Perhaps you’ve heard the bedtime story about the poor shoemaker who would wake every morning to find that his work from the night before had been finished while he slept by a pair of elves. The cobbler, who specializes in repairing shoes, has been in business since the first shoes were made, but their numbers are dwindling. An estimated 4,300-shoe repair companies exist today, whereas over 100,000 existed in the 1930s. A number of factors are to blame for the demise of shoe repair: exploitation of cheap foreign labor, the hyper change in fashion trends, rising costs of leather and rubber, and consumer apathy.
The decline has been slow and steady, dating back to the 1970s when the majority of shoe purchases in the U.S. shifted to cheap Asian imports spawned from the utilization of a new sector of low paid workers and the declining cost of raw materials. Additionally the fast fashion industry of today encourages consumers to buy rather than save as worn out shoes are not perceived to be worth replacing when newer, more stylish ones are available at lower costs.
The shoe industry is dominated by planned obsolescence, a business tactic in which products have inherently poor construction with a short life expectancy, thus cutting costs, which appeals to the consumer’s desire for a bargain. By the time the product falls apart (usually within a season), the newest trend has arrived and the consumer returns to buy a new pair of cheap, trendy shoes, thus ensuring the success and continuation of the cycle.
As if competition with the fast fashion ethos of today’s consumer market wasn’t already cramping this niche industry, the small number of consumers who do repair their shoes is compounded by the rising cost of materials like rubber and leather, cramping an already struggling profit margin from 9.3% in 2009 to 8.1% in 2014. Shoe repairers are reluctant to raise their prices as their income depends on the perceived cost-effectiveness by their customers. Additionally, each customer’s needs are unique meaning that the repair process can not be automated with more cost saving techniques.
Around 62 million pairs of shoes are saved from landfills each year thanks to the craftsmanship of cobblers. According to the Shoe Service Institute of America, quality and maintenance are key to extending the life of a pair of shoes. A good quality men’s shoe can be re-soled seven to ten times, and a women’s three to five. Poorly made shoes are difficult to repair and would require more materials and labor than they are worth.
It is worth noting that cobblers are multi-faceted craftsmen. With the demand for shoe repair in decline, many have compensated by offering additional services such as handbag and luggage repair, leather repair and restoration, alterations, and pretty much anything leather related.
Where shoe repair shines is in the restoration of luxury shoes. Work boots and high-end shoes comprise the majority of work for today’s cobblers.
What may be overlooked is that good quality shoes are worth investing in. They can last years, and compared to their original price, the cost of repair is low. My advice is to invest in your staple wardrobe shoes that are always in style. Not only will they last numerous years (saving you money in the long run), but they will conform to and support your feet better, meaning you can feel confident about getting through your day. Should they ever get scuffed or break a heel, you can take them into your local cobbler. That is if there are any left.