Los Angeles-based Toms Shoes has given the two-for-one concept an altruistic twist.
"You buy a pair of Toms and I give a pair to a child on your behalf," said company president Blake Mycoskie. The casual shoes retail for $38.
He's already given away more than 10,000 pairs of shoes to children in South America. The program ramped up when, after selling for a few months in Abbot Kinney boutiques and later in Fred Segal stores, Nordstrom Stores Inc. picked up the brand for national distribution.
Mycoskie started Toms as in "tomorrow's shoes" last year after three weeks vacationing and volunteering in Argentina.
"I take a month off every year to clear my head, and this year I wanted to ride horses, work on my Spanish, learn to tango, and do some volunteer work," Mycoskie said. But while there, he was struck by the number of children without shoes.
Mycoskie was moved to start a business. And so he did, with $450,000 of his own money. He set up Toms with an Argentine partner to head overseas production while he takes care of sales distribution and marketing here in the states.
Mycoskie is not your average Gen-Xer. This is his fourth business. He started a laundry delivery service after dropping out of college which grew to 40 employees, co-founded a reality TV network after nearly winning on the CBS reality program "Amazing Race," and has most recently been involved in building an eco-friendly driver's education school.
Toms' gross margins are about 40 percent lower than the average shoe company because it makes two pairs for every one sold. Mycoskie said he tries to make up for it by not spending much on marketing or advertising. He's gotten the word out, however, most notably through a write-up in Vogue magazine.
Mycoskie is currently touring Nordstrom locations in the U.S. in an Airstream trailer to introduce himself and the brand to shoppers. He expects to be profitable by the end of the year.
"As long as we have enough money to pay everyone a fair salary and have a cool, relaxed working environment, and travel the world meeting new people and giving away shoes, we are not that concerned with huge profits," Mycoskie said.
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