Heal, Heelys, Heal

The Heelys (Nasdaq: HLYS  ) brand came under attack earlier this week. When an American Academy of Pediatrics study indicated that the company's signature skating shoes were unsafe for children, the media jumped on the group's allegations. Citing several cases of broken wrists and other related injuries, the pediatrician organization's warnings coincided with the equally concerned American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons issuing new safety guidelines suggesting that Heelys wearers don helmets, protectors, and pads if they intend on popping out their wheels and gliding about.

It's hard to argue otherwise. Anyone who has ever tried to skate knows the surface realities of grazed knees, sprained ankles, or worse. However, with parents snapping up Heelys for their kids as a fashion statement, caving in to peer pressure rarely involves whipping out wrist protectors and knee pads for a quick run to the mall.

That's where Heelys failed in countering critics yesterday by rehashing a press release it issued two months ago. The company brings up a Consumer Products Safety Commission study that shows that Heelys is safer than other sporting activities like basketball, bicycling, soccer, and baseball. Even badminton and horseshoe pitching have greater injury instances per participant than the risk of going out on a pair of Heelys.

I don't have a problem with fighting fire with lighter fluid. If your brand is under attack, it's your job to make it an even bigger story so you can squash it publicly. You saw this with TASER (Nasdaq: TASR  ) . The stun gun maker was a target of negative media reports for so long that the company began cranking up the press releases whenever a TASER helped break up a violent crime, dissuade a suicide attempt, or diffuse a tense standoff.

TASER did the right thing. Heelys may not be. By pitting Heelys against other active sports, the company is stripping away the fashion allure. It's positioning Heelys as a form of physical exercise, and that isn't usually attractive to children. It is, however, potentially troublesome to parents (who may wonder why walking wouldn't be a safer way to get around and get some exercise).

"When Heelys are used in accordance with safety instructions we provide in our packaging and on our website (with the proper safety equipment), wheeled sports provide safe opportunities for children to exercise," CEO Mike Staffaroni is quoted as saying in the release.

Cyberskaters meet cybersurfers
Ah, yes, the Heelys website. The site features mostly teens wearing Heelys, strapped in with safety equipment. "While protective gear is not required, we highly recommend its use when the wheels are in the shoes."

The problem is that the real world doesn't seem to go with that serving suggestion. Nearly everyone that I've seen with a Heelys -- or a Heelys knock-off -- is pre-teen or younger and rarely dressed for safety.

Parents don't seem to care. They're with their balance-blessed kids at stores, amusement parks, and restaurants, sometimes oblivious as to when the young children are popping out the wheels to glide along a smooth surface. I can only imagine the backlash of resistance, definitely from kids but sadly from irresponsible parents, too, if protective gear were ever to be required instead of simply recommended.

If Heelys was bold, it wouldn't be picking on other sports. It would be picking on its competitors' fashion statements.

Can you just imagine the following marketing mantras?

  • Choose Heelys, because Crocs (Nasdaq: CROX  ) have holes. Lots of holes.
  • Forget Nike (NYSE: NKE  ) . If Air Jordans were so good, Michael Jordan would never have retired.
  • Stride Rite (NYSE: SRR  ) ? The company can't even spell right right. Or is it rite as in a rite of passage? Either way, Heelys will still get you there faster.

Nonsensical? You bet. However, it's not as risky as pandering to soccer moms, turning fashion statements into fashion questions. When kids talk fashion accessories, they're not referring to elbow pads and crash helmets.

I have nothing against digging up old press releases to fight new battles. The problem here is that Heelys has chosen the wrong battleground.

TASER is a recommendation in the Rule Breakers newsletter service. You can pop out those Heelys wheels to skate all over the premium stock service for free with a 30-day trial subscription.  

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has seen his share of kids wipe out on wheeled footwear, but they always seem to get back up. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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