By Joel Warner
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Elaborate theories have been advanced to explain the Croc explosion. One economics newsletter muses that the trend dovetails perfectly with shoppers' general embrace of bold, bright colors -- an expression of consumer confidence, despite war, hurricanes and high gas prices, and in sharp contrast to the earth tones pervasive during the 2001 recession. But the primary economic forces involved are probably a lot simpler. Credit Boedecker, Hanson and Seamans with figuring out how to produce a shoe that's cheaper than comparable clogs, yet every bit as ugly-comfy. The company even slashed the suggested price of the Beach model, from forty to thirty bucks, shortly after it hit the market, guaranteeing that it would be perceived as a remarkable value and encouraging purchases of multiple pairs.
"These guys are very smart," says Richard Polk, owner of the Pedestrian Shops. "The margins are tight. But once you get it right, you can do great volume and bring your prices down. We have a lot of people who are buying a pair for themselves, and they're standing back there on their cell phone getting the sizes of friends or relatives."
Polk's operation, which includes an online store, is selling up to a hundred pairs of Crocs a day on weekends, more in mid-summer. In August, actress Jennifer Garner, who was shooting a movie on the Pearl Street Mall, made a well-publicized purchase of sixteen pairs; within hours, the lemmings came out in force. "We sold 300 pair out of this one store the next day," Polk recalls. "That's a lot of anything."
Since soft shoes wear out quicker, one might suppose that a significant percentage of sales involve replacements, but the company website teems with heartfelt testimonials regarding the durability of the shoe -- as well as gushing accounts of how they've saved people's feet, tempers and marriages, if not their dignity. Polk still has his first Crocs from three years ago; the tread is gone, but he uses them as house slippers. "You wouldn't want to wear them on a snowy day," he says, "but I haven't been able to kill a pair."
By keeping its prices relatively low, Crocs hasn't simply boosted sales volume; it's also made it tougher for knockoffs to enter the field. There are several imitators of Crocs on the market now, including Nothinz ($24.99, diamond-shaped holes) and Airwalks ($14.99 at Payless). The price difference doesn't appear to be significant enough to attract legions of defectors. But that could change, as vendors disgruntled with a delay in filling orders start stocking the competition.
The company has had trouble keeping up with demand, and that's left many small specialty retailers feeling slighted. Even loyalists who chalk up the inventory problems to "growing pains" have had their patience tested. "We've had months when we could not get our orders filled," says Jennifer Boone, one of the owners of Paragon Sports in Evergreen. "It's been hard to get hold of anybody to get a real answer. We just got a large shipment, our first in four months."
Boone has resorted to putting customers on waiting lists. "Going forward, they're going to have to make some decisions and prioritize their market," she says of Crocs. "Their hospital stores and their kiosks seem to be stocked. But for the outdoor retailers, it's been a bit frustrating. I think it's a common mistake that a lot of small companies make -- going in too many directions and not focusing on your initial market. We're confident that, over the long haul, they will correct this."
Amanda Shannahan, who works for a public-relations firm that represents Crocs, says the company "has significantly increased production to meet demand and implemented new shipping procedures to ensure quick delivery." (Efforts to get the inside story from Crocs got me bounced to the company's PR people, who handed me off to their PR people.)
Polk isn't worried about supply. The higher prices the company is commanding for its newer models, including the top-of-the-line Islander, don't worry him, either; he believes those prices reflect the "intellectual value" of the product and are closer to what the market will truly bear. He's just happy to get the new lines into his stores.
"Every time they introduce something, it's immediately so popular that it's just absorbed by the market," he says. "I think they're going to catch up with it. I can understand that some people are unhappy about waiting on orders for hundreds of pairs. We're fortunate because we started with them so early. But we're waiting on orders of thousands of pairs."
After a dizzying tour of Crocs outlets, the Shoe Goddess and I stop at a mall restaurant to regroup. I tuck my navy-clad clown feet into the darkest corner of the booth, as if hiding some hideous deformity.
Nothing escapes the Shoe Goddess, who sees no reason for my shame. "Can't you have a pair of fun shoes?" she asks.
"I feel so vulnerable," I say.
Part of my anxiety is the sheer nothingness of the shoe. It's big yet flimsy, a cartoonish shell of a shoe, an unfinished idea. I am not prone to twitches, but the more I think about it, the more I begin to dread a sudden muscle spasm that will send one flying off my foot like an Elam extra-point try, sailing into the jerk-chicken pizza at the booth across the aisle.