When Thys Boon, a fast-talking Dutchman, first started peddling his instant shoe repair concept in the U.S. in the 1970s, no one wanted to listen.
"We were too stubborn," concedes Jack Lynch, vice president of Auto-Soler/Sutton-Landis, the leading American vendor of shoe repair machinery. "Mr. Boon came over and kept talking about this newfangled idea, and nobody wanted to mess with it."
The idea was simple enough. Boon had taken traditional shoe repair machinery--buffers, grinders and stitchers--made them cleaner and faster, and pieced them together into a unit that optimized work flow. Instead of performing different operations in different areas of the shop, shoemakers using Boon's system would perform all the repair operations in one place and finish a shoe without ever putting it down.
"We found we could improve labor productivity by 300%," Boon recalled in a telephone interview from Holland. And labor, he said, accounts for more than 85% of the cost of shoe repair.
Boon also had a marketing plan to go along with the machines. Shops should be placed in high-traffic locations, kept clean and attractive, and should advertise their services, especially the while-you-wait feature.
The concept was an immediate hit in Europe, where people walk more and are habituated--in part because of post-World War II shortages--to the idea of getting their shoes fixed. But in the United States, it was a tough sell. Neither Auto-Soler nor Sutton-Landis, then separate companies, were much interested.
But that changed in 1982, when Sutton-Landis decided to pursue the concept and set up an instant shop at the national shopping mall convention, according to Lynch. The shopping mall managers, initially appalled at the idea of having a grungy shoe repair shop dirtying up their imitation marble palaces, lined up to have their shoes fixed for free and suddenly became enthused about shiny, high-turnover shoe repair shops in malls.
Lynch says there probably are 750 to 1,000 instant shops in malls, train stations and other high-traffic locations around the country, and the number is increasing daily. But Thys Boon, whose equipment is distributed in the United States by Auto-Soler/Sutton-Landis, still isn't satisfied. The U.S. company is a subsidiary of the giant Stanley Bostich tool company, and the parent firm doesn't care enough about the small shoe machine business, Boon gripes.
And there is now a great deal of competition from other European machine makers. "We have our own company in Germany, the U.K., Belgium, and Canada," Boon says, "but not in the U.S.--yet."