Blog: Cobblers move into the age of the Internet

Simon Warburton | 11 February 2010

Happiness - as one famous US actor remarked - is an empty bladder and a comfortable pair of shoes but how far do you go before that hole just keeps on letting water in?

Who has their shoes repaired these days? When was the last time you trotted along to the local cobblers to give your pride and joy a wash and brush up?

The word has a slightly jokey meaning in English, pejorative even, but local cobblers, for so long implanted resolutely next to your local train station are part and parcel of the daily commute.

Snapped heels and holes in soles can often be fixed by a quick visit after the getting off the 18:22 at Balham, but cobblers are feeling the chill winds of recession as much as anyone, diversifying into a plethora of rather more mundane key cutting, handbag repairing and flower selling alternatives to keep business brisk.

It's perhaps an old-fashioned art but the cobblers are still there although they're having to adapt in all sorts of ways that, for this most traditional of craft industries, even means adopting new-fangled gadgets such as the internet.

Take one cobbler in south east England. First Class Shoe Repairs in Orpington, Kent, established in 1932 (heritage is vital to the trade, shows longevity and tradition), whose internet business is now 20% of its shoe repair activity.

The company offers repair facilities to some top London names as well as those at the cheaper end, but offers a cautionary tale to those who think the recession is fuelling a cobbling frenzy of blitz-like make do and mend. Co-owner Paul Davis lays bare the brutal economics of shoe repair. Key cutting? GBP3 for a 30 second job. Ladies' heel? GBP5.50 for 15 minutes.

"People think cobblers are booming - it's not the case" says Davies. "People will look for a cheaper shoe in a recession [and] a lot of men are wearing shoes way, way more than they would normally do."

What that means of course is as men pound their leather into oblivion, there is a considerable amount of shoe scaffolding that has to go up to undo the damage.

"We are having to do a lot more work [therefore] to make the job correct," notes Davies with a certain weariness, adding for good measure: "When they [men of course, women would never let it get that far with a GBP100 pair of Jimmy's] wear the heel out, they wear it into the block."

And for good measure: "Generally we don't charge more. But we should do."

Canny operator that First Class is, it diversifies its repair business between trade, general public and internet and works for some seriously swanky outfits that can ask for as much as GBP120 for a full sole and heel upgrade. However, First Class' more typical fee is around GBP69 (inc p&p) for the same work that supplies a more personal touch featuring repolishing and the supply of in-socks.

Whisper it quietly but even the Independent Footwear Retailers Association (IFRA) has a sneaking admiration for cobblers, despite being in the quite laudable business of promoting brand new models such as Cheany, Barker and Church's (sounds like firm of solicitors). "Some of the better quality makes will take their shoes back and repair them, which is an excellent facility," says an IFRA spokesman.

"For a very small percentage of the original cost, you virtually get a new shoe."

It's interesting that women in the UK appear to have their shoes repaired more than men, although it's a fair bet not many of them would admit to it when introduced to their dinner party hosts.

Unless of course there might be an inverse one-upmanship at play - much in the way the British middle classes are loudly trumpeting their Lidl credentials (until the recession ends, then watch them stampede out) - as thrift is lauded as the way to go.

And don't even think about any more mad cow outbreaks as Davies recalls with not very much relish. "Cows were culled and leather soles had to be imported," he notes. "When you hear shoe repairers are doing fantastic because of the way finances are - it's absolute rubbish."

By Simon Warburton.


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