These guys want to bring shoe repair into the 21st century
Shoe Drop, based in the West Loop, has hired seven cobblers as it tries to bring shoe repair into the app-driven world of on-demand service. In doing so, the company's founders hope to breathe new life into an industry ravaged by changing times, rent hikes and the growing popularity of cheap, replaceable shoes.
“Most shiners and cobblers today are in dusty basements and pedways,” Shoe Drop co-founder Brandon Labrum says. “They often keep random hours, and once you get inside, the customer-service experience doesn't necessarily measure up.”
Add to that a lack of price transparency, occasional communication barriers and a disconcerting graveyard of abandoned or dismantled shoes often visible from the front of the shop, and it's no wonder many people decide it's easier to place another Zappos order.
Labrum, formerly a vice president at Chicago private-equity shop Sterling Partners, teamed with Duncan Davis, another Sterling alum, to create an easier way for urbanites to keep their shoes in good shape.
Customers use the Shoe Drop app, launched this month, to select a drop-off spot from one of about 50 partner locations around Chicago, including high-rise apartment buildings, dry cleaners and big offices. (The drop-off sites receive no compensation; they view it as a cost-free amenity for customers and tenants.) The user then describes the shoes and selects a service. Options range from an $8 shine to a $90 overhaul. Users save payment information in the app and are charged once the service is complete. Labrum and Davis say most services are finished within three days.
Rather than liaising with shoe-repair shops around town, the founders are hiring full-time cobblers as salaried employees to ensure consistent quality. They decline to specify what they pay cobblers but say the salary and benefits package “exceeds the existing options.” They also are remaining mum on the amount of money they invested and the revenue Shoe Drop has generated in its early days.
Like so many salt-stained and scuffed kicks, the cobbler industry is in dire need of rejuvenation. Fewer than 5,000 shoe-repair shops are left in the U.S., down from a Great Depression-era peak of more than 100,000, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America, a trade group. Only about 115 to 150 survive in Chicago, several local shoe-repair professionals say. Today's cobblers lament that few young people are interested in learning the trade, and many consumers under 40 are unfamiliar with the options available to revive worn shoes.
Marcelo Coronel, 33, is one of the few young adults who followed family members into the business. After emigrating from Ecuador as a teenager and earning a degree in marketing in New York, he moved to Chicago in 2011 to take over the family business, Gus New Quality Shoe Repair in Lincoln Park.
When Labrum and Davis approached Coronel in January to join Shoe Drop, he eagerly agreed. His brother now runs the family business. “This is what I was dreaming of,” Coronel says. “I was looking for more convenience for my customers. I fell in love with the app.”
Labrum says Shoe Drop—which is bootstrapped by its founders but may look for outside investment to expand to New York and San Francisco by year-end—was dreaming of employees like Coronel: younger, trained artisans who appreciate technology and speak English more fluently than previous generations.
In addition to its West Loop offices, Shoe Drop is finalizing a lease on West Side factory space in the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago's Fulton-Carroll Center manufacturing incubator. Labrum and Davis plan to expand capabilities to handle leather bags, belts and other accessories. They also plan to launch Shoe Drop University to bring young people into the profession.
Though the $64 billion footwear market has grown for years—including a 4 percent jump for the 12 months ended in May, according to Beth Goldstein, an analyst at market researcher NPD Group—much of that growth is due to the skyrocketing popularity of athletic shoes. As Chuck Taylors solidify their place in many Americans' office attire, sales of the pairs most likely to be brought to a repair shop—dress shoes—declined 3 percent over the past year, to $7.7 billion.
Shoe Drop's founders acknowledge the trend but point out that many Gen Xers and millennials shell out for status footwear, regardless of “dress” or “casual” categorization, and are maniacal about keeping them pristine.
Americans' enduring obsession with shoes is augmented by a rising consciousness of fast fashion's environmental harm and millennials' interest in buying fewer, higher-quality pieces and taking care of them. A good men's shoe can be resoled up to 10 times, while a women's pair can handle five resoles, according to the Bel Air, Md.-based Shoe Service Institute. Proper maintenance can keep 62 million pairs of shoes out of landfills annually.
Colin Hall, chief marketing officer at Allen Edmonds, a shoe company based two hours north of Chicago in Port Washington, Wis., says customer interest in shoe repair has increased by a “huge” margin since 2006. The company fully refurbishes and shines roughly 60,000 pairs of shoes each year. The service costs $125; a new pair of dress Allen Edmonds starts at around $300.
“The recession really boosted our recrafting business, but the interest has continued” even as the economy has rebounded, Hall says. “The days of 'buy something and throw it away' are gone.”