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Crocs are the latest atrocity to be added to Manolo the Shoe Blogger's "Gallery of the Horrors," a collection of some of the ugliest shoes of all time (www.shoeblogs.com/horrors.html). They're right up there with Uggs ("The only peoples who should be wearing this boot are the preteen girls who love the Hello Kitty"), the Birkenstock Boston ("looks like it was put together by the blind medieval monks, for wear by the peasants of the mud") and the Dansko Teton ("glorified, heavy-duty house slippers"). But Manolo seems particularly offended by the popular rationale for Crocs, since it implies that style and comfort are incompatible: "Why must the 'comfort' always be the war cry of those who would lead us into the bad shoes?"
The fashion mavens' aversion to Crocs isn't merely an aesthetic problem for the company. If, as Manolo suggests, Crocs are a bad idea that should be discarded on the ash-heap of shoe history, if they are the next Uggs, then that makes the effort to take the company public a bit gamier than the usual IPO. Among the "risk factors" Crocs notes in its SEC filings are the company's relatively short history, its reliance on a small product line -- and the fickleness of the shoe-buying public. "Given the limited history of our Crocs brand, it is especially difficult to evaluate whether our products will hold long-term consumer appeal," the company notes.
Crocs hopes to demonstrate sustainability by introducing new products. But aside from the rainboot, a worthy successor to Uggs, the "new" lines coming out this fall are all variations on the base design of the Beach, the model that accounts for more than 80 percent of the company's shoe sales. (The new Aspen model, debuting exclusively at Dillard's this week, is a redo of the no-holes Highland.)The company found its niche in double-wide, ultra-light gunboats, and no amount of tinkering with the ventilation ports or the nubbins on the footbed is going to change that. The niche is its glory and its doom.
Skeptics have suggested that Crocs is putting together a stock offering right at the time its success has crested, as a way for the founders and the venture capitalists to cash in. "Unless Russia or Japan or China or someplace else in the world suddenly thinks that Crocs are really cool, their market penetration is over," opines Denver entrepreneur Dee Rambeau on his blog. "This isn't Google, mind you...that has become a ubiquitous part of our culture and actually has a repeatable business model. Nor is it Reebok, that has been around for 50 years and just sold to Adidas for three billion [dollars]. No...this is a start-up manufacturer of silly, faddish, plastic shoes."
Rambeau says he tried on a pair of Crocs once but found them "pretty ugly." He won't be investing in the stock. "This is clearly the VCs taking the money out," he says. "It seems very much like a dot-com offering, the kind we haven't seen recently. These days you have to prove out real value, and it doesn't seem to me they have demonstrated the kind of historic revenue stream to support that kind of offering. But that's just my opinion, and they probably don't care what I think."
Defenders of the brand believe that the Crocs phenomenon is far from over. The Pedestrian Shops' Polk points out that the company keeps finding ways to tap into new markets while expanding its base. Last spring it introduced Crocs in children's sizes, and they were an immediate hit. "That's huge," he says. "Kids don't have to tie their shoes. It's very empowering, and they love that. They love being like their older brothers or their parents in the fashion. They're maniacs."
The latest demographic to discover Crocs, he adds, is seniors. They, too, like shoes that are easy to put on and get off, especially given the range of foot complaints dogging the golden years. Initially resistant to the craze, they've since offered Polk some of the most stirring testimonials he's heard about what a "godsend" Crocs are. (Thank God for the pearl-white ones.)
"Ultimately you might saturate a market, but the world's a big place," Polk says. "Crocs may slow down here, and that might affect me in Boulder, but these guys have hundreds of millions of dollars of shoes to sell before they hit the saturation point.
"It would be foolish to say I know this has legs. Nobody knows anything. Look, I made a huge inventory investment. If this thing slowed down, I wouldn't have dollars for retirement -- I'd have Crocs on the wall. But I don't think it's going to slow down. What sets it apart from those other fads is that it's so broad. It's like Beanie Babies for all generations. I'm not aware of any product like that, at least in the footwear industry."
Oh, they're special -- yes, indeed. I'll spare you the wretched details of my ongoing dysfunctional relationship with my Crocs. Instead, allow me to offer a few tips for fellow Croc rookies:
• Avoid walking on dewy, freshly cut grass, unless you want the wet grass to sluice efficiently into your shoes.