Stacked high in the bins of America’s big box stores, flip-flops are ground zero for fast fashion’s emphasis on cheap and easy buys. At retailers like Old Navy and Forever 21, pairs of plastic flip-flops regularly sell for under $3. It begs the question: why shell out more for something that’s only going to be sullied by the beach anyway?
Vamp spoke with several brands to discuss how they’re differentiating themselves in the flip-flop market, and what consumers really look for when it comes to the summertime staple.
“We internally struggle with that. How do you make it better than the Old Navy’s of the world, or even someone like Roxy who we directly compete with?”
That’s the question Amanda Dratler, product line manager of women’s and kid’s sandals at Reef, ponders.
The California-based surf brand, known for its durable, casual beach footwear, has long had a dedicated following, many of whom don’t even consider cheaper options as equivalent.
“What our consumer is telling us is that while they may not be extremely brand loyal, they still want that comfort and durability that Reef will always offer,” Dratler said. “So whether you get a $20 Reef sandal or a $105 Reef sandal, it’s all going to be the same type of effort and thought that went into it.”
“When you wear an Old Navy sandal, you know it’s going to break real soon,” she added.
Dratler explained that while women’s styles dominate the sandals market as a whole, Reef’s business is quite balanced, and that its kids division is “on fire.” As one might expect, sales of Reef product tend to be strongest on the coasts, with California and Florida being the brand’s “main hubs.”
For Spring ’17, Reef is launching several ambitious and innovative products, including new unisex styles and a campaign targeting women. “Every spring is a huge re-invention for us,” Dratler said.
Central to the Spring ’17 collection will be new sandals featuring innovations in leather. Utilizing a unique method through the tanning process, Reef has made a leather sandal that is comfortable from the first wear—no break-in period required. The sandals are also fully waterproof—not simply water-resistant—meaning no worry at the beach.
Reef is so confident in their new styles the company is backing it up with a lifetime guarantee. Dratler said, “It seems that even though there are so many different sandal brands—both inexpensive and newer brands with super high price points—Reef continues to be that primary sandal for a lot of people.”
For Brazilian brand Ipanema, part of standing out means not adding to the cycle of waste much of the footwear industry contributes to. Every pair of Ipanema sandals and flip-flops are made from 100 percent recycled materials, while 99 percent of the waste from the factory where the company’s shoes are made is reused. That factory—which also manufactures for the likes of Melissa shoes—represents about one percent of the total worldwide footwear production, or about 200 million pairs a year—so this is no small feat.
When it comes actually selling shoes though, perceived value is king. Consumers are willing to spend more if they feel they’re paying for a higher quality product (and for millennials, sourcing is increasingly important), and this holds true of flip-flops as much as any other segment of the industry.
“A lot of it is brand positioning, and being in stores like Nordstrom and Bloomingdales,” ssaid John Linnehan, Impanema national manager of sales and merchandising. “So by presenting ourselves in the right segments, the product makes sense. That being said, you can’t just be in those stores. So [our success] stems from having the diversity of product, as well as the incredible level of quality, fit and finish.”
For Ipanema, which sells for around $20-$40, “basic” is not in the brand’s vocabulary. Linnehan said most of the brand’s customers prioritize style and quality over cost.
“If you have an Old Navy flip flop in one hand and an Ipanema in the other, there’s no doubt that the product is superior quality—it has to be, because it’s quite a bit more expensive [to manufacture],” he said. “But the last thing someone talks about when they talk about Ipanema is the price. The price is just a bonus. And because our styles tend to be unique, we’ve created sort of a collector mentality.”
For Spring ’17, Ipanema plans to introduce several new footbeds, straps, and strap details, as well as expanding its premium collection, which includes jewelry details that go beyond simple embellishment. “It’s something you haven’t seen in the market before,” Linnehan noted.
Having recently celebrated five years in the U.S. market, Ipanema’s growth has been steady. Linnehan reported that the brand is gradually shifting its focus more towards the consumer, having recently run ads in magazines like Marie Claire and Elle.
He added, “I don’t want to make this the biggest brand overnight—you need to build momentum and build a brand that will be around for a long time. I don’t want to be a flash in the pan I want to be a brand that is constantly evolving.”
While some consumers are driven by price, another brand is hoping they’ll be driven by something else—the call to give back.
Fleeps, a new brand which launched last year, makes what it calls “flips that don’t flop,” due to their unique strap which helps keeps the foot in place. Kael Robinson, founder of Fleeps, had worked in the fashion industry for many years, but saw room in the market for a product with a purpose.
For each pair of Fleeps sold, the company promises to donate 10 percent of sales to help fund girl’s education in 10 countries worldwide, with the goal of sending 10,000 girls to school in the next five years by selling 1 million pairs of sandals.
“Our goal isn’t just to make something so people have a new pair of shoes, but to actually make a difference,” said Robinson.
Retailing for $38, Robinson said customers are more understanding of the price point once they realize that the shoes are sustainably made. All Fleeps sandals are entirely handmade in Costa Rica by about 100 women, and so part of the price tag goes towards paying them fairly for their work.
Fleeps are also vegan, made using an EVA compound, resulting in a product that is free of animal byproducts and that has zero carbon emissions. All scrap pieces are also melted back down and reused, meaning nothing goes to waste.
“It really makes a difference in the pricing when people understand how it’s made, what it’s made from, and the fact that it gives back,” said Robinson.
For Spring ’17, Fleeps will introduce a new range of men’s vegan leather sandals, while a kids collection is also in the pipeline for next year, which Robinson described as a “a big growth area.”
For OluKai, standing out in the market means staying true to their roots. The Hawaiian-inspired brand makes a point of celebrating island culture through it’s footwear, while also giving back to the place itself.
The brand recently formalized its giveback in a 501(c)3 non-profit called the Ama OluKai Foundation, where a portion of proceeds from its shoes goes directly towards Hawaiian organizations such as the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association and the Imiloa Astronomy Center.
From a product perspective, OluKai says they build each shoe or sandal with the idea of “having your bare feet in wet sand”, a testament to their quality and durability. The brand stands behind each of its products with a 1-year quality guarantee.
“We offer a brand that consumers are able to align their personal beliefs with and pair that with quality, comfortable products,” said Kerry Konrady, OluKai Director of Marketing. “We are not for everyone, but when our value systems match those of the retailer and end consumer it creates a deep, long lasting relationship.”
Konrady said the popularity of sneakers hasn’t hurt its sandals and flip flops business, in fact, he said it only works to compliment the active, lifestyle products the brand provides.
“For OluKai the movement has been nothing but positive. As a provider of quality footwear for an active consumer, the movement to a more active lifestyle product is very complimentary to our product proposition. We deliver well made, supportive footwear for an active lifestyle. In fact our our open toe sandal products are built with midsole/outsole combos and fit techniques more commonly associated with quality footwear than the typical flip flop.”
OluKai’s Spring ’17 range is inspired by Hawaii’s rich heritage and ideas of cultural storytelling.
“Our product interprets these inspirations through new leather and textile materializations as well as the sophisticated design details OluKai has become known for delivering to the market,” said Konrady.