They might not be the most attractive looking shoes, but that did not stop in excess of 50 million people buying a pair last year. Not bad for a company that has only been in existence for six years.
Many people are divided on Crocs clog-type shoe – you either love them or hate them. Either way the company now feels it is time to diversify and is adding more lines every year in a bid to encourage a greater cross section of society to join the plastic shoe movement.
Crocs, which was named Brand of the Year by Footwear News in the United States in 2005, are not only liked by boating enthusiasts and children, but a host of celebrities have also been spotted in the distinctive footwear. Jared Leto has been seen sporting a silver pair and Jack Nicolson never leaves for holiday without a trusted pair in blue. Even George W Bush isn’t immune from them – he has some in brown.
However, as Mark Langhammer, the regional sales manager for Crocs turns up for the interview I was surprised to find his Beaches were nowhere in sight. So normal were his shoes that one could easily think he had made the ultimate faux pas and failed to put his Crocs on to face the media. But he reveals that his smart beige lace-ups are in fact a new breed of Crocs and one that would not look completely out of place in the office. They are not quite boardroom shoes, but nevertheless are a world away from the bright pink and yellow clogs worn by many in the Emirates. But this is part of the brand’s strategy in appealing to different consumers and helping them grow the business as a result.
Based in Boulder, Colorado, Crocs launched in 2002 with their boating shoe-inspired clogs. The founders wanted footwear that would not only be comfortable but would also not mark the deck. They are made from Croslite, a unique lightweight material that allows each pair to mould to the wearer’s feet. During the company’s first full year of trading in 2003 they sold 70,000 and had a turnover at wholesale of $1m (Dh3.67m). Last year that figure jumped to 50 million pairs, which brought in a worldwide turnover of $843m (Dh3.09 billion). Langhammer admits it was beyond the company’s expectations.
“No-one imagined the company would grow on this scale. We’ve amazed ourselves,” he explains.
But despite such rapid growth, traders are not buying into the Crocs philosophy with shares hovering around the $18 (Dh66.06) mark – a vast reduction on last year’s high of $75.21 (Dh276.02) in October 2007. The company entered the Middle East market in July 2006 when its first shoes were sold in Dubai and has expanded to nine countries throughout the region over the past two years. Egypt is its newest market and is still in its infancy, but even with such wide local exposure, the Middle East still only makes up one per cent of Crocs worldwide sales.
Bad press in Europe hasn’t even dampened the spirits of the Crocs executives. Nurses in one hospital in Sweden were banned from wearing them after a build up of static around them interfered with electronic medical equipment.
But the group still maintains that they are good shoes for nurses because they are anti-microbial and have added medical benefits.
“The nubs on the sole massage the feet as you walk, so they are good for diabetics because they stimulate circulation,” explains Michael Brown, the managing director of Iqdam International, which distributes Crocs in the UAE.
The group has further enhanced its business potential with a number of lucrative tie-ups with children’s TV channel Nickelodeon, Warner Bros and Disney to produce branded shoes and Jibbitz (small charms that fit in the holes of the Beach style). The latter has been particularly beneficial as Langhammer reports that Crocs are the number one selling non-food item in Disney theme parks. On top of this, sponsorship of sports events has also been a valuable tool in getting the brand noticed around the world. Closer to home, Crocs sponsored the Arabian Gulf at last year’s Dubai Rugby 7s and as such all the players and support staff wore them during the parade. But it was the close proximity of the brand to Emirates and Airbus that was important – more so than the fact sales over the three-day event did not cover the company’s costs.
“The sponsors of that event; Rolls Royce, Emirates and Airbus are international high prestige brands and we got our posters pitch-side between them,” says Brown. With everything from clogs to flip flops, slip-ons, wellington boots and even ski boots, it seems Crocs has the casual footwear market covered, so where does it go from here? Clothing is a natural progression, says Langhammer, adding that it started 18 months ago and will reach the UAE in the third or fourth quarter of this year.
The company is also looking to introduce Crocs retail to the UAE this year so it has standalone stores.
“If want to be a brand that really builds a relationship with consumers you need to have a direct interface with a Crocs store, so the next innovation in the Middle East is Crocs retail,” says Langhammer.
For Langhammer, who only takes his off when he wears a tuxedo, wants to see the company expand even further. He says: “We’re not just a shoe company, we’re a lifestyle company. We’re about fashion, colour and doing something fun.”
Crocs has started a programme to provide shoes to underprivileged people around the world. SolesUnited aims to give away more than two million pairs of shoes this year but it is asking Crocs customers to help.
$43m Turnover in 2007
50m Pairs sold world wide last year
80 Number of countries where Crocs are sold
230 Retail points across nine countries in the Middle East
50 Number of designs available in the UAE by September
Croc of gold for the makers of the plastic clog