Tom and Vickie Gearheart sold more Birkenstock sandals (553 pairs) at their Valley View store than any other Flip Flop Shops in the country in the past six months— more than the nation’s largest mall, the Mall of America in Minneapolis, that sold 397 pairs, and the second largest shopping mall, King of Prussia, near Philadelphia (447 pairs).
The Gearhearts sold over $52,000 in Birkenstocks from January 1 to June 30, 2017, with King of Prussia selling $39,000, and the Mall of America, $35,000.
Vickie Gearheart said she doesn’t really have an answer for why the sales of Birkenstocks are so high in Roanoke, although Birkenstocks are making a comeback. All the rage in the ’90s, the brand declined in recent years but is now trending once again.
Flip Flop Shops is a franchise— the Gearhearts own the store and have rights to the Flip Flop Shops business model, but are subject to some regulations that apply to all members of the franchise, such as brands they carry, store design, and so on. That is so that customers who shop at Flip Flop Shops at the beach, for instance, can return home to Roanoke, and find basically the same merchandise. Their most popular brands in addition to Birkenstocks are Rainbow, Olukais, Reefs, and Sanuks sandals, featured in all locations.
The Gearhearts opened their business on the upper level of Valley View Mall three years ago in March 2014. Tom was restless in retirement after 33 years with Advance Auto, where he was used to working 60-hour weeks. Vickie had worked at Orvis for about 11 years.
They considered a coffee house, a doughnut shop, a yogurt store, and other small businesses, but something about the flip flops concept caught their fancy. Vickie says she has always loved flip flops and they like the Flip Flop Shops business concept and design. In Flip Flop Shops all of the merchandise is displayed on the floor so that patrons can try on the shoes as they please. Employees are there to give advice and ring up purchases.
The Gearhearts live in Bonsack. She graduated from Northside High School; Tom graduated from Cave Spring. Their son Phil is a William Byrd graduate in the Class of 2005. They have been members at Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church in Vinton since their son was in first grade.
Vickie said that many Flip Flop Shops franchises hire a manager to run the store, but she and her husband prefer to run their own shop. They currently have three employees, their son and two others. Although Tom wasn’t content in complete retirement, he does like to play golf several times a week.
Often they hire WBHS graduates and “Thrasher kids” because “we are like a family” and are “picky about who we hire.” They chose to locate at Valley View because they considered the mall to have the highest foot traffic of all the shopping centers in the area, which has turned out to be true for them.
Vickie says that Birkenstocks are popular with the younger generation; it’s the “in” shoe nowadays. The older generation is delighted to see them come back in style, giving both age groups the opportunity to make the same fashion statement.
According to the Birkenstock website “Birkenstory,” the “uber-comfortable” sandals were a German import first popular in the United States in the late ’60s, associated with the “hippie counterculture” of the time.
Flip Flop Shops is a subsidiary of Cherokee Global Brands, founded in 2004. Its mission is to “create innovative ways to ‘Free Your Toes®’ to promote a casual, healthy, stress-free lifestyle.” The company began franchising in 2008 and now operates shops globally throughout the United States (including Guam and Hawaii), Canada, the Caribbean, South Africa, and the Middle East.
The Flip Flop Shops have been ranked on the Inc. 500|5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies for five consecutive years.
The Gearhearts’ Flip Flop Shops at Valley View Mall is open from Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Sundays from noon until 6.