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Rollerblade - A New Idea That Wasn’t So New

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In the early 1700s, a Dutch inventor trying to simulate ice skating in the summer created the first roller skates by attaching spools in a single row to his shoes. His “in-line” arrangement was the standard design until 1863 when the first skates with rollers set as two pairs appeared. This two-pair design became the new standard, and in-line skates virtually disappeared from the market.

In 1980, two Minnesota hockey-playing brothers found an old pair of in-line skates while browsing through a sporting goods store. Working in their garage, they modified the design to add hard plastic wheels, a molded boot shell, and a toe brake. They sold their product, which they dubbed “Rollerblade skates,” out of the back of their truck to off-season hockey players and skiers. In the mid-1980s, Rollerblade marketing executive Mary Horwath had to figure out how to market its in-line skates to a broader range of customers.

“When I came here,” remembers Horwath, “I knew there had to be a change.” By focusing only on hockey players and skiers who used in-line skates to train during the summer, Rollerblade had developed an image as a training product. Conversations with in-line skaters, however, convinced Horwath that using Rollerblade skates:

  1. Was incredible fun.

  2. Was a great aerobic workout and made the skater stronger and healthier.

  3. Was quite different from traditional roller skating, which was practiced alone, mostly inside, and mostly by young girls.

  4. Would appeal to more than just off-season ice hockey skaters and skiers.

Horwath set out to reposition Rollerblade, to change the image in people’s minds from in-line skating as off-season training to in-line skating as a new kind of fun exercise that anyone could do. It worked. Horwath and the company succeeded in popularizing in-line skating and actually launched an entirely new industry that by 1997 had more than 27 million U.S. in-line skaters.

The marketing problems of Rollerblade today are far different than those faced by Mary Horwath in the late 1980s. Rollerblade’s success in launching a new industry brought its own dangers: major competition in terms of not only more than 30 other skate manufacturers but also competing sports like skateboarding, biking, and snowboarding. Yet Rollerblade still has 35 percent of the industry sales, with no other competitor having more than 10 percent. Statistics show that the number of in-line skaters in the United States has declined from its 1997 peak, a concern for Rollerblade. If this declining trend continues, Rollerblade can only grow by increasing its share of the number of in-line skates sold annually, requiring innovation and creative marketing strategies to meet customer needs.

Today, Rollerblade uses careful marketing research to listen to what various segments of Rollerblade customers want. For example, its website ( enables its marketing executives to not only obtain detailed information about what skate features customers want but also link these wants to their individual characteristics like age, sex, and lifestyle (like hobbies and purchasing behaviors). Rollerblade’s “Skate Selector” on its website not only helps consumers select the skate that’s right for them but also provides timely data on consumer wants.

Companies can learn from this example, the once competitive positioning that a company has may diminish over time due to competition. Companies can sustain there competitive advantage by listening to customer needs, deriving intelligence from customer buying patterns and create marketing strategies to meet customer needs.

Cite this as:

YouSigma. (2008). "Rollerblade - A New Idea That Wasn’t So New." From

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