The story of how Israel became the second-largest market for the Australian-made Blundstone footwear company could be a Malcolm Gladwell metaphor for how trends are created.
It’s also the story of how a boot originally fashioned for farm laborers and factory workers is now worn by everyone from trend-conscious teens to travelers and office workers.
But no one is more surprised than Blundstone CEO Steve Gunn, when he considers that a Middle Eastern country of eight million became such a major player for a company located more than 12,000 kilometers away.
“It’s gone from being a strong market to a phenomenon in the space of about three years,” said Gunn, laughing on the phone from his office in Hobart, the capital of the Australian island of Tasmania. “It’s been driven by some really good work of our distribution partners, but largely by people who have decided that this is what they want to wear.”
It was Amos Horowitz, an Israeli film distributor looking for some new business, who in 1999 imported the ankle-high brown leather boots punctuated by elastic sides and fabric pull tags to Israel. He noticed his neighbor wearing a pair purchased during a trip abroad, and saw an opportunity.
Horowitz approached Blundstone at a European trade show, and then traveled to Tasmania for a brief visit to see the factory and get to know the footwear company.
When he arrived, it was a first for Blundstone, where “nobody had ever visited Israel and had no knowledge of their footwear market,” said Gunn, who joined the company in 1994. “But he seemed like a decent guy; he’s a passionate, energetic sort of guy.”
Amos, agreed his brother Michael Horowitz, who works with him, is “a very charismatic guy. He said, ‘I never made or sold shoes, but if I sell them, I’ll do it so that it succeeds.’ And they offered it to him.”
Horowitz began selling the boots from the storeroom of his family home.
“It created a community of Blundstone wearers,” said Michael Horowitz. “It was very personal, and whereas brands usually get started in the center and move to the periphery [of the country], this was the absolutely opposite.”
As in Australia where Blundstones were first used as a work boot, in Israel they were purchased by people from moshav or kibbutz cooperatives, who figured out how useful they were when moving from the cowshed or factory floor to muddy fields. Ditto for Jerusalemites treading carefully over slippery sidewalks during the rainy winters.
Horowitz soon expanded his operation and began selling to building supply stores, which placed boxes of Blundstones next to the piles of paint cans and brushes. From there, sales quickly spread to garden, camping and uniform retailers, until he eventually worked his way into the general shoe market.
When Gunn visited Israel around 2002, he found that Horowitz had a “reasonable spread of customers,” he said.
“It might’ve been selling something like 10,000 a year in a relatively small country,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been looking for many more out of that particular market, so I was happy to have it.”
But then the Israeli market for Blundstones exploded, with tens of thousands of pairs of boots sold each year, particularly among men and children. Blundstone is one of the mainstream boot brands in Israel, where, Gunn said, one in every 15 Israelis bought a pair of Blundstone boots in 2015.
On a more recent visit, Gunn said he was “set back on my heels by just how many pairs of Blundstones I was seeing on people’s feet,” he said. “What really struck me were the ages and the usage. Tourists were wearing them, but clearly bought them since arriving in Israel. New Yorkers have talked to me about the Blundstones they saw on their latest trip to Israel. It’s having a serious rub-off on New York business as well.”
It’s the shoe that Israelis like to wear, perhaps because it harks back to the days of the kibbutz and moshav, when clothes were simpler, and people had one or maybe two pairs of shoes that worked for most events.
At some point, said importer Horowitz, Blundstones became “very trendy” in Israel, seen as fashionable and as useful for hiking and long walks as for work. Teens liked them too.
“It’s sexy to wear Blundstones and a skirt or jeans,” he said.
Blundstones are sexy for only a certain portion of the population, cautioned Adi Kilav, a Jerusalem shoe designer who makes shoes for women, with a small number of designs created for men.
“You wear Blundstones because you ‘need’ a shoe,” said Kilav. “The women who buy my shoes buy them because of the look and the comfort and their only limitation is cost.”
It’s less visible in Tel Aviv, said shoe designer Shani Bar, whose retro-styled heels and sandals are solely designed for women. Her customers wouldn’t be caught dead in the clunky Blundstone boot.
“You see it more in Jerusalem and the periphery,” said Bar. “It’s a niche of fashion, but very specific fashion, rough fashion, so to speak.”
A typical pair of Adi Kilav or Shani Bar shoes can run NIS 600 to NIS 1,200 ($150 to $300) a pair. Blundstones — not the fake, Chinese-made knockoffs now littering the market — run about NIS 600 ($150) for adults and NIS 400 ($105) for kids.
“Most of the Blundstones buyers are men,” said Kilav. “Or teenage girls, from the age of 15 to about 24 or 25.”
Bar called Blundstones the “antithesis” of what she does — a work boot that is also a comfort shoe thanks to its sure fit and comfortable sole.
“It’s sort of a mystery,” she said. “And it’s interesting to look at the market segmentation of Blundstones.”
According to Gunn, the children’s Blundstones market is “pretty decent,” and there’s been a shift in the last 12 months toward more Blundstones for kids.
“Just see what’s on people’s feet,” he said. “Kids are around one quarter of the Israeli business.”
The boots are also fairly strong in Tel Aviv, said Horowitz, despite what shoe designers may have surmised.
“Jerusalem is stronger than Tel Aviv, but during the last few winters in Tel Aviv, it was the number one boot,” he said. “It became a kind of trend, a fashion trend, with people saying it’s the right thing to wear all day long.”
The Horowitzes are also the importers of Crocs, foam clogs that were hugely popular in Israel a number of years ago, as well as 18 other global shoe brands, all of which are available on their e-commerce site, carrot.co.il.
“It happens because you have to be there to make it happen,” said Horowitz of their knack of hitting the market with the right product at the right time. “It requires a lot, a lot of field work and we supply them immediately.”
The brothers don’t advertise any of the shoes they import, and don’t rely on any marketing, either, said Horowitz.
“We invest in the point of sale,” he said. “And we try to get to as many stores as possible.”
Their success, and that of the Blundstone brand, is not that surprising, said Dr. Renana Peres, a marketing researcher from the School of Business Administration at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Israelis, said Peres, are early adapters in innovation, and like to be the first to have anything new. They also like to travel and shop, despite frequent complaints about lack of funds, and those traits, coupled with the country’s emphasis on informality, and its cohesiveness, make it unsurprising that Blundstones — a comfortable, reasonably attractive boot — became so popular.
“It’s this combination of a social system which is so flat and informal, and if it’s something that catches on, like Crocs and Blundstones, it’s really a forest fire,” said Peres. “If it fits the needs of many groups in the population, then people will buy it. It’s a magical cross section.”
Gunn also has some ideas as to why Israel became such a Blundstones hub. There are many Israelis traveling around the world, wearing their Blundstones and showing them off to their friends and family worldwide, he said.
There’s also the power of social media, he added.
The company has always relied on word of mouth as a major marketing tool, since it didn’t have the financial wherewithal to spend profits on advertising.
“What we get out of social media is that the world is a much smaller place, and word gets spread more widely and rapidly,” said Gunn. “It all comes together at the same time to produce a fairly sensational outcome for us.”
Michael Horowitz thinks Israel is part of a world trend.
“It’s a few things connected together,” he said. “Blundstones are a great product, and there are very few brands with this kind of tradition and quality.”
Will Blundstones last in Israel?
Blundstone boots are now sold in 50 countries in North and South America and Europe, as well as China and Japan. The company’s global footprint is growing, but there “are still people out there who haven’t had exposure to the Blundstone brand,” said Gunn. “There’s a lot of people who are able to be converted.”
As for Israel, Gunn is resigned to the fact that this tiny Middle Eastern country can’t survive forever as the company’s second-largest market.
“It’s gone from being a strong market to a phenomenon in the space of about three years,” he said. “We had a conversation about a year and a half ago that we can’t expect the market to deliver more than it has, but it’s since doubled.”
The company is still trying to figure it out, said Gunn, who likes to tell about being amazed during one store visit he made in Tel Aviv, where a father with young twin boys and a daughter came in and “knew exactly which Blundstones they wanted.”
“There’s something about the Israeli market, and its desire to be itself,” he said. “I’ve learned during visits that there’s a lot of pride in a variety of things where the Israeli market is not just following the rest of the world. There’s an element of individuality about it.”
The Israeli love for Blundstones has influenced some of the company’s decisions about style changes. As a result of the Israeli preference for the lighter-colored Blundstones over the original black and dark brown shades, there’s been a shift to the lighter brown colors, and to the less highly polished versions.
“It’s one of the best parts about Blundstones,” said Michael Horowitz. “The fact that they look better when they’re not polished.”
Style numbers 585 and 561 are the two biggest sellers in Israel, said Gunn, “largely because people don’t have to polish them and take care of them.” “They look relaxed and informal which is what people are looking for, and they can be worn with jeans and shorts.”
Still, Blundstone is pushing its boundaries with more outre styling, introducing new boots, including some that are just for the Israeli market with particular colors for the elastic sides or soles.
“If there are trends happening in Israel, we can actually patch that in,” said Gunn. “Israel is on the receiving end of the production work that we’ve done for the world. We keep it current and relevant for the market.”
It could be that these boots have far to go.
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