Skip to: Site menu | Main content

Getting your kicks

Whether you're fast or slow, a veteran or a beginner, running-shoe stores can be inspiring.

I suppose in the 12 years or so that I've been running, I've bought more than 100 pairs of running shoes. That may sound like a lot, and it is. But you must understand that I like buying new running shoes. More than that, I like trying on new running shoes.

In the early days of my running, I thought the magic was in the shoes, and that once I found the perfect ones, my pace would drop dramatically. Discovering that the shoe didn't make me faster didn't stop me from buying the next pair of would-be magic.

When I was invited to be the celebrity shoe salesman and "expert" at a friend's running specialty store in Oro Valley, Arizona, I jumped at the chance. What better way to spend a day than talking to people about buying new shoes? It turns out not everyone is as excited about it as I am - some people actually seem to dread the experience. I was shocked.

Shoe buyers tend to fall into four pretty specific categories. There are the techno-geeks, the fashion-conscious, the die-hards, and the shoe-store phobics. Each presents a salesperson with a unique set of problems to overcome. Trust me, it's not as easy as just dragging out a bunch of shoes to try on.

The techno-geek has read, and memorized, every shoe review printed in the past 25 years. This buyer walks into the store armed with more information about shoes than any one person has any business knowing. They comprehend, and are eager to share, the subtle nuances of stability systems, arch bridges, and heel counters. They can actually tell you the properties of blown, extruded, and glued rubber. In general they don't want to buy new shoes, they just want to touch the latest offerings they've read about.

The fashion-conscious buyer - "I love the shoe, but do you have it in tangerine instead of mauve?" - can be very difficult to help. Sometimes all you can do is look for ways to accessorize a shoe that's more neutral in color than they'd like. Because apparel manufacturers focus on style trends, it's often possible to find a top or pair of shorts in the exact shade of antique tangerine they're after.

Then there are the die-hards. Whenever a customer in Oro Valley used the words waffle-sole or "tiger" in the first sentence, I got ready for a history lesson on the development of the running shoe. I learned a lot from these customers. I learned why they always choose the most basic shoe without all the bells and whistles. And I learned that "you can race with a broken toe when you cut the toe-box open on an old pair." Whoa. The die-hards rely more on the quality of their training than the price of their shoes to determine their finishing times.

Finally, there are the customers who are sure they'll be embarrassed or put down, or worse, ignored when they walk into the store. My guess is that nearly all of us who started running or walking in the past 10 years or so began as shoe-store phobes. I certainly did. I didn't know what I wanted or needed in a shoe, and I surely didn't think I deserved the time and expertise of a running-shoe salesperson.

I spent most of my time talking to the this last group of customers. We talked about running some, living some, and their goals and aspirations some. We didn't talk about shoes; at least not at first. We got around to that once they understood that I understood. It was only then that we could get down to fitting them for new shoes.

As different as runners - and their shoe-buying styles - are, they're all looking for the right fit. Slow, fast, veteran, or beginner, we all try to find a balance between improvement and fulfillment. "Running makes me feel like a better person," said one of my customers. Now that's magic.

Waddle on, friends.

Back to The Penguin Chronicles Archive