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Walking shoes - a market that could outrun running shoes

At the Senior Center in Weymouth, Mass., 45 senior citizens meet three times a week for a two-mile walk. At the Paradise Valley Mall in Phoenix, Ariz., some 100 people come to exercise - and avoid the hot Arizona sun - every morning before the mall opens.

These people are part of the estimated 55 million Americans the National Park Service says have chosen walking as their road to physical fitness. And following close on their heels are the 130 companies that make walking shoes and that hope these walkers will opt for a special shoe to do their walking in.

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Harvey Lauer, president of American Sports Data, a research firm based in Hartsdale, N.Y., says walking is ``already bigger than running,'' with 40 million people who walk for fitness, versus 33 million who run.

``In terms of the hard-core fanatics, there are already more people who walk more than 30 miles per week than run more than 30 miles per week,'' Mr. Lauer says. ``It's not something that has burst on the scene in the last couple of years; people have always been doing it.''

It may be a while, however, before the walking-shoe market rivals the estimated $550 million a year in sales of the running-shoe market.

Jack Horan, editor of Sports Ink, a newsletter that follows the sporting goods industry, says athletic stores would like to see the walking-shoe industry ``develop along the more casual line, because it is very unlikely that people would buy a shoe that they're going to wear with a suit from a sneaker store.''

Walking shoes include athletic and casual models as well as dress shoes and hiking boots. Lauer's group found that 74 percent of the athletic walking shoes were purchased by women, and 44 percent of those women were over 45 years of age. But, he adds, ``there are lots of people who are walking in $9 Kmart joggers and are quite content to do that. There is no guarantee that they are going to go out and buy a $70 walking shoe.''

Still, companies that have traditionally sold athletic shoes have bought or established walking-shoe divisions to target these other markets.

Reebok Inc., the leader in the athletic shoe market, with estimated sales of $800 million for 1986, recently purchased the Rockport Company, the leader in the walking-shoe market, for $118.5 million. Rockport's strategy has been to target the enormous casual-shoe market, which is estimated at $800 million a year. Rockport's growth is impressive, climbing from $9 million in sales in 1980 to $100 million in 1986.

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When Rockport president Bruce Katz founded the company in 1971, more than half of all running-shoe buyers were not active runners. Mr. Katz felt that these consumers were buying comfort rather than high performance, so he designed the Rockport shoe with running-shoe comfort and the styling of more-traditional footwear.

Converse, with $220 million in sales in 1985, is also aiming at the casual shoe market by establishing a new division called Hamptons. Hamptons has combined a dressy upper with a walking-shoe sole. Styled by Nino Cerruti, these shoes appear to fit well in a professional environment and yet have walking-shoe comfort.

``With the average person walking 1 miles per day [in their daily activity],'' says Richard M. Comforti, general manager of Hamptons, ``there is a definite need for comfortable, stylish shoes.''

Avia Athletic Footwear recently bought Donner Mountain Inc. of Berkeley, Calif., a manufacturer of lightweight hiking boots. This purchase will enable Avia to put its Cantilever Sole, which had $20 million in sales for the company in 1985, onto hiking boots, making them even more lightweight.

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