Technology

TUNiT: Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts


Adidas_f50_tunit_110x100
Editor's Rating: star rating

Adidas' customizable soccer cleat lets you mix and match shoe components to find the right style for your activity

First it was a computerized running shoe. Now, it's a high-tech, customizable soccer cleat. Just in time for the 2006 World Soccer Cup in Germany, Adidas-Salomon (ADDYY) has unleashed the +F50 TUNiT, the latest in a lengthening list of shoes and clothing that mesh technological gadgetry with style.

TUNiT hit retailers' shelves on Apr. 1. The shoes are something of an athletic smorgasbord that lets the wearer mix and match the various parts of the shoe, from uppers to insoles to the studs that dig into the ground to improve traction.

A starter kit, including one set of uppers with one insole and three sets of replaceable studs, sells for $175. That's not cheap, but it's also not far from what a high-end pair of cleats costs these days anyway. A package that includes three uppers, two insoles, and three sets of studs will set you back $350. That set allows for 18 different cleat variations.

PERSONAL STYLE.

And Adidas reckons variation is just what shoe buyers want. The company's internal research indicates that teens and young adults between 16 and 25 are ready to customize their shoes the way they already personalize things like cell phones and MP3 players such as Apple's (AAPL) iPod. "The young, aspirational consumer is all about looking different, standing out, but still being part of the team," says Klaus Filbry, vice-president of footwear marketing at Adidas.

The company has already delved into customizable shoes with its $250 Adidas 1 (see BW Online, 03/15/05, "Adidas: The Machine of a New Sole"). And sales of an earlier version of customizable soccer cleats rose 40% last year, Adidas says.

I got to try a bunch of TUNiT uppers and studs, and putting them together makes one feel a little bit like the village cobbler of days past. There I was, in the middle of the room surrounded by boxes with all manner of shoe parts. Inside the starter-kit box, containing the shoes and the three sets of studs, I found a little metal tool, like a piece of pipe, that I used to insert and remove the studs.

LIGHT AND SHINY.

Each set is designed for a certain kind of ground: firm, grass, and hard. And each is made of different material. Those for hard ground are made of plastic, for instance. The idea here is that the user doesn't have to buy multiple pairs of shoes. While most of my soccer-playing friends do just fine with one pair, those who play on different types of field would probably benefit from the TUNiT.

The assembly was relatively easy. At first, I was slightly mystified by the instructions -- or the lack thereof -- on how to take out and insert the studs. But each box of studs was labeled (that it was intended for hard ground, for instance). And I figured out how to do everything within minutes. But a note of caution: Tighten the studs well to avoid injury, and make sure the studs are facing the right direction. Toward the heel, the pointed edge faces back. Everywhere else, it faces forward.

Once I had them on, studs and all, I found them extremely light. The uppers are made of shiny, synthetic microfiber, which, according to Adidas, is "built to last like leather." Indeed, after I accidentally kicked the toe of the shoe into asphalt while running, I couldn't find a single scratch. And the shoes are waterproof.

BREATHING PROBLEM.

At the same time, the material is so soft you feel like you're wearing socks. That makes for easier ball handling and could aid in helping buyers break in the shoes in without forming blisters. There's also a lace cover to help you avoid missing shots and passes as a result of the ball making contact with the lacing.

The downside of a synthetic upper, though, is that the shoes don't breathe as well as ones made of leather. Adidas says it plans to introduce special uppers designed to keep feet cooler.

As for the sole, it's very flexible -- important for making quick, sharp moves during a game. That said, I felt the spikes a little bit through the sole when I tried the cleats on hard ground. It was as if the studs were too long for comfort. The cleats felt comfortable on soft ground and grass, though.

NIKE ATTACK.

Of course, Adidas isn't alone in making customizable shoes. The company's main rival, Nike (NKE), lets soccer players choose the color of their cleats' upper, laces, and plates. You can even get your initials stamped on the shoe. The problem is, you often have to wait five to seven weeks for your online order to arrive, and most kids (and adults) don't have that kind of patience.

It's apparent that the TUNiT is part of Adidas' plan for grabbing market share from Nike. After its just-closed acquisition of Reebok, Adidas has more than 20% of the U.S. market, compared with Nike's 44%. "I expect Adidas to be very aggressive," says John Shanley, an analyst with Susquehanna Financial Group.

Overall, I was pleased with my TUNiT experience. And while I wonder how large a market there is for such high-priced and highly customizable shoes, I can see how this pair would be a welcome addition to the wardrobe of many a die-hard soccer aficionado.

Kharif is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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