To Turn Things Around, Maybe Crocs Should Just Admit Their Shoes Are Ugly

They are so ugly I remember the first time I clapped eyes on them.

crocsAfter a boom in which it seemed everyone and their grandmother owned a pair of the wide, colorful Croslite Crocs, the company is in trouble. To turn things around, the company introduced different styles, including ballet flats and heels. Still, the company reports that net income fell 44 percent for the second quarter, it’s going to need to close as many as 100 of its 624 stores around the world and 183 people will have to be laid off.

“The company is now planning to cut back on its range of styles by 30% to 40%, as a result,” says Business Insider.

Now might be the time for Crocs to take a lesson from Birkenstocks: You can’t be successful if you can’t face the cold hard truth that the shoes you sell are ugly.

The CEO of Birkenstocks, David Kahan, paid a visit to the CBS Early Show this morning and talked about the cyclical success of his shoes. Over the past 50 or more years, the segment points out, Birkenstocks have been favored by folks like 60s “flower children” then fell out of favor when sharp-shouldered 80s suits came into style. The business itself started more than 200 years ago, in 1774.

Throughout the years, they’ve always maintained that they’re for anyone who is looking for a comfortable shoe. Kahan, when faced with Gayle King calling his product “ugly,” comes out and says directly: “We don’t think of ourselves as a fashion company first. We think of ourselves as a comfort company… We invented the word ‘footbed.’ Think about checking into the most luxurious hotel and sleeping in the most luxurious bed. That’s what wearing a pair of Birkenstocks is like every single day. And if the fashionable crowd now finds them as part of their wardrobe, that’s even better.”

He goes on to say that they don’t do any outreach to celebrities to get them to wear their shoes, and do no marketing whatsoever.

In other words, they are what they are. Kahan knows that they look weird, many will think they’re unattractive. When confronted about why they just don’t make them better looking, he says they’re iconic; you can tell it’s a Birkenstock from 50 feet away. They will only change something about the original recipe when it fits with the comfort they’re always trying to sell. (He says we’ll see something new in 2015.)

Crocs tried to be something other than an ugly, waterproof, comfortable shoe. And it backfired. They should not have been surprised. If you want heels or ballet flats, there are other brands that do that well at all different price points. Crocs can’t use them to make up for the decline in sales of what they call their “Classic” shoe.

The first time I saw a pair of Crocs, it was on the feet of a grown man while waiting in line to get into the Musee D’Orsay in Paris about eight years ago. I was horrified. I’d been in Europe for the summer and hadn’t seen them anywhere. I asked my friend (who works in fashion) what they were. “They’re Crocs,” she said. “They’re so ugly,” I told her. “Yes,” she replied. “But everyone in America is wearing them.”