For decades, performance running shoe makers have segmented their product lines into distinct categories. Asics boasts structured cushioning, cushioning/neutral and motion control. New Balance touts motion control, lightweight, stability and neutral cushioning. But today, market forces are blurring those traditional definitions.

Innovations in design, materials and construction are allowing manufacturers to build shoes tailored to narrower applications and runner needs. The increasingly competitive business environment is leading some brands to carve out niches by pursuing unique brand positions and footwear definitions.

Claire Wood, footwear product line manager at Brooks Sports,describes the shift in thinking. “We look at our footwear line as a continuum. We do have four categories-neutral cushioning, guidance, support and motion control-but we definitely see crossover,” she says.

In 2008, Brooks created a category called “guidance” that fits between neutral cushioning and support. “You can’t really ‘bucket’ somebody. It really is a continuum,” Wood explains. “You do see crossover. A runner could get along great in a neutral shoe as well as a guidance shoe. It’s really the personal preference of the runner when they go in to get fit. What’s going to feel best and be healthy for them to run in?”

Fritz Taylor, SVP of global footwear at Brooks Sports, notes that the brand’s continuum approach is based on foot types. “On one side of the continuum is the neutral, rigid, high-arched foot,” he says. “On the other side is the very flexible, mobile, overpronator foot. While we know there are different places on the continuum that runners fall, we break it into four categories to keep it simple and clear.”

New Balance also uses a continuum approach. Dan Sullivan, running strategic business unit manager at New Balance, says, “We look at it as a continuum in terms of the amount the consumer pronates. We talk about shoes being mild-stability or high-stability. So, within that stability segment, there’s a continuum.”

As product lines expand, the lines between category segments have become less distinct.

“We definitely see [categories] shifting,” observes Sullivan. “We see other companies changing the vernacular that they are using. A few years ago, it was very consistent and everyone used the same terminology. But philosophies change on what is most important. From a competitive set, the manufacturers are looking for someplace they can own instead of going after the competition when they know it may take years to win. [They are asking], ‘Where is there an opportunity for us to carve out a niche?’”

Isaac “Ike” Alvear, executive director of performance brands for Avia, Ryka and Nevados, adds, “The lines are absolutely blurring. When you have a brand like Asics that now has 25 SKUs, you have to ask yourself, ‘If you have a 1000 series and a 2000 series, and then introduce a 3000 series, what is the degree of difference?’” Avia segments its line using a 1-10 scale relative to the degree of guidance the shoe will provide.

But not everyone buys into the continuum theory. Jim Monahan, VP of footwear at Asics, counters, “I don’t think the lines are blurring. People have come to the realization that neutral/cushion shoes meet the needs and requirements of the broader market today.

The old school of thought was that every shoe sold needed to be a stability-oriented shoe. In the old days, there was a fourth category: light/lightweight. The term has gone away because technology and materials have improved.”

Monahan adds, “One school of thought is, do we need these three classifications? The classifications are easy for the general consumer to understand. It’s taken years for stability/neutral shoes to be accepted. I think consumers are educated.”

According to Rod Foley, Mizuno’s director of marketing for athletic footwear, “Where I’ve seen the blurring within the industry is where more and more companies are taking shoes originally built for someone in the middle of the stability category, and you are seeing that midsole mold used in another category by extracting or enhancing the stability piece, but doing nothing else to the geometry of the shoe. That’s causing some confusion as far as where the shoe lies on the spectrum. Retailers say it’s essentially the same shoe. You are just starting to cut the pie a little bit too small. That’s what I’m hearing and seeing out there.”

Moreover, says Foley, “The way we look at it, over the last five years the human foot hasn’t changed that much. Five years ago, three categories were perfectly fine for everyone. I’m not sure about these new categories and who these people are that we are building shoes for.”

Many running-oriented retailers support the premise that category definitions are blurred. How blurred? Cody Hill, owner of Boulder Running Company, Boulder, CO, responds, “Oh, big time. There’s what I consider ‘gray area’ shoes. You look at the sub-motion control category. You’ve got the Asics Evolution and the Foundation. They’re really similar. If somebody’s a heavily overpronated runner, they’re going to need the Evolution, but if they’re mid-ground, they could run in either. There is definitely a lot of overlapping of the silos of cushioning stability and motion control, and I think you’re going to start seeing a lot more consumers buying the lower-priced, highstability shoe versus the motion control shoe.”

Bryan Mills, director of franchise development at Fleet Feet, concurs. “Some of the vendors have started creating some new categories-largely just to gain share. They’re doing an important thing, recognizing that there are a lot of different feet and [running] gaits out there and they’re trying to provide a range. This allows us to provide the customer with a broader range of solutions because, at the end of the day, the customer just wants something that fits well.”

Foley reports that Mizuno created a footwear matrix five years ago to help manage the expanding categories.

“We were fighting a battle of perception of how our shoes are categorized versus themselves,” says Foley. “We had some obstacles to overcome in the marketplace [in regard to how] retailers were categorizing our shoes. We were honestly confused within our own group about how we were categorizing our shoes, and where our own shoes were on the level of stability/control or lack thereof, let alone what the people in the marketplace thought of our shoes.”

Foley continues, “We decided to come up with a two-dimensional, two-axis matrix that not only talks about the level of support or stability in a shoe, but also talks to the type of running within that biomechanical category.” Mizuno’s matrix lists neutral, support and control on one axis, with maximum, moderate, performance and racing on the other.

Tom Carleo, SVP product at Saucony, is also convinced that category definitions are changing, which he views as both problem and opportunity. “If you step outside of the running specialty channel, and beyond any full-service, more technical sporting good dealers, I would say these lines have blurred dramatically at the trade and consumer level,” he says.

At Saucony, Carleo champions stability as a brand position. “We break stability into three areas: ultimate stability, stability, and light stability,” he explains. “The trend in the last three or five years has been some blurring between the motion control and stability silos of shoes.”

While excited about the potential, Carleo is aware of possible reactions from retailers. “When I go out and meet with an account, I don’t want to be the fifth guy [within a month-and-a-half] to have a different terminology for something [those accounts] have called motion control for 25 years,” he says. “If you are going to be bold enough to do that, you need to be bold enough to invest in that, so it goes to the consumer level. If we all come in and call it something different, it creates confusion.”

Alvear believes retailers also play a role in changing definitions.

“My sense is that change is coming from leadership in retail,” asserts Alvear. “[Retailers] are saying, ‘I need to describe the difference between shoes.’ When the retailer is driving that, you have to listen. It makes sense. At no other time in my experience in the industry has there been a greater assortment of product. The retailer’s challenge is how to position these products and describe the end-benefit to the consumer.”

Foley also points out that, “You are dealing with people who come from a position of strength in terms of their own opinions about how the products actually work based on how many people they have put the shoe on. Even with shoes that are market leaders in the industry, if you went to 10 different stores, you might get 10 different opinions as far as how much stability the shoe has or who it is made for.” He adds that his focus is to put specific shoes on the people they are designed for, as opposed to layering those models between existing shoes in the line.

At the store level, retailers configure display walls based on brand recommendations, market conditions, customer base and, of course, their own beliefs.

“We line them up by brand,” reports Boulder Running Company’s Hill. “Typically, we’ll have the most stable shoes at the top; then motion control, sub-motion control, and stability; then cushioning; and then lightweight trainer. We divide them by brand but within the brand, we have similar-quality shoes next to each other.”

Fleet Feet takes a different approach. “We still typically display shoes in those three standard categories, but we use neutral instead of cushion,” says Mills. “[The categorization] tends to be more of a continuum than an absolute demarcation between the different functions.” More importantly, he adds, “For us, the shoe wall is more for display or marketing rather than function. Our goal is not to sell off of our shoe wall. The shoe wall is to remind people we sell footwear. In our store, we don’t have customers walk up and ask, ‘Do you have these shoes in size X?’ If they do that, we’ve failed to do our jobs.”

Although the Boston-based City Sports chain uses the traditional categories of motion control, cushion and stability, COO Sean Scales notes, “The categories are something that the customer shouldn’t even have to bother themselves with. It’s the trained associate’s job to determine the best shoes for the customer.” He elaborates, “I’ve seen some places going with vendor-specific merchandising, which surprises me a little bit. It helps tell a brand story well, but I don’t think that a customer who’s looking at motion control shoes should be distracted by neutral shoes right next to them from the same brand.”

As Taylor from Brooks points out, “Half of retailers are still using three categories: neutral, support, and motion control. Half are using some fourth categorization to identify the zone between traditional support and neutral. I think a lot of running retailers are looking at pronation in a different way. Many of them would agree they were perhaps over-prescribing heavy-duty support or motion control shoes before.”

After decades of brand advertising and countless articles in consumer running magazines, the question is, do consumers understand the categories? At Boulder Running Company, “You definitely get theperson who comes in, has done the research, and says, ‘I want to try on the [Asics] Evolution and the Foundation,’” says Hill. “Some people come in because they want to learn about the shoe and get the best thing for them.”

Mills sees both experienced racers and first-time runners. “The problem with the word ‘cushion’ is that everyone wants a cushion shoe. That’s like saying, ‘I want a cushion mattress. I don’t want to sleep on a brick.’” He adds, “There are two categories of customer. The majority are looking for a proper-fitting shoe. Then there are people who have done lots of running and are looking for something they’ve had lots of success running in.”

Specialty retailers play a central role in educating runners of all experience levels. However, says Taylor, “There’s still a lot of confusion out there among consumers about what they might need or what is required. Specialty retailers are doing well because they help consumers sort through that.” As a case in point, he explains, “You still hear runners say they need a stability shoe because they turned an ankle or have weak ankles. We’re not addressing ankle stability with stability shoes in running. We’re addressing overpronation. There’s still a fair amount of confusion out there.”

Sullivan confirms the importance of customer service at retail: “A lot of people go in and say, ‘Fit me. You are the expert. I don’t care what is under the hood. I trust you.’”

Change may occur in the future, but in the near-term, existing product categories will remain in place. “People have deep-seated beliefs and understandings in the science of biomechanics,” Sullivan says.

Yet, the terminology created over time still isn’t universally defined.

“Cushion and responsiveness are words we all throw around, but none of us are completely comfortable with the way we define things,” says Foley. “We have to find a better way to get the definitions to the consumer.”

While clarifying existing segment definitions is important, the introduction of new niches will continue. For example, Sullivan notes that New Balance is addressing runners who hit the ground midfoot. “It’s essentially a new segment that will be small and will grow over time. It’s going to take time for retailers to understand it and see the successes of it. It’s definitely going to be an evolutionary approach,” he says.

To help avoid confusion, Carleo simply suggests, “Instead of watching the lines meld into each other, we need to do a good job of being distinctive within each of those silos. As you move through the silos, our job, as manufacturers, is to make sure we are doing our best, through design and naming, to build consistency and make the stories easier to tell at the retail level.”