Flipping for Fit Flops

LONDON — Are Fit Flops the next Crocs?

The casual shoe designed to improve leg muscle strength and developed by shoe outsider Marcia Kilgore of Bliss Spa fame, has been a runaway success — indeed, one often compared to Crocs, thanks, in part, to how quickly it has caught on with consumers.

Since launching Stateside last summer, first in the Bliss catalog and Bath & Body Works stores, then at 750 independent U.S. retail accounts, more than 1 million pairs of Fit Flops have been sold, the company said. Fit Flop Ltd. estimates that revenues could hit $80 million for 2008, and so far it has secured 1,800 accounts worldwide.

The shoe collection, which is manufactured in China and retails at $50 for the bestselling Walkstar style, expanded to nine styles for spring ’08. Included in the lineup is the $165 Aurelia gladiator, a premium Fit Flop aimed at fashion savvy clientele that sells exclusively through Kirna Zabete in New York and Net-a-Porter in Europe.

For her part, Kilgore is no stranger to success. By age 30, she had already sold a majority stake in Bliss — which alongside the spa business included a $20 million catalog enterprise and $20 million wholesale cosmetics chain — to Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy. Six years later, in October 2005, Kilgore set up London-based firm Brandhandling as a vehicle for her new bath and beauty line, Soap & Glory, and for research and development of Fit Flop.

“I had an idea for an affordable exercise shoe,” said Kilgore, who was introduced to the wellness footwear category when she sold MBTs through her Bliss catalog. The Fit Flop, which she has developed in conjunction with David Cook, senior lecturing biomechanist at London’s South Bank University, harnesses the benefits of a patent-pending multidensity midsole and “microwobbleboard” technology, which forces the body to work to maintain balance. The company claims the Fit Flops are biomechanically different from MBTs, which are founded on a rolling action.

The product launched claiming it toned muscles, but customer feedback suggests it could also offer pain relief for people with multiple sclerosis, arthritis or hip problems. “I’ve been overwhelmed by the response,” said Kilgore, who said the “miracle cure” aspect, referred to by many older consumers, had come as a surprise.

In the U.S., the brand is sold at a variety of retailers, from independents to chains and department stores, such as Foot Locker and Macy’s. “The Marcia Kilgore Fit Flop is one of the most outstanding products out there, and we have that exclusively [as the only department store to carry the brand so far],” said Terry Lundgren, CEO of Macy’s Inc. “We started with it for the resort period, but it really took off in early spring. It’s a core item, and one of the single, bestselling product lines we have on the selling floor right now.”

Lundgren said the limited exposure of the brand in department stores has been beneficial to Macy’s sales. “There are still a lot of customers who haven’t experienced it and tried it yet. I expect [demand] will carry all the way through this season and into next season. We are the largest retailer in California, Florida, Arizona and Las Vegas, so this business is going to continue for 12 months,” he said.

The CEO said the prominence of regular flip-flops in American consumers’ wardrobes gave Macy’s the idea to give shoppers something extra from Fit Flops. “We were watching all these young people wearing inexpensive rubber flip-flops … but now they are wearing them to work, or they are wearing them in the streets and carrying their shoes in their bags. So we said, ‘Why not invest in this idea of something that actually strengthens and gives shape to your leg and is comfortable?’” Lundgren explained. “To me, it made all the sense in the world, and the good news was that the customers got it right away. It’s been a home run and has helped the entire footwear business.”

Fit Flops were recently endorsed by Oprah Winfrey as one of her summer 2008 favorites. “I think Oprah can take a lot of credit,” said Bob Schwartz, president and CEO of New York-based retailer Eneslow. “But I also think it’s just word of mouth. When people find out these shoes really are good and actually do work, they want a pair, even if they have to pay a little more than flip-flop prices.”

“They are flying off the shelves — or off the hooks, I should say,” said Danny Wasserman of New York’s Tip Top Shoes. “We got our first shipment in October, which isn’t really the right time of year, but by November, we had already sold 150 to 200 pairs. After they were on Oprah, they just evaporated.”

John Weingarten, co-owner of The Shoe Spa, a fashion comfort store in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., has responded to customer demand and is expecting his first delivery of Fit Flops in November. “Customers were asking for it,” said Weingarten. “It’s an alternative for someone who can’t spend $235 on an MBT.”

So far, product has been seasonal. However, new winter styles, together with a men’s Fit Flop, will debut at WSA in July. “It’s a Fit Flop with a roof on top,” said Kilgore, adding that her goal would be to get Nordstrom to buy the collection. “I don’t know what they’re waiting for.”


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