailer, agrees that customers looking for the FiveFingers are "very demanding." But some of the blame, she and Block say, can be laid with Vibram, which has had trouble meeting overwhelming demand for the shoes over the past two years. It's not uncommon for specific orders to take longer than expected to process, leading to dissatisfaction, she says: "The customer gets upset because they've been told three different stories, three different times."
Officials at Vibram did not respond to calls and an e-mail seeking comment.
All this comes as a surprise to Terry Orsi, president of the San Francisco Area chapter of the Barefoot Runners Society. "Most of the people I've talked to and read about are pretty laid-back," Orsi says. "They're just out there to have a good time."