Shoe polish is not a complicated product, and Kiwi Shoe Care believes simplicity is the key to success. The company’s product quality allowed the brand to reach all four corners of the globe. Now Kiwi’s quality, combined with a simple approach to retail merchandising, is helping retailers make this small category a profit center in their stores. 

“Our focus has been on working with retailers to make sure the in-store experience is correct. You need to have the right products in stock, highly visible, and priced right,” said Martin Lind, president. “Maximizing profits for our retail partners is all about getting these basics right.”

The shining star

Kiwi’s brand strength has been growing for more than a century. The company’s journey to becoming the number one shoe care brand in the world started in 1906, but it took off on the battlefields of World War I. Troops from Australia and New Zealand didn’t suffer from the debilitating trench foot condition at the same rate as other allied troops because Kiwi boot polish helped waterproof their boots. That reputation for quality and functionality went home with the troops, drawing distribution into more than 50 countries by the 1920s. 

“Based on that heritage and reputation for producing an excellent product that prolongs shoe life and enhances appearance, Kiwi has become the gold standard of the category,” said Lind. “In many countries, Kiwi is now synonymous with shoe polish.” 

Today, Kiwi is far and away the leading shoe care and polish brand in America. It has 38% unaided brand awareness for shoe care products, a category in which no other active brand of shoe care has more than 1%. As for marketshare, Kiwi has an astonishing 81% of the total shoe care market and 93% of the shoe polish category. 

The category isn’t as big as many consumer staples, but Kiwi is a convenience category in the retail store that is a profit generator for retailers. By using a combination of in-store merchandising and packaging communications, an ongoing Internet-based promotional and educational approach, and traditional print magazine ads, Kiwi makes sure its brand and products reach consumers at the right touch points. 

“The armed forces have always been a key touch point for us. Training recruits to polish boots creates lifelong users who in turn pass their knowledge and values on to following generations,” Lind said. “We are also reaching out to customers that are closer to the retail sale of the shoe, engaging in shopper marketing when people purchase shoes so they know what they need to do to take care of those shoes.” 

Decades ago, Kiwi’s brand strength was built mostly on the product’s ability to help shoes last longer. In today’s world, Kiwi’s ability to make shoes look better, as well as having a line of products that suit different kinds of shoes, is just as important. The fact that Kiwi’s marketshare is so substantial is a testament to product reliability. But Lind says much of Kiwi’s success is also due to its profitable retail model. 

“We understand this isn’t the biggest category, but we are the experts in it. We know what products retailers need to have out there to optimize their assortment, and we help retailers display the right mix between entry level and premium products,” he said. “We’re the only people investing in consumer research for the category and can guide the retailer on price levels and merchandising techniques, and we’ve invested heavily in new product development. That all adds up to a far superior business model than anyone else in the category can bring.”

Refreshing efforts

In fact, Kiwi is the sole global company significantly focused on R&D in the space. It has research development teams working in the Netherlands, Indonesia, and the US. The company maintains alliances with suppliers like 3M and Dupont. It regularly upgrades products by monitoring the best approaches to ingredients and formulations of its pastes, liquids, and creams, adjusting to market regulations and benchmarking against competitors to stay ahead. 

“Our products have stood test of time, but we are always responding as consumer needs change,” said Bob Clark, marketing director. “We conduct consumer research to make sure products are designed in a way that consumers will react positively.” 

For example, Kiwi’s shoe freshening product, Fresh Force, is designed with a unique, upside down applicator and is safe and effective for use on all types of footwear. Another big segment for Kiwi is its protector line, such as the Kiwi Suede & Nubuck Protector, which can be used on suede or nubuck shoes to protection against water and stains.

“In the protector area, we’ve expanded usage from what was just a general, all-purpose water protecting product into products designed exclusively for boots, fabrics, leather, and other materials,” Clark said. “As a result, the segment has grown by 30% a year for the last two years, and we are fueling that growth with more product innovation.”

Kiwi’s continuous improvement efforts extend beyond product development. Internally, the company has revamped its supply side over the past three years, reaching new contracts with internal and external suppliers. Kiwi also entered into a contract with global logistics partner OHL, which Lind said enhances the company’s distribution capabilities, giving Kiwi the ability to hit more than 90% of its customers within two days of receiving an order, as well as reducing the amount of time and fuel spent on the roads in terms of product delivery. 

Clark said Kiwi has also developed new retail merchandising shelving systems featuring lots of callouts on how to shop the category. The system helps shoppers easily navigate the assortment to find products that are relevant to them whether they are looking to care for traditional shoes or sport shoes. With a series of shelf dividers and callouts that draw attention to the shoe care center, the system has helped retailers control inventory while growing the business by 15% in every store where the system has been tested. 

The category has performed remarkably well despite the economic downturn of the last few years. It has been one of the best performing categories in the center of the store. For Kiwi, sustaining that success must be driven by introducing new products and working with retailers to get the visibility in the store that makes products accessible to consumers. 

“Shoe care isn’t generally thought of by retailers as the number one driver of success, but there is a significant growth opportunity here,” Lind said. “It might not be the biggest category, but it could be one of the easiest to manage and grow if you just get the basics right.”

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