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Key Takeaways

  • Amazon’s 206 Collective Men’s Galen Wool Blend Sneakers look like Allbirds Wool Runners, for less than half the price.
  • Comparing the Amazon shoes to Allbirds over several weeks, GeekWire’s editors found small flaws and annoyances in the Amazon shoes, from the laces to the inner heels. But overall, the Amazon shoes are comfortable and a decent value.
  • Responding to criticism about the similarities to Allbirds, Amazon says it’s following a standard retail industry practice of offering products inspired by broader consumer trends. Allbirds is calling on Amazon to follow its sustainability practices, as well.
Allbirds? Nope. Amazon 206 Collective. Stylish Seattle socks not included. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

“Hey, you got a pair of Allbirds. How do you like them?”

Friends and colleagues with a sharp eye for stylish shoes have been asking us that question a lot in recent weeks. Before answering, we feel obligated to admit, these aren’t Allbirds. Yes, they look almost exactly like those iconic wool sneakers, but they’re actually from Amazon’s private label, 206 Collective.

You might have seen these shoes in the news. Allbirds CEO Joey Zwillinger cited the “striking similarities” of the Amazon brand, and called on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to steal Allbirds’ approach to sustainability instead.

At $45, the Amazon brand is less than half the cost of the $95 Allbirds, which means many people will be tempted by the alternative models from the Seattle tech giant.

So how do they compare? GeekWire editor Todd Bishop and I have each been wearing Amazon’s 206 Collective wool blend shoes and the original Allbirds to varying degrees in recent weeks and months, and we have a lot to say on this topic.

Allbirds vs. Amazon

Could you tell the difference? Those are Allbirds wool sneakers on the left, and Amazon’s 206 Collective brand on the right. But despite the similar appearances, we found notable differences when we wore both types of shoes. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

While we both had slightly different experiences and impressions, we agree that the Amazon shoes are pretty good, or at least not bad. If you’re simply looking to get the Allbirds look at less than half the price, the choice is clear, as evidenced by the comments from people who mistook our Amazon shoes for genuine Allbirds.

But for the real experience, and the best fit and feel, there’s nothing like the original Allbirds. It’s the difference between good and great, and the only question is whether the greatness is worth the price.

Initial experience: Amazon’s 206 Collectives required a typical amount of breaking in, not feeling truly comfortable until a couple days of wearing them. Todd attempted to wear the 206 Collectives out of the box on a long walk, and needed to resort to Band-Aids on his heels the next day. Allbirds, by comparison, felt like they had already been broken in as soon as we put them on.

Comfort and fit: After the initial break-in period, Amazon’s shoes feel fine to wear. They’re comfortable, and better than you would get for $45 in many other cases. For both of us, Amazon’s 206 Collectives felt slightly more snug than the Allbirds of the same size, but not enough to make them uncomfortable.

However, Allbirds feel like something special, like wearing slippers with the underlying structure and support of shoes. They’re on another level, a premium experience that comes from attention to detail. Allbirds are soft and cushy, while Amazon’s shoes feel more rigid and less flexible.

Shoelaces: We never would have guessed this, but the laces are one of the biggest reasons the Amazon brand falls short. For some reason, the shoelaces on the 206 Collectives lack the necessary friction to stay tied in a single knot. After a few blocks of walking, Todd will inevitably look down and see his laces flopping around, requiring him to resort to a double-knot. No such problem with the Allbirds.

One of Taylor’s Allbirds on the left, with one of Todd’s 206 Collective shoes on the right, showing wear-and-tear visible on the heel. Taylor has been wearing his Allbirds regularly for months, and the 206 Collectives have been Todd’s regular shoes for seven weeks. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Wear and tear: After about seven weeks of regular wear, Todd’s Amazon 206 Collectives started to get tears in the fabric of the inner heel of both shoes — not enough to feel the holes when wearing them, at least not with socks, but a sign that the materials aren’t the best quality. Again, no such problem with the Allbirds, which also touts a sustainable manufacturing process. The tongue on the 206 Collective also kept popping up and coming out of place, an annoying tendency.

No socks? We didn’t wear our 206 Collectives without socks for an extended period of time, but the shoes are being blamed for blisters by other Amazon customers who did, and we’re not surprised, given what we experienced during the initial break-in period, and the wear we saw over time. The ability to wear the machine-washable Allbirds comfortably without socks is one of their major selling points.

Appearance: While the tops of the shoes are easily mistaken for each other, with some minor differences, the visible outer sole of the 206 Collectives have a more plastic sheen to them, especially in bright light, as you can see in the image at the top of this article.

Purchasing options: I ordered and tried Amazon’s 206 Collective shoes via Prime Wardrobe, Amazon’s try-before-you-buy program that competes with StitchFix and Nordstrom’s Trunk Club, among others, and ended up returning them. Todd ordered his Allbirds from the Allbirds website, which does offer the option to check out and purchase with your Amazon account.

Bottom line: You get what you pay for. If you want better materials, the brand name, and care more about sustainability, the Allbirds are for you. If you really just want that wool look, don’t want to spend an extra $50, and don’t mind some minor flaws, Amazon 206 Collectives are the way to go.

‘Inspired by consumer trends’

Inside a San Francisco Allbirds store. (Allbirds Photo)

The Amazon vs. Allbirds controversy has been brewing since September, after the Seattle tech giant’s 206 Collective lookalikes debuted.

Allbirds co-founders Joey Zwillinger and Tim Brown. (Allbirds Photo)

Allbirds CEO Joey Zwillinger responded that month, saying he wasn’t bothered so much by the look, but wanted Amazon to adopt the sustainability practices pioneered by Allbirds.

The 5-year-old Bay Area startup is valued at more than $1 billion, pitching its shoes as “the world’s most comfortable.” Maveron, the Seattle-based venture capital firm founded by Howard Schultz and Dan Levitan, is one of the investors in the company.

Zwillinger again voiced his opinion earlier this week in a post on Medium titled “Dear Mr. Bezos.” While he said Allbirds was “flattered” by Amazon’s “strikingly similar” private label shoe, he again focused on manufacturing and materials.

“Please steal our approach to sustainability,” he wrote.

Zwillinger, a biotech engineer who co-founded Allbirds in 2014 with former professional soccer player Tim Brown, also this month appeared in a CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour and on the “Pro Rata” podcast with Axios’ Dan Primack. He criticized Amazon’s knockoff as “algorithmically inspired” and said Allbirds can’t really compete with Amazon when it comes to paid search on Google.

Amazon puts it differently.

“Offering products inspired by the trends to which customers are responding is a common practice across the retail industry,” a company spokesperson said in response to GeekWire’s inquiry. “206 Collective’s wool blend sneakers don’t infringe on Allbirds’ design. This aesthetic isn’t limited to Allbirds, and similar products are also offered by several other brands.”

Amazon currently offers around 158,000 private-label products across 45 brands, many of them sold at a discount to similar versions of popular products. Amazon denied claims that it uses third-party seller data to source and launch private label products, but acknowledged using “aggregated data” for “business purposes” in response to questions from the House Judiciary Committee.

In a little-noticed development that backs up Amazon’s assertion about retail industry practice, Walmart was selling its own Allbirds knockoffs until earlier this year, for less than $18. The shoes, dubbed “Walbirds” by reviewers on Walmart.com, are currently listed as out of stock.

Walmart’s George Men’s Wool Knit Sport Casual Sneaker, aka “Walbirds.”

Apparel has become a huge business for Amazon. The company surpassed Walmart as the most-shopped clothing retailer in the U.S., according to a Coresight Research survey from March.

Amazon has a complicated relationship with high-profile brands, particularly as it expands its own fashion lines.

In one high-profile example, shoe and apparel giant Nike, which long avoided selling directly on Amazon, entered into a pilot program with the e-commerce giant two years ago, seeking to curb third-party sales of its products, and attempting to battle counterfeits.

The original agreement was a sign that selling on Amazon was unavoidable for the world’s major brands, given its dominance of online sales, with 100 million-plus Amazon Prime members.

But Nike ended the arrangement earlier this month. “Nike officials were disappointed the deal with Amazon didn’t eliminate counterfeits and give the brand more control over gray-market goods that account for many of the Amazon listings,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Especially given the outcome of Nike’s experiment, genuine Allbirds shoes are unlikely to appear on Amazon.com anytime soon. That means you’re more likely to see Amazon 206 Collective shoes on the feet of Amazon Prime members this holiday season — if you can tell the difference.

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