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Heels on Wheels: The Next Big Thing?

By Rod Kurtz For urban warriors who think those mini-scooters are so last season, a new form of transportation has wheeled into town. Just slip on a pair of Heelys and you're good to go. Heelys look like everyday sneakers -- with one exception. A tiny wheel is tucked away in each heel, allowing you to either stroll or skate to your heart's content. All you do is pop the wheel in and out of a mount underneath each shoe.

A pair of these heels-on-wheels retails for $90 to $110. They have become a hot summer fad, according to retailers. Heelys, which allow you to go as fast as 30 mph, have found a place on the feet of skating enthusiasts looking for their next challenge. Kids and young professionals alike are also joining the ranks. Fearing I would be the last guy on my block to try Heelys, I decided to lace up a pair of size 11s and take them out for a spin.

As I peeled the yellow WARNING sticker off the soles of my Heelys, waiving my right to sue in case I broke any bones, I became a bit nervous. Visions of Wile E. Coyote slipping on a banana peel came to mind. I've been skiing since I was 4 and am a decent inline skater, but heeling, with an added dimension of balance and coordination, is unlike anything I've ever done. I guess that's the point.

LOCO MOTION. I decided to begin my adventure on the carpeted floor of my office here at BusinessWeek. Mike Stafferoni, chief executive of Heeling Sports, told me most people's jaws drop the first time they see someone riding on their heels. That's the core of Heelys' marketing strategy -- send dozens of skaters from "Team Heelys" to shopping malls, parks, and concert areas across the country and create a buzz for the unique shoes.

"There's a tremendous 'wow' factor," Stafferoni says. "It really turns heads." Despite efforts to conceal my new toy -- and any potential spills I might take -- word traveled fast and several reporters around the office soon began asking for a demonstration. Sorry, Mike, I don't think I "wowed" them with my beginner's skills. It must have been ugly to watch.

I was determined to master this footwear marvel. After all, the promotional video shows 12-year-olds skating backwards and performing aerial tricks, so how hard could it be? The basic technique is actually pretty simple: make sure one foot is always far ahead of the other, like walking a tightrope. If your feet move side-by-side, like when you're on ice skates or in-line skates, balancing is impossible and you're almost guaranteed to fall backwards.

TEEN TARGETS.The friendly confines of my apartment seemed ideal for a novice heeler like myself -- smooth hardwood floors, no onlookers to point and laugh, and plenty of furniture in the way to break my fall. To my surprise, it didn't take long to get into stride with the promo video.

Heelys are the brainchild of Roger Adams, the son of roller rink owners who, at the age of nine months, entered the Guinness Book of Records as the youngest person ever to roller skate. During a self-proclaimed midlife crisis a few years ago, the clinical psychologist hatched the idea for Heelys. With $2.4 million in venture capital and people like Stafferoni helping run the company, Heelys hit stores in December and their popularity has grown ever since, particularly over the summer.

The target audience was in the 14-to-18-year-old age group, but "we've found that the consumers are much more diverse than we expected," Stafferoni said. "We're getting younger than we expected and older than we expected." He predicts 750,000 Heelys will have been shipped for sale this year, boosting revenues to the point where the company will turn a profit by the end of 2001. The privately owned company declined to offer further details.

OUT ON A LIMB. My left leg was slightly sore for the next couple days, but I'm told that's normal for beginners. When Saturday morning arrived, I decided to test Stafferoni's theory. Finally brave enough to venture beyond my living room, I headed to the busiest location I could think of -- the Lincoln Memorial. What better place to find thousands of curious tourists from around the globe?

I took the wheels out of my Heelys and walked the six blocks from my apartment to the memorial. Here's a surprise: they're more comfortable than most of my sneakers. Once there, I popped the wheels back in and began gliding around the historic Reflecting Pool. It didn't take long before my fancy footwear caught the eyes of visitors lumbering along in their antiquated Nikes and Reeboks. "When I saw you, I thought 'Whoa, what happened? How did he do that?'" said Mary MacMillian, 59. MacMillian, visiting from New Jersey, said she had heard about Heelys, but had never seen them in action. "I thought they were neat."

The gritty pavement surrounding the Reflecting Pool proved to be difficult terrain, so I headed for a stone walkway closer to the monument. Noticeably more crowded, I drew more attention -- and even some ridicule. "Can't get the hang of it, eh?" one passerby said, smiling as I stumbled slightly. I'm guessing he has never had urethane polymer wheels attached to his sneakers.

NOT FOR COMMUTERS. As the day progressed, my performance improved and my feet became a point of interest for many tourists. I must have stopped to talk with about two dozen of them, many of whom approached me on their own. "I thought they were Rollerblades at first," said Aaron Stream, 23, on vacation from Chicago. "Those are crazy because you can't even tell they have wheels." I asked if he would ever strap on a pair himself. "Yeah, I'd try it," he replied. "Why not? I'm good at hurting myself." Quick to defend my Heelys, I assured him I was yet to fall.

Heelys, however, may not be the solution for commuters looking to shave time off their trek to work. As Stafferoni puts it, Heelys are a "unique balancing act" -- which is to say you can't just strap them on and expect miracles. They take practice. Plus the tiny wheels can get caught on cracks and bumps on the pavement, making the shoes more of a liability than a benefit on busy city streets.

Stafferoni concedes the company is not really targeting commuters, but he feels this strategy may help Heelys outlast in-line skates and even the now-dated scooter. "We think it's primarily a recreational product," he says. "Sure, some people use it for commuting, but primarily it's going to be for fun."

Uh, oh. While cruising in front of the Lincoln Memorial, dozens of demonstrators suddenly decided to take their protest march along my heeling grounds. So I found a smooth pathway near the Vietnam Memorial, with a slight decline that allowed me to roll for much longer. Cheryl Jacobs, from Massachusetts, stopped to stare as I passed by. "I was wondering if you made them yourself," said Jacobs, 29.

ROLL MODEL. A few minutes later, a little boy, no more than seven years old, pointed in my direction and began shouting with excitement to his parents in a language that resembled Portuguese. I believe the translation was, "Look, Mom, that guy is going to fall on his face."

I kept rolling and found some kids who were impressed with my Heelys. Moses Montanez, 9, told me he loves to in-line skate back home in Coney Island, but thinks Heelys have some advantages. "It's good because you can just slide. You don't have to walk or run or change your shoes."

And 10-year-old Chelsea Riley, who lives in France, said she would definitely trade her scooter for a pair of Heelys. "I like those shoes," she said, "because I wish I had them." They're worth a try. Kurtz, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, is an intern in the Washington bureau of BusinessWeek

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