Why some running shoes cost $80 and others cost $180.
In the grand scheme of things, that $165 shoe purchase doesn’t carry the same sting as the $7,500 bike. But shoes last months, not years, so those dollars add up. And unlike upgrading to a lighter wheelset or an aero frame, the exact benefit of primo kicks can be a bit more intangible.
On the track, lightweight shoes have been shown to have slight performance benefits. Jack Daniels, a former Nike researcher who now runs the RUN S.M.A.R.T. Project, writes that in his research, losing one ounce translated to about .83 seconds of savings per mile. But the research was based on a runner doing a single 5:40 mile on the track. That’s different than what most triathletes are doing. He also notes that there’s a limit to the savings. When shoes get too slim, muscle fatigue from road shock worsened, and that quickly eliminated any potential weight-related time savings.
There’s also no indication that a more expensive shoe is a safer shoe. In fact, most research has found that specialty running shoes—from minimalist to maximalist to extreme motion control—don’t reduce injury risk at all.
“The price tag on running shoes does not and will not influence risks of developing running injuries. There are many more important factors that influence running injuries, but footwear cost is certainly not one of them,” says Max R. Paquette, an assistant professor and exercise, sports and movement sciences director for the Sport Performance and Health Consulting Center at the University of Memphis.
So what is driving the cost of that $180 running shoe? If you think it’s years of excruciating research, “you’re fooling yourself,” says Steven Sashen, co-founder of Xero Shoes. “Often it’s not whether R&D [research and design] drives costs, but whether R&D was even done at all,” he adds. “If you look at a wall of shoes, especially in more mass-market stores, you’ll see a lot of products using the same fundamental design. There was no real R&D involved in making the copycats other than meeting with some material suppliers.”
We wanted to run this assertion by a few major shoe brands but didn’t get very far. After reaching out to several big brands for comment (sometimes multiple times) we didn’t get any replies beyond, “Sorry, we can’t really get into it.”
Of course, big brands do research. Nike’s work on breaking the sub-2 hour marathon, including the unveiling of a new shoe built just for the occasion, is a perfect example. And even if you aren’t wearing the fastest shoes on the planet, midpack plodders still benefit from trickle down technology, years later.
What’s more directly influencing the price us mortals pay are materials and labor costs. If machines, not humans, do a lot of the work, you can expect a smaller credit card bill. Ad buys and marketing costs drive up price points too. And one more thing: “One price driver that few people think about, or understand, is import taxes,” says Sashen. His Boulder-based company makes one sandal that carries a 37.5 percent import duty. And finally, there’s the freight cost of shipping from factory to retailer, plus the seller’s final markup.
The takeaway, says Sashen, is that the most expensive shoe isn’t necessarily the best. In fact, “Often price is used to create perceived value. People will assume that a higher priced product is inherently more valuable, so some sellers will simply raise the price based on the effect they’re trying to create in the mind of the consumer.”