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Vibram "Toe Shoes:" A View from the REI Sales Floor

Have you had the fun of trying on Vibram Fivefingers yet? As a footwear specialist at REI’s flagship store in Seattle, I regularly experience what is (arguably) an even greater joy: watching someone else try to coax stubborn toes into those funky-looking shoes.

Trying on Vibram FiveFingers shoesOver the past two years, we have watched the popularity of Vibram Fivefingers (VFF, for short) explode through the roof. They went from being a quirky, guffaw-inspiring product collecting dust on our shelves to our hottest-selling footwear item of 2010 and 2011.

My interactions with customers usually start the same way, with the universal hand sign for “I Want Fivefingers”: a hovering hand, palm down, rapid wiggling of the fingers. Then, the timid inquiry: “Do you guys have those shoes with the toes?”

Yes, we have the toe shoes. Yes, people love them. And yes, you can take your socks off to try them on; I can’t imagine how else to get your toes in there.

Is there a prototypical VFF customer? Most certainly not. We’ve had just about everybody try them on, from grandmothers to Marines, yoga enthusiasts to Crossfit devotees. We’ve had mothers confess that they once threatened (in jest, we hope) to disown their teenager for wearing “such silly shoes,” only to sneak in to REI weeks later to grudgingly give the toe shoes a try.

Vibram toe shoesIt’s not unusual for customers to jog joyously around the store in their VFF, leap on and off our benches, and occasionally let out gorilla-esque roars (you think I’m kidding...). How could you not love being in a place where this stuff happens on a daily basis?

On more than one occasion, we’ve had an ambitious VFF-donning customer put his new footwear to the test by attempting to scale the I-beams up to our ceiling—a feat we’re obligated to halt pretty immediately for liability purposes—but one that never fails to get the attention of everyone on the floor.

Uphill testing of Vibram FiveFingers at REI storeMy favorite exchanges are when customers start talking to each other about the VFF. It usually starts when someone who’s never seen them before notices someone else trying the VFF on and exclaims, “Oh my GOSH, what are those crazy things on your feet?!” Disclaimer: If you do buy a pair of these, expect to get this reaction from perfect strangers on a daily basis. I speak from experience; my VFF Sprints never fail to draw commentary at the grocery store.
 
There is a palpable energy to our VFF customers. Many have read and are eager to discuss Christopher McDougall’s bestseller, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. This book talks about the Tarahumara, a tribe in Mexico renowned not only for routinely running hundreds of miles at once, but for doing so in sandals.

Sandals? You read that right. Born to Run, which talks at length about Vibram Fivefingers providing a similar sort of “barefoot” running experience as the Tarahumara sandals, certainly throws a small wrench in the spokes of traditional running shoe wisdom. To learn more about the barefoot running philosophy, check out the REI Expert Advice article on minimalist shoes.

Contrary to common assumptions, VFF have actually existed since 2005. McDougall’s book really catapulted them into the limelight last year. This translated into my job getting a lot crazier—in a good way.

Getting your toes into VFF for the first time is no easy feat, especially if you’ve chosen a model like the Bikila or the Flow, which have grippier materials in the upper and restricted access to the toe pockets for your hands to assist. If a customer is really struggling, I’ll often offer to bring out what I like to call a “starter kit” model—the Classic or Sprint, which are far more open on top of the foot. Usually, once your toes know what to expect, they’re more cooperative with some of the trickier models to get into.

Foot sizing for Vibram FiveFingers

If you have yet to try on VFF, here are a few tips:

Get your foot measured. VFF do not come in regular US sizes, so we have high-tech devices to measure your VFF-specific size: pink and blue floppy rubber feet, wittily dubbed “Frannocks” by Vibram. (“Brannocks” are the devices we use to measure your feet for regular shoes.)

All together now. Try to align each toe at the opening of its individual pocket, then push them all in one fell swoop. Pull the heel up last. Make sure your pinky toe is all the way in its own pocket; it’s usually the troublemaker.

Don’t be embarrassed if it takes awhile to get your toes in. Believe me, you are not the first. It gets easier with practice.

You want the fit to be snug, like a glove. The ends of your toes can graze the ends of the pockets, but you don’t want them jammed in there.

Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to grill your REI salesperson on the different models and how they should fit. Remember that we are trained professionals when it comes to discussing VFF, and the more you want to know, the stronger our job security. Ask away!
 
If you haven’t done so yet, come on down to your local REI store and join in on the fun. We’d love to have you (and we now have kids’ sizes, too!). Already an owner? Share your VFF experiences with us.

Photos of REI Seattle store employees James Harnois and Lauren Wilson by Yitka Winn.

Posted on at 6:27 PM

Tagged: VFF, Vibram FiveFingers, barefoot running, minimalist shoes, rei, seattle and toe shoes

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Zookerman

I wear mine every day and I love them! I spend most of my time at school talking about my shoes to professors, students, and staff. I love "converting" people to barefoot running/walking. I have even done some hiking in the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National forest with these, yes even in SNOW! These shoes are the best all around footwear for everything. I recommend these shoes to everyone brave enough to ask, "What are those things on your feet!"

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Capt Chaos05

I own a pair of black sprints and green camo KSOs. I love them because my foot pain went away after wearing them last summer. I am more conscious of how I am walking when I wear them and think they make more sense than a pair of high heels. I hope my next job let's me keep wearing the black sprints.

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Joshwarrun

I just completed the Boston Marathon in a pair of Bikilas. It was my first Marathon, and I ran it in 3:56:33. Not the best time, but a fun, first 26.2 none the less. I am getting ready for two more in the next month, and trying to decide if my toes can take another marathon or two in these guys. They are the best shoe to run in, but still deciding if they make the most sense for long distances.

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Magicbus

my son is a Marine and he says he'd never run in anything else.. and you know those guys RUN!

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Ryan Ernst

I passed by a local shoe shop 3 years ago and saw the Fivefingers in the window and was blown away with intrigue. A little while later a brought friend with me to check them out and we both walked away with a pair, he with the 'sprint' model and I with the 'kso' model. Since then I have taken them from Ohio- Lake Michigan, Illinois- Central Wisconsin- Kalaloch Beach, Wash. They work well climbing, swimming, and all around adventuring.

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meeghanes

"Don't be afraid to grill your REI salesperson on the different models[...]"

GRILL???

I think they need to be very careful how they word things, or their sales people are going to deal with people who think they have a right to be angry for no reason.

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Yitka W

Well, hopefully I didn't inspire anger with my story! I intended to use the word "grill" with a sense of humor - but I just want to make sure no one feels shy asking us salespeople questions about the VFFs (or any other product we carry!) Most of us are quite knowledgeable about the various models and their best uses, and happy to pass that knowledge along to you!

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Natural Nick

Nice article. I tried the VFFs a couple months ago and didn't have quite that jolly of an experience. My toes are kind of abnormal though (not exactly straight) so they didn't work out for me. I want to like then so bad, I really did. I ended up getting Merrell Trail Gloves because they don't have individual toes. Not disappointed.

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Rocketlettuce

After I got a pair of these this winter, my 8 yr old daughter started pining for some. She swore she could fit into the smallest women's size...not. We found out that the kids version was coming out this spring. I told her that I'd buy one shoe for her and she could buy the other with her allowance (since I am way too cheap to spend $60 on kid shoes which won't fit next year). She robbed her piggy bank last weekend and now wears her blue and gray (boy version) VFFs everyday!

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Yitka W

Way to go for her! I wish I'd been as bold, and as financially savvy, when I was her age.

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H2OSkier

I'm intrigued, but no one is saying why they think VFFs are better than a running shoe.

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Yitka W

The first part of this article on our Expert Advice pages (http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/minimalist+shoes.html) goes a little more in depth into the reasons why people are choosing VFFs over traditional running shoes.

The main gist of the philosophy is that running completely barefoot or in a minimalist product like the VFFs or Merrell barefoot line doesn't allow you to run with a heavy heel strike the way that more traditional, cushioned running shoes do. Overstriding, heel striking, and high injury levels (especially knee problems and shin splints) tend to go hand and hand, so running "barefoot" forces you to to naturally shorten your stride - which, for many people, helps reduce their injury rate from running.

Hope that was useful!

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JHerrick

I've been drilled for years on the benefits of adequate arch support. I've been told I pronate, and I've always purchased Stability running shoes. Talk to me about why barefoot running is suddenly a good idea.

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Yitka W

As the adage goes: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." If stability shoes have worked for you for years, by all means, stick with them! Barefoot running has gained momentum in recent years because it has helped *some* people who've struggled with chronic running injuries be able to run pain free for the first time. With that said, there are plenty of people who prefer a more traditional, supportive running shoe. Still more - myself included - have found a happy medium: I like barefoot running for very short distances as a strengthening tool for my calves and arches, but still prefer a light stability shoe for the longer distances I typically run. It's not about one method being better than the other, but rather about exploring various options and finding what keeps your feet and body most happy in the long run.

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JHerrick

I've been drilled for years on the benefits of adequate arch support. I've been told I pronate, and I've always purchased Stability running shoes. Talk to me about why barefoot running is suddenly a good idea.

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