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Cobbling together shoe-repair savings

March 15, 2009|Gregory Karp

If you're feeling poor in this lousy economy, one way to stay well-heeled is to visit a shoe-repair shop.

Repairing shoes instead of buying new ones is a frugal habit that can save significant money, especially if you own pricey footwear.

Cobblers, especially smaller shop owners, are seeing a surge in business recently, said Jim McFarland, a shop owner in Lakeland, Fla., and spokesman for the Shoe Service Institute of America.

Since November, many shoe-repair shops have seen sales grow 25% to 30% over the same period a year earlier, McFarland said. The association, however, doesn't collect statistics on shoe-repair sales.

A new pair of shoes, of course, sometimes is necessary, and consumers can take advantage of sales. But a handy rule of thumb is this: If a repair costs less than half the price of new shoes, repair the old ones.

"A $200 pair of leather shoes that has been well cared for may live through several sets of soles and heels and save you money in the process," said a recent issue of the magazine Consumers' Checkbook, an organization that rates local service companies, including shoe-repair shops.

Tracking new customers at his own store recently, McFarland estimated more than half said they were repairing shoes to save money. In previous years the typical customer was age 50 or older, but that's changing.

"We're starting now to see some younger people, 20- or 30-year-olds, coming into the stores," McFarland said. "Before this recession started, we didn't see younger people." Spending $8 to $12 on new heel lifts can make sense, even on modestly priced shoes that cost $40 to $70 new.

Here are some issues to consider on shoe repair.

What repairs are available?

Replacement heels and soles are common jobs, as are lifts, the piece on a high-heeled shoe that goes on the bottom of the heel. Replacement heels and soles can last longer than the originals, easily extending the life of the shoes, McFarland said.

Many repair shops also do replacement buckles, elastic, even replacement Velcro on children's shoes.

Cobblers also can stretch shoes to make snug ones fit comfortably. Prices for work can vary sharply, so it pays to compare.

Is it worth paying to maintain shoes?

It can pay handsomely. The process is to clean, condition, polish and weatherproof shoes, in that order. Cream and paste polishes have more wax, which is preferable to liquids, which are easier to apply.

Especially with high-end shoes costing several hundred dollars, you might consider sole protectors, a thin piece of rubber that goes on the bottom of the leather. For $20 or $25, sole protectors can extend the lives of soles for years, McFarland said. It's an especially good idea in regions that are prone to inclement weather, where water and winter road salt would be absorbed into the sole's leather.

How do I find a good cobbler?

Asking friends and family for recommendations is a good option, as is visiting the store locater function at the Shoe Service Institute of America's website, at www.ssia.info. Favor shoe-repair shops that have been in business a long time. And although you might pay a little more at shops in prime retail locations in wealthier areas -- because of the higher retail rents -- those craftspeople also tend to be better, McFarland said.

You also could check such local service rating companies as Consumers' Checkbook, at www.checkbook.org, which serves seven metropolitan areas, and the broader Angie's List, at www.angieslist.com, which has ratings on service companies in 124 cities. Both require subscriptions.

Are there nonmonetary reasons for repairing shoes?

Repairs can allow you to wear shoes that look new but feel broken in. And some people become attached to certain pairs.

"Sometimes customers love the shoe enough that they don't care about price," McFarland said. "They want to keep them going because they love them and they're comfortable."

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