“Who’s that?” More often than not, this is the response I receive from people after unveiling a shoe by Pearl Izumi in a footwear fitting. This is a most unfortunate reply as the company has designed stellar running shoes for the past thirteen years. But in spite of the popularity that these running shoes have received in the footwear marketplace, Pearl is going to exit the Run sector of their business. They are departing soon too – January 2017 to be precise. On Thursday, August 18, Pearl Izumi President Mike O’Connor delivered the deflating news in a brief press release. Like other runners near and far, I was both flabbergasted and dismayed. I too was deflated with the grim message.
In the words of O’Connor: “This is a tough decision, but it’s time to recommit to our core.” Other than heartfelt thanks from Chuck Sanson, Director of Run for Pearl Izumi, there’s not much more to glean from the press release issued by the company, aside from O’Connor’s remark on how Pearl is going “all in” for cycling. Why shouldn’t they, though? Cycling is the primary focus, their bread, and butter if you will. So in light of Ride replacing Run, seemingly for good, I find myself intrigued by the impact Pearl Izumi running shoes have had on the running industry. Here are a few observations I have made from selling them and running in them in the past four years.
1. Name recognition is overrated. When I scan the footwear wall at Big Peach and consider all of the brands that occupy a space on the shelves, Pearl Izumi is the least recognized from a name standpoint. To put another way, people gravitate towards that which they know – and what they have worn before. Nike is the epitome of this truth. But those that look beyond the likes of Nike or Adidas (or even Brooks) may just find a gem of a shoe, though this hinges on a willingness to set aside names for a few moments and focus squarely on shoe comfort. Thousands, if not millions of runners, discovered this in Hoka. And this was no less true for Pearl. Comfort is paramount, however, that may be defined for a runner.
2. A simple design goes a long way. A few days ago I visited a Planet Smoothie a few doors down from Big Peach. As my Java the Nut was in the noisy blender, I eavesdropped on a few high school football players who happened to be talking about shoes. They were gabbing out Adidas Originals, and I listened intently as they pointedly discussed what colors they favored. Though I too have developed somewhat of an affinity for color, I continue to firmly believe that fashion (e.g. color) follows function. Pearl Izumi shoes embody this adage. How a shoe looks should be secondary to how it feels on the foot.
Furthermore, when I speak of design, I’m not referring to color exclusively, but to the complete assembly of a shoe. For Pearl Izumi, the construction of both road and trail shoes has been a solid feat. Though I’ve been acquainted with Pearl for only a few years, I have been struck by the simplicity of the finished product. Take the upper – it is seamless across all models – and it makes for extraordinary comfort as minimal overlays provide adequate structure and definition. A simple EVA foam provides the right amount of cushioning based on preference (using numbers 0-3). The heel fit, tongue, laces, and midfoot are icing on the cake.
3. Price still matters. Running shoe prices have trended upwards in the past few years, and these marginal increases may continue for the foreseeable future. But what I noticed in Pearl was that the price needle didn’t move. Prices didn’t increase from one year to the next as shoes updated and changes were made. (I’m using 2013 as a reference point for this statement. I recognize that prices have increased since Pearl started designing running shoes thirteen years ago in light of inflation, but in the past few years I have not seen $5 or $10 jumps compared to other major brands).
Price points between Pearl and other companies are noteworthy too. Take the N0, the model closest to a racing flat: $100. The Adizero Adios Boost by Adidas comes in at $140, while the Takumi Sen tips the scales at $160. The Adidas flats are outstanding shoes for sure, but one hundred dollars is a nice round number when dollars matter. Take a moment to consider premium models as well.
The Pearl Izumi Road N3 is $130. The Ultra Boost by Adidas is $180. The Brooks Glycerin is $150, as is the Saucony Triumph ISO. The Asics Kinsei is $200. And the Mizuno Wave Prophecy? $220. Is there a market for the Ultra Boost, Prophecy, Kinsei, or Hoka Vanquish or Conquest (both at $170)? Without question. But acquiring a premium running shoe for under $150 is exactly what Pearl accomplished.
And now the Run division is nearing the finish line, though Chuck Sanson said that philosophy guided the retooling of the company – not money. They are setting their sights anew on cycling. Alas, runners will have to look elsewhere in 2017.
Take a Bow
Other runners and industry experts are going to begin crafting their respective dirges for Pearl in the upcoming weeks and months. Joe Jackson of Outside magazine crafted a tribute to the Trail N2 days after the announcement of the end of the Run division. He even titled his piece “An Elegy to the World’s Best Running Shoes.” Like other fans of their road and trail collection, Jackson is going to stockpile the Trail N2 as it will cease to exist in a matter of months.
As for this runner, I didn’t take notice of Pearl Izumi until 2013. I echoed the remarks of other runners three years ago: “Who’s that?” But since I have become a fan of the noticeable firmness and responsiveness of the lively Road N2 and Trail N2, I can only slump my shoulders in disappointment now as the curtains are slowly drawn and this remarkable production of starring shoes takes a final bow and exits the stage. Thanks, Pearl, for investing in the running community. You will be missed.