I’m increasingly annoyed by Toms Shoes.
In case you don’t know, Toms Shoes is the Santa Monica company that donates one pair of shoes to a needy recipient for each pair that it sells.
The purchasers of these shoes are insufferable enough. They tend to be holier-than-thou types who want to demonstrate – by wearing this brand of footwear with prominent labels – that they’re saving the world and you’re not. (Tip to Toms Shoes owners: Cut off the labels.)
But the company is even more irritating. Think about it. It sells its basic canvas shoes for $44, with most of its styles priced in the $50s and $60s. That’s at least twice what you’d expect to pay for such – I don’t want to say “cheap” so let’s say “minimalist” – footwear. In other words, customers are getting one pair but paying for two.
As a marketing ploy, it is – I don’t want to say “devious” so let’s say “effective.” The company gives away shoes that you, the customer, pay for. But it’s the company that gets credited for it. It is feted and fawned over for being sensitive and generous.
Of course, this has been going on since the company started in 2006. But I’m getting increasingly annoyed now because, alas, the whole Toms thing is metastasizing. We’ve done several articles in recent months about local companies that are repeating the Toms model.
The latest example is in the Up Front section on page 3 of this issue. A North Hollywood woman is making high-end headphones, and she is donating a portion of each sale to a charity benefiting those suffering hearing loss. She said she was inspired by Toms.
Let’s stop for a moment and state what’s obvious: Charitable giving is a great and noble thing. Please donate. Preferably to a recognized charity. Preferably in a time of crisis, such as a hurricane, earthquake or famine.
I’m in favor of charities. I’m opposed to companies that employ a pull-your-heartstrings marketing gimmick to sell overpriced goods. I’d much rather see them focus intently on creating the highest-quality goods or services and delivering them at the lowest possible price. You know, they should do what companies are supposed to do.
Actually, there is a little nuance here. The woman making headphones on page 3 has a business model that is not quite the same as Toms, and is better. That’s because she’s giving a portion of each sale to a charity – a charity that helps the hearing impaired. She’s probably not harming any existing or potential startup business.
Toms, on the other hand, may be doing exactly that. By giving shoes to the poor, mostly in Third World countries, Toms is effectively shutting down any would-be cobbler. Rather than encouraging people to pull themselves up by creating a sustainable shoemaking business that employs local people and buys from local vendors, Toms is encouraging them to be supplicants.
The message from Toms: Just go down to the train station and wait for the next shipment of shoes or whatever other freebies come your way thanks to the save-the-world types.
That’s why I’m annoyed by Toms and would like to see its business model stomped out.
I came across this great suggestion from a woman’s post on the Internet: If you like Toms styles (and they are good), then buy $25 canvas shoes from a company that’s trying to deliver a good product at a low cost.
And donate $25 to Kiva.org or some similar microloan project that strives to help entrepreneurs in Third World countries get started.
Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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