Smelly shoes

Last year, living in Bali, I wore the same pair of black sandals almost every day. I must have walked and ridden hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres on them, and they only got smelly once. It was after a day when I rode my bike through a flood up to my knees—wonderful adolescent fun—and the sandals took a day to dry. But they had developed a bad smell, so I put them out in the sun for three more days and the problem went away. I assumed that I had to keep them reasonably dry in future, and returned them to daily use, with no further issues.

Back in Adelaide, in a hot summer, I reverted to habit and decided I couldn’t get by with just one pair. Funny that—in Bali it never occurred to me that wearing almost the same clothes every day fell short of some internalised dress standard that I have back home. No need to keep up with the Jones? Free to be different? Anyway, I digress. I rationalised that the current ones were looking a bit worse for wear, and went to a stockist that sold the same brand. They had them in several colours, for $200, which seemed a large amount to me, so I decided it would have to be my Christmas present. I selected the brown ones, and left the shop a happy man.

After two days use, the odour began. In a few more days it went from something I only noticed if I actually sniffed them up close, to Charmaine insisting I left them outside at all times. It really was that bad. The whole house reeked of these rotten, damp intruders, and it got so bad that even when I was walking in the open air I could smell them. I imagined people giving me a wide berth in the supermarket, and wearing them while driving was out of the question. I should add at this point that I have never had a problem with foot odour to my knowledge, and certainly not according to Charmaine, who has a nose a bloodhound would envy. I mean, this is a woman who won’t come near me if I’m wearing clothes that I left in the washing machine for a few hours. Had I suffered from incurably smelly feet, I’m not sure our relationship would have got past first base.

Because I had not gotten them wet a la Bali, I decided it must be a problem with this particular pair of sandals, and set off to seek a refund or an exchange. With the smelly offenders in a plastic bag, I waited while the woman behind the counter, the owner I found out later, gave excellent, gracious service to several customers ahead of me. Sales were brisk, and her demeanour gave me hope. But as her gaze turned to me and my bag, her lips and eyes narrowed, and a steely ‘How can I help you sir?’ didn’t fool me a bit. She was going to fight off this attempted return as quickly and painlessly as possible. It was war from that moment. The dialogue went something like this:

Me: ‘Hi, I bought these last week, and I have the receipt here. Unfortunately, they have a bad smell, and I can’t see any reason why. I have only worn them a few times.’
Her: ‘I’m very surprised to hear that. We have sold hundreds of these over the years, and no-one has complained about a smell from them. Actually, they are one of our best sellers.’
Me: ‘Well, these ones really pong. It’s bad. Here, have a smell yourself.’ (I open the bag and she recoils from the counter with raised hands as if in serious danger)
Her: (after recovering her implacable poise) ‘Certain people do have a reaction to some shoes—do you often have this problem? Foot odour is not an uncommon issue.’
Me: (now my lips and eyes were getting narrow) ‘No I don’t, and I never have had. I have a dozen or more other pairs of shoes and I don’t recall anything more than a slight smell if maybe I wore my socks for a second day.’(she flinched visibly at the very thought)
Her: ‘Look sir, as I said this has never happened before, so I can only conclude you must have a problem.’
Me: (getting a bit agitated) ‘Look, these cost me $200, I have worn them a few times, and they are unusable—I want to exchange them or get a refund.’
Her: ‘That’s not going to be possible sir, but I could ask the manufacturers if they have any suggestions for dealing with your problem.’
Me: (perhaps, I admit, a little louder—this is so unlike me) ‘I don’t have a problem. You have a problem with an unsatisfactory product; and yes, talk to the manufacturers who I’m sure would want to replace these. I’m happy to talk to them myself if you prefer.’
Her: ‘Give them to me sir, I will make enquiries about this and get back to you.’ (takes bag nervously, as if it contained several rattlesnakes, handing it quickly to her junior assistant)

Two weeks later, the call came, and I returned to the shop. In the meantime I had contacted the makers, and they had been just as unhelpful, when they eventually returned my calls and emails. So the shop owner was my only hope. She was ready, armed with forceful cheer that boded ill.

Her: ‘Well sir, the manufacturers can’t find anything wrong with these shoes. Are you perhaps taking any medication that could be causing this reaction?’

I was silent for a while, thinking this had just dipped into the surreal. Did she mean medication that might cause the smell, or that might cause me to imagine the smell, or that made me grumpy and unreasonable? Admirably restrained, I said no, so she switched to a different tack.

Her: “The manufacturers have a suggestion. You should wipe off the shoes in warm water, trying not to soak them too much. Then put them in a plastic bag, and leave them in the freezer overnight.’

I was thinking; for a problem that has never been raised before, there seems to be a good deal of information about how to deal with it. What company knows exactly how to deal with a product fault that has never been reported? OK, maybe they are into risk management at a new level—being ready for anything. Of course I didn’t believe that, but what could I do that might change the result here—answer—not much. I was going to have to live with a $200 pair of sandals that required this elaborate procedure at frequent intervals to be usable. So I swallowed my colourful retorts and decided to end it there. I said ‘I’m happy to try anything. If I’m definitely not going to get a refund, I haven’t got much choice.’

She handed them back to me in the same plastic bag (had they ever actually left the shop?), holding it at arm’s length to minimise the risk of infection, and we parted politely with mutual cool disrespect. Then I did the only two things I could. I washed and froze the shoes (it works for a day or two then the problem returns) and I told everyone I met not to buy their shoes at that shop. I’m not feeling much like a good consumer warrior coming out of this, but you do what you can at the time.

As I sat down to write this, six months later, I realised there was one line of attack I didn’t pursue—checking out other people’s comments on the internet. So I’ve had a look today, and read dozens of reviews. About 80% of the buyers are giving these sandals five stars. But of the remainder, the most common complaint is that they can develop a horrible odour, especially if they get wet. Somebody even echoed my descriptions, bemoaning the ‘house-clearing power of these sandals when they smell’. So, am I going to collect these reviews and send them to the shoe shop? No, she will just dig in deeper. It’s time to for me to move on. I will just do one more thing: I will name the sandals. They are ECCO Yucatan sandals. They cost $200. 80% of people love them. If you buy them, and they don’t smell, I will envy you.

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