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Toms to send some shoe buyers on giveaway trips

Mae Anderson, AP Retail Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Toms — the shoe company that gives away a pair of its shoes to the needy for each one it sells — has never advertised in a traditional way. Now it plans to promote itself by giving away one free trip a week to its online customers.

The company, based in Santa Monica, Calif., works with nonprofits around the world to provide shoes, eyewear and eye care to the needy. For each pair of shoes or sunglasses it sells, it donates an equivalent pair or eye care services.

It has long used this method to draw customers and attention, and it seems to work: Toms are sold everywhere from Whole Foods Market Inc. to Nordstrom Inc. stores. And its shoe line has expanded from a basic canvas slip-on to espadrilles, sneakers, desert boots and more.

Toms does not disclose sales figures but it says it gave away its one-millionth pair of shoes in Sept. 2010.

Now, rather than turning to advertising, founder and CEO Blake Mycoskie decided to pick one customer each week for a year from those who buy shoes or sunglasses from the Toms website to go on a "shoe drop" trip abroad. Toms donates its products and eye care in 20 countries, including Ethiopia, Honduras, Argentina and China.

Mycoskie says he got the idea from the "golden ticket" contest in the book and movie "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

In the age of social media like Twitter and Facebook, Mycoskie is betting that the 52 journeys will get the word out about Toms.

"Fifty-two people will go and have life-changing experiences and see the work Toms is doing first hand," he said. "Then they're going to tell their friends and tweet about it. Really this will continue to be great authentic content for the Toms community."

The contest kicks off this week. Mycoskie founded Toms in 2006. It remains privately held.