When Birkenstocks come up in casual conversation one is sure to hear remarks about hippies, granola, the environment, and what ugly shoes many still think they are. However the history of Birkenstocks in the US has come a long way in the past 30 years. From its start as the home business of Margot Fraser these shoes have moved from being sold in health food stores, to the prominent spaces in occupies today in establishments like Nordstrom and L.L. Bean.
Birkenstock achieved acceptance, popularity, and great financial profit in the mainstream US market, but how far has it strayed from its roots of a small family business, based on creating an orthopedic shoe, crafted by skilled laborers? If we followed a pair of Birkenstocks back to the place of their origin would the proud parents still be German? Or would the different components that make up one of today's most popular sandals come from varied sources? In chasing Birkenstocks back to their source I have found some of these answers, but still have many questions. I have traced the product back to its original source as far as possible; most of the information beyond their manufacture in Germany seems to be restricted trade knowledge and unavailable to the public. This has prompted me to look more at the history of Birkenstock as a small family business, and its current US marketing strategies. A short recap of history is the best way to start the Birkenstock chase, beginning with Johann Adam Birkenstock in 1774.
Johann Birkenstock, resident of a small German village, was registered in the church archives as a "subject and shoemaker" in 1774. By 1897 his grandson Konrad Birkenstock designed the first shoe for use by custom shoemakers. It featured a contoured insole, or footbed, that reflected the shape of the human foot, instead of the traditionally flat shoes of the time (Birkenstock History). These shoes were custom made requiring time and a skilled laborer, producing a more expensive product in the end. However by 1902 cheaper factory-made shoes were becoming popular and widely distributed in Germany. The factory-produced shoes were less expensive than the custom made product, which was quickly losing its market demand (Birkenstock Story). Looking at the popularity of the factory shoe market, and not compromising his mission for a comfortable shoe, Konrad developed a flexible, contoured arch support that could be inserted directly into the factory-made shoes. This shifted the company from the production of custom footwear to the production of a custom-footbed insert (Birkenstock Story).
Over the next 50 years the footbed was refined, the term "footbed" became a registered trademark of Birkenstock, Konrad Jr. joined the company, and Birkenstock began exporting footbeds to other European countries such as Italy, Holland, Sweden, and France (Birkenstock History). Birkenstock also gave training seminars and lectures in the European community on the benefits of their footbed system, which were supported by leading medical specialists. In 1954 Konrad's son Karl joined the company, with the dream of creating a custom made shoe based on the orthopedically healthy Birkenstock philosophy. In 1964 he realized his dream with the creation of the first Birkenstock sandal, the Madrid (Birkenstock Story).
The Family Adds Margot
When Margot Fraser returned to her native Germany for a brief vacation from her home in Santa Cruz, CA in 1966, the last thing she had on her mind was becoming the founder, CEO, and sole distributor of Birkenstock in the US. All she wanted was a good pair of shoes for her travel weary feet, so she tried a pair of Birkenstocks. During the next few months she became so pleased with her Birkenstocks she began ordering them several pairs at a time, recommending them to friends, and selling them at health food stores and outdoor fairs in Northern California. Eventually she expanded her business into a small warehouse and "in 1971 on a handshake, Fraser incorporated and became the sole US distributor of Birkenstock products" (Sunoo 69). Margo started her small business with four to eight people managing the whole operation from answering the phones to packaging the shipments. The first-hired employee, Mary Jones, is now the vice president; the company's staff has swelled from the original pair of Fraser and Jones to a current staff of 167 (Sacks 12).
However for a business that is still privately owned, distributes to 3,500 retailers in the US, had a projected US revenue of $100 million in 1995 (Sunoo 69), and had increased sales of 26% in 1996 (Sacks 12), 167 employees seems relatively small. The opinion in the industry, and at Birkenstock, seems to be that the US portion is still run like a family business, with Fraser still being the primary liaison with the German parent company. Just last year "Fraser sold 10 percent of the company to employees via a pension and profit sharing plan" and confirmed that "she will offer an additional 40 percent of the company to employees" (Sacks 12).
Margot began relying on a more non-traditional market in the beginning to sell Birkenstocks to the American public, from their first introduction in Berkeley CA, in '66. She says, "The liberalsÖpicked us up becauseÖthey were directed differently and weren't affected by traditional thought" (Eskenazi). Since then Birkenstock sandals and shoes can be seen in almost any social group, from the runways of Perry Ellis to a drum circle of Grateful Dead fans. However Birkenstocks advertising and marketing strategy has stayed relatively the same, by letting the shoes sell themselves by word of mouth and reputation. Their biggest selling points are the orthopedic structure and comfort, durability, and renewability of the sandals. The sandals are constructed out of basic materials in a simple way. An EVA sole is topped with a foot-bed made of layers of cork, jute and latex, finished with suede lining and leather straps. The sandals can be resoled and re-corked easily by a skilled repairman for $20- $25, roughly a fourth of the cost of a new pair of sandals, averaging between $80 to $95.
Beyond the basic precepts of comfort, health and quality their strategy seems to be passive. In the power selling nineties this laid-backed attitude, with an emphasis on comfort fits a society increasingly predisposed to leisure and low-pressure sales.
Their first flagship store recently opened in the "heart of San Francisco's high traffic shopping street" with neighboring stores such as the Virgin Megastore, FAO Shwarz, and Planet Hollywood. The store is "a 12, 000-square-foot, two level" building featuring "300-plus men's, women's, and children's styles" and was "strategically placed to attract both locals and tourists" (Sacks 12). However it is very simple in its decoration and design, with the "idea to give it a family-friendly, natural look and to emphasize the merchandise" (Sacks 12). Birkenstock also opted to continue with their tradition of not advertising nationally, but to keep to regulated local co-op advertising for licensed retailers only (Sacks 12). Other additions to the store are a health food café, and small repair and logo shops. This logo-merchandise store came from high consumer demand for Birkenstock accessories, and is "very tightly edited" in regards to what it carries, to keep the symbol of Birkenstock regulated. Operating Officer Dennis Cutter states that "Öbrand expansions will never be a huge part of our business" and the plan is to concentrate on the footwear (Sacks 12).
Though Birkenstock seems to have a lack of an agenda there are definite themes that are present and fit in with the philosophy of the company. Their tactics are basic and product oriented. They have no formal national advertisement, use unknown models, and rely on the current popularity of craftsmanship and a renewable product to help promote their shoes. Indirectly this attracts the non-traditional consumer again for these specific points, along with the reputation of the shoe, and the lifestyle of reduced consumerism. The concepts of "family-friendly, natural," the presence of simplicity, and a health food café help to evoke this vaguely liberal representation the company appears to foster.
The environmental aspect of the shoe is one Birkenstock pushes at the retailer advertising level. The cork used in the insoles of the sandals is a renewable resource, and is harvested by skilled laborers within the European community and is a by-product of the bottling industry (Birkenstock Story). The footbed can be replaced easily and repeatedly for longer product life. This appeals to the "reduce, reuse and recycle" concept instead of the high consumption aspect of buying a new flashy pair as the old ones wear down or fall out of style. Unlike the competition Birkenstock only puts out a few new styles and colors each year, sticking with a base of classics. This leaves less to desire, to accumulate, and to throw away on the consumption side. On the production and retail side it also means less shipping, packaging and inventory.
The Birkenstock Green Team is a US Birkenstock institution, started at its inception in the sixties. It consists of a "small group of employees who meet voluntarily to monitor, research, and resolve environmental issues in (our) workplace, and to educate fellow employees about sound environmental practices" (Birkenstock Green Team). The Green team has a simple feature page on the Birkenstock web-site, stating its environmental beliefs. The Green Team works with the Birkenstock Managerial Team, and with the "full support and encouragement of Margot Fraser" to create a sound environmental workplace. Its Eco-Mission Statement reads:
These ideas also come through in the packaging Birkenstocks uses for its shoes, care products and shipping, with the majority being recycled and recyclable (Birkenstock Green Team).
Birkenstock, a company 200 years in the making and 31 years in the US, has made a concerted effort to grow "in a way that maintains a non-profit attitude in a for profit market" (Sunno 69). It has created a line of shoes and sandals that represent comfort, health, and an environmental consciousness. Their lack of national marketing and hard selling has placed them in a position that makes them both elite, because of their scarcity as just an image and widespread because the shoes have achieved mainstream popularity through slow and continuous growth. The fact that the shoes are still made in Germany , and that the US division still has a small number of employees and a strong link to a family business consisting of real and fictive kin, makes them unique in today's market. All of these factors have made Birkenstock represent much more than a sandal that feels good. Birkenstock is symbolic of a less-is-more attitude, and the theory of a small family-run business centered with management and employees who strive to make their work environmentally sound.
"Birkenstock Green Team, The" 1997. Online. Internet. Alta Vista. 24 November 1997. Available: http://www.birkenstock.com/greentem.html
"Birkenstock History" 1997. Online. Internet. Alta Vista. 24 Nov. 1997. Available: http://www.birkenstock.com/history.html
"Birkenstock Story, The" 1995. Online. Internet. Alta Vista. 23 Nov. 1997. Available: http://www.footwise.com/Bstory/bstory.html
Eskenazi, Joe. "Birkenstock Stands on Solid Footing." The Daily Californian 9 October 1996: np,archives. Online. Internet. ProQuest Direct. 23 Nov. 1997. Available: http://www.dailycal.org/archive/09.09.96/birkenstock.txt
Sacks, Diane Dorrans. "Joining the establishment: Birkenstock is reinventing itself with a sophisticated new flagship." Footwear News 53.39 (1997): 12. Online. Internet. Infotrac. 24 Nov. 1997. Available: htpp://sweb3.med.iacnet.com/infotÖsion/197/217/9639942/4!xrn_l&bkm_4
Skelly, Jessica. "Getting the Boot at Birkenstock." Fortune 131. 9 (1995): 28. Online. Internet. Infotrac.24 Nov. 1997. Available:http://sbweb3.med.iacnet. com/infotÖon/197/217/9639942/10!xrn_1&bkm_10
Sunoo, Brenda Paik. "Birkenstock Braces To Fight the Competition." Personnel Journal 73.8 (1994) : 68-70. Online. Internet. ProQuest Direct. 23 Nov. 1997.