FitFlop Beefs Up in the U.S.

FitFlop wants consumers to know it’s anything but a one-hit wonder.

After its original Walkstar toning flip-flop became an instant hit with consumers five years ago, the U.K.-based brand evolved into a comfort-driven lifestyle line that has tripled its sales in the last four years.

To meet demand in the U.S. — now the firm’s second-largest market behind the U.K. — FitFlop recently opened a headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., appointed a stateside president and installed a sales and support team.

But rapid success has come with its own set of challenges, acknowledged brand founder Marcia Kilgore. “During our first three years, we were growing so fast, we just didn’t have the resources to focus on the U.S. as much as necessary,” she said.

Equally daunting, added Kilgore, was the burgeoning competition. “Certainly, we experienced an onslaught of copycat brands,” she said. “That diluted our messaging and undoubtedly made consumers cautious about the category.”

To beat back the competition and change public perception, FitFlop executives began to elevate the quality, versatility and styling of the line. The company now offers a range of year-round sneakers, casuals and boots for women, men and children, sold in 52 countries.

For spring ’12, the brand is expanding its fashion horizons even further with the debut of Trend Diffuser, a luxe women’s collection retailing from $275 to $350 (compared with the Walkstar’s $50 opening price point). The Trend Diffuser collection includes the Uno, a series ranging from sneaker-inspired ballet flats to lace-ups; and the Gladda, a sandal.

“We’ve repositioned the brand to match our global strategy,” said FitFlop President Tom Terry, noting the firm has shifted away from the promotional-minded retailers it initially did business with. “We want to grow our independents as well as the higher-end stores. And we want to step up the quality [of the shoes] for our stores.”

Added Kilgore, “We want our distribution to be narrow, deep and have the right product for the right customer in the right place at the right time.”

It’s a strategy that retailers have said is working.

At New York-based Tip Top Shoes, one of the brand’s first U.S. accounts, CEO Danny Wasserman said FitFlop is among the store’s top-performing vendors.

“It’s evolved from a fabric thong to waterproof boots and walking shoes,” Wasserman said about the more robust product assortment. He noted the brand also has developed a strong repeat business. “Once consumers have the [original flip-flop], they come back and will try other shoes.”

While Wasserman cited women 30 years and older as FitFlop’s main audience, the store is now seeing demand for the brand’s men’s and kids’ lines.

“The men’s category is the next big thing [for our brand],” said Terry. “A lot of people have been asking for [it].”

The men’s business now accounts for 9 percent of global sales, with kids’ at 2 percent.

For Kilgore, the push to be broader began after consumers started requesting more versatile styles they could wear to work or during between-season weather.

“While our original sandal was built with a toning focus, we have for three years now been studying ergonomics, along with thousands of testimonials, to find out how we can maximize our opportunity with our [Microwobbleboard] technology by putting it into broader categories,” she said. “It’s obvious the woman wearing our clogs would love to get the same feeling wearing ballerinas, and the sandal man would appreciate a pair of suit-and-tie commuter shoes with our patented pressure-diffusing, shock-absorbing technology.”

FitFlop’s closed-toe styles also are resonating with consumers at Simply Soles in Washington, D.C. “People are surprised FitFlop carries clogs,” said operations manager Megan Dickens, noting the store has also had success with FitFlop’s mukluk sheepskin boot. “It blew out the door.” And based on the popularity of the brand among its female clientele, Dickens said she added men’s styles for fall ’11.

Zappos.com also is looking for big things from the brand. Comfort buyer Heather Esterline said the e-tailer introduced FitFlop for women and men almost two years ago, and kids’ is set to launch this spring. “Business has been great for styles other than sandals,” she said. “We have seen a lot of success with the winter product.”

Going forward, Esterline added, “We expect to see a great reaction to new product this spring as well. FitFlop has a solid customer base that comes back season after season looking for the newest product, and it’s attracting a new, wider customer base. [Fitflop] is on fire, and we don’t see it stopping.”

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