Birkenstock is trying to be your favorite summer sandal, even if it has to shove all the other sandal-makers out of the way to do so.

The German company, founded in 1774, has gone in and out of fashion over the 250 years of its existence. The most recent surge in popularity began a decade ago when Phoebe Philo, then top designer at Celine and doyenne of the so-called “ugly shoe movement,” sent a pair of fur-lined Birkenstock-like sandals down her runway.

Birkenstocks, known for their comfortable cork footbeds and general lack of sex appeal, quickly became a hot ticket item among the fashionable, and then among everyone else as well. Birkenstock doesn’t release sales figures, but it certainly appears to have been a darn good 10 years for the company—which has launched new models, new colors, and new collaborations with other hot brands and designers, including very fancy entities like Manolo Blahnik, whose shoes are known for their high heels and a general surplus of sex appeal. That collaboration, which came out in 2022, features cork clogs and sandals swathed in velvet and festooned with sparkling crystal buckles. At the time of writing, some models had sold out, but a clog, available in bright fuchsia or blue velvet, was still available for $750 on the Birkenstock website. Birkenstock sandals are usually closer to about $130 per pair.

While Birkenstock continues to spread its seemingly very profitable wings, it also is trying to prevent others from grabbing much of the ugly shoe business for themselves. Reports indicate that Birkenstock is strong-arming retailers into dropping its competitors from their assortments. An email from the company’s New England sales representative, sent in 2020, warned retailers against carrying sandals that “piggyback” or “feed off of” Birkenstock’s successful designs. “It is your choice and your choice alone whom you do business with,” the email said. “It is my job to communicate to you that we will only move forward in 2021 with those retail partners who value our partnership.”

Sounds like a suggestion that would be hard to refuse! Some retailers, like Nordstrom and Zappos, have since dropped sandals from companies like Viking, Naot, and Mephisto—leading Mephisto USA’s chief executive Rusty Hall to call out such “competitive bullying” and lodge a sincere protest, noting that some of the sandal models in question have been sold by Mephisto for decades. But according to one intellectual property lawyer, Birkenstock might not have much of a legal claim against competitors, so flexing its muscle and issuing threats may represent its best option for preventing other sandal companies from riding its cork-lined coattails.

Birkenstock also took its ball and went home rather than play with Amazon, due to what it says is the site’s unwillingness to take “decisive enough action against product counterfeiting and other trademark infringements.” The company stopped selling directly on Amazon in 2016, and as of August 2022, it will prohibit third-party retailers from offering Birkenstocks on the Amazon marketplace.

Two more points are worth bearing in mind: Fashion tends to come and go in 10-year cycles, and it has been just about exactly 10 years since that fateful Celine show. In addition, the sandals featured in that watershed show were not, in fact, Birkenstocks. They were described in many publications as “furry Birkenstock-style sandals”—later known by some as “Furkenstocks”—and sold for $950 a pair. Kanye gave Miley Cyrus five pairs of them way back in 2013, per reliable sources.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should Birkenstock try to prevent retailers from selling products from its competitors? If so, what is its best way to do that?
  2. If you were advising a rival comfort shoe company, how would you advise it to proceed, to maintain and even build its market in the face of Birkenstock’s aggressive approach?
  3.  Will ugly shoes be dominant for much longer, or is it time for the next trend?

Source: Suzanne Kapner, “Birkenstock Pressures Retailers to Stop Selling Copycat Sandals,” The Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2022; Meg Richardson, “Birkenstock Demands Retailers Boycott Copycats,” SoFi, April 5, 2022; Katharine K. Zarrella, “What’s With the Birkenstock Craze? It’s Not Just About Comfort,” The Wall Street Journal, August 6, 2021; “Company History,” birkenstock-group.com; Shannon Adducci, “How Phoebe Philo Defined the ‘Ugly’ Shoe at Céline,” Footwear News, January 15, 2018; Shelby Ying Hyde, “Here’s How to Secure Manolo Blahnik’s New Birkenstock Collaboration,” Harper’s Bazaar, March 24, 2022; Cathy Horyn, “Céline Keeps the Paris Winners Coming,” The New York Times, September 30, 2012; Maureen O’Connor, “Kanye Bought Miley Five Pairs of These Fur Céline Slippers,” The Cut, September 25, 2013; “Celine’s Furkenstock’s Debuted at the Paris Fashion Week,” Trendhunter, October 13, 2012