Barefoot or Birkenstock

Now on a firm footing in the UAE, shoe brand Birkenstock is looking to take its products to the next level in terms of comfort and health.

“The best way to walk is barefoot and the next best is walking in a pair of Birkenstock.”

Dieter Klingenberg, managing director (sales) for Birkenstock, sums up the brand’s image, philosophy and performance in one sentence.

More than 240 years old and still manufactured exclusively in Germany, footwear brand Birkenstock made inroads into the UAE in 2007 in a tie-up with the Apparel Group. Seven years later, the brand boasts of 20 stores in the region and a presence in nearly every country in the Middle East.

“The Apparel Group has strong and professional growth in the region. They now run 20 stores for Birkenstock and I think this could be a platform for stronger and bigger growth in future as well,” observes Klingenberg.

The brand is focusing on its three main categories in the UAE: children, EVA and closed shoes. “Kids are the future for us. To bring them very early into the right product, we need to start at the beginning,” he says.

“The kids market in the GCC region is vibrant and big so it makes sense to focus on this line,” adds Siddharth Dixit, general manager, Apparel Group.

The brand’s market research shows that parents nowadays tend to be more focused on health-related issues of their children and are willing to spend a little extra, if required.

Despite its long heritage, growing popularity and availability in 80 countries, Birkenstock still manufactures its footwear exclusively in Germany. “We stand for outstanding quality and can guarantee that quality only in Germany, where the brand was born. Everything related to its manufacture – the production facility, sourcing of raw material, craftsmanship, etc – has been established in Germany so that ensures we can monitor the quality,” Klingenberg explains.

However, the company has moved production of some of its smaller brands – such as Papillio and Birki – to Spain.

In a region that thrives on fashion, Birkenstock products often need to play catch-up, but that’s not a concern, says Klingenberg. “Fashion is nice; we enjoy it at a particular moment. But fashion comes and goes whereas function stays forever. That’s the key message we deliver to the world,” he adds.

Nevertheless, the firm is open to adapting to the demands of the UAE market. “We can adapt our range for the region with special make up – some glitter, glimmer and … more formal. But we’re not prepared to lose our heritage. If we can do it without foregoing the fundamentals of our history, we will,” Klingenberg avers.

That history, which the company holds close to its heart, is interesting.

The great-great-great grandfather of the current owners, Johann Adam Birkenstock, was registered in the church archives in 1774 as ‘vassal and shoemaker’. A century later, in 1896, Konrad Birkenstock, the grandson of Johann Adam, started making footbed insoles.

What started as footbed insoles was converted into a sandal when a leather strap was put over it. “And that’s how our key product ‘Madrid’ was born,” Klingenberg says.

The footbed was found to be compatible with shoes with a slight heel so the company is now looking to develop a footbed to complement high heels.

“There’s incredible demand for comfort high heels. A lot of women I know wear heels to a party or in the evening, but once they’re back in their car they remove the heels and get into a Birkenstock. So, it’s a future project we will be working on to combine heels with comfort,” he says.

Comfort and health of the foot remains the key point for Birkenstock, which believes that if you can win the trust of your customers, you don’t need to spend large sums on marketing campaigns. “Our main marketing strategy is our quality and the trust that customers have in our brand,” Klingenberg says.

The trust factor, adds Dixit, is crucial for customers in the UAE. “We see a lot of people recommending Birkenstock to their friends. It’s a brand that’s about your experience and we get a lot of word-of-mouth customers. We also have huge repeat business,” he says.

“Dubai is a big market for us. Birkenstock is a global brand that appeals to everybody so we have a huge customer base of Europeans, Indians, Emiratis and Arab expats here – the appeal is wide,” Dixit adds.

Happy with the steady growth of the company in region, Birkenstock now wants to expand its presence to 120 countries. “This is a settled area and a platform to grow. It’s a core part of our business at the moment,” Klingenberg says.

Going ahead, Birkenstock will be opening stores in South America and China. “We just opened an office in Hong Kong and will open another in Brazil next month. Next year, we are scheduled to open a subsidiary in east Europe,” he adds.

The company is also exploring the possibility of establishing an accessory business of bags, belts and shoe care products.

Birkenstock plans to launch its latest collection during Fall/Winter 2015. “Our first launch was to have been Spring/Summer 2015. But that’s not the best season for a footwear launch. So you will find more closed shoes, boots, ankle boots and sneakers in Fall/Winter 2015. All will be with the same technology – Birkenstock’s removable footbed,” Klingenberg elborates.

In the past two years, Birkenstock has brought all its brands under its umbrella. Some of the ranges have been cut down to shift the focus to core brands. “We have opened the company to the market, structuring it to be more market-driven rather than product and internally-driven,” Klingenberg says.

But despite all the changes and plans, the company has kept true to its tradition of going the extra mile for its customers. For instance, Birkenstock remains one of the rare footwear companies to provide repairs and replacement. “It’s not a profitable business – to offer repairs. But it’s more about customer satisfaction than being profitable,” Klingenberg explains, adding that such traditions keep Birkenstock a step ahead when it comes to consumer trust.

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