It Only Took 5,000 Years, But The Flip-Flop Is Finally Getting Smarter

Footwear maker Hari Mari is experimenting with tech that allows brands to continue talking with customers long after they leave the store.

Flip-flops have been around since at least ancient Egypt, but the perennial thong sandal hasn’t seen much innovation in the last five millennia or so. Which is understandable: Between the flat base and the strap between the toes, there’s not a whole lot to work with.


That hasn’t stopped the founders of fast-growing brand Hari Mari from trying to push things forward. Today, they’re launching a new line of high-tech flip flops that will allow the brand to continue its relationship with the wearer long after they’ve purchased the product. The footwear will be embedded with a special low-range chip that will help Hari Mari gather the same kind of data that an online retailer would get.

The problem that Hari Mari is trying to tackle is familiar to many brands that sell primarily through other retailers. Without a direct connection to the customer, it is difficult to gather data about the profile of a particular buyer, and it is impossible to target this person in the future with other products or discounts. Hari Mari’s founders, Texas couple Jeremy and Lila Stewart, have been racking their brains for a way to get around this roadblock. Then a solution came their way from an expected source: former NFL running back Emmitt Smith. Smith was tired of seeing people selling counterfeit jerseys and helmets that they claimed belonged to him. So he developed a technology through his company, The Prova Group, that allows brands to incorporate a chip into virtually any product–including garments and shoes–that would allow you to electronically track the origins of the product.

Hari Mari is incorporating the chip into its brand-new flip-flop line, which is launching in collaboration with the famous baseball glove maker Nokona. These flip-flops will be made using Nokona’s top-grain leather and sold at a selection of high-end men’s retailers including Huckberry, Hudson’s Hill, and Sault for $110. Customers who purchase the sandals will be able to download the “Hari Mari x Nokona” app, which will allow them to get special discounts and communicate directly with both brands.

The embedded chip uses near-field communication technology, meaning it can’t track you over long distances. Rather, you can pair it with your mobile app to get Hari Mari’s special offers. For the five-year-old company, the feature will help establish a relationship with the buyer, gathering user data like email and home addresses, as well as some demographic information. “For us, this is the beginning of a broader experiment,” Lila Stewart explains. “We need to see if customers are responsive to the app and how we’re able to engage with them using this technology.”

Before founding Hari Mari, the Stewarts had spent their twenties living in Indonesia as expats. Their time in the tropics of Southeast Asia convinced them of two things: First, there was a real dearth of high quality flip-flops on the market, and second, inspired by working with charities in Jakarta, they wanted to find a way to create a social enterprise that would allow them to give back to people in need. They spent two years designing a line of comfortable, high-quality flip-flops with features like a memory foam toe grip that eliminates painful break-ins. In 2012, they launched Hari Mari and from the start, donated 1% of all sales to support kids battling cancer.

Over the past five years, Hari Mari has been growing quickly. The brand sells products online, but also at a range of stores around the country. In 2016, it was picked up by Nordstrom, Gap, Omni Resorts, REI, and Allen Edmonds, and this year, it became available on Zappos and Stitch Fix. As a brand that sells largely through third-party retailers, the Stewarts found themselves struggling to build enduring relationships with their customers.


“When a customer buys a product on our website, we get a treasure trove of information about them, from their email address, to where in the country they are from, to whether they buy multiple pairs or just one,” says Lila. “But at a store, we don’t have any of those details.”

If the test run for the chip-enabled flip-flops is successful, the Stewarts will consider incorporating the technology into their entire line. But they’re also fully aware that the benefit of the tech skews more toward the brand than the consumer. To that end, Lila says that they’re keeping a running list of creative ways to keep customers engaged with the app. For instance, they might send the customer special messages or discounts on their birthday or a note informing them about the weather in their area to determine whether it’s the right day to wear flip flops.

“If this works well for us, I could easily see this becoming the norm in the fashion industry,” Lila says.


About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.