Repair and care market thrives in tattered economy

While many businesses have tripped over the economy and fallen, the repair business has hit its stride. Americans are suffering lower wages and facing the threat of being laid off, so they're choosing to repair old items rather than dispose of them and buy something new. Of course, this extends beyond the outdoor market to include all types of goods. Over the past few months, National Public Radio and other media have reported that cobblers who fix women's shoes are barely able to keep up with demand.
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Wanted: out-of-work car thief.

If stealing cars is your trade but you can't find steady work, we have good news: The booming boot repair industry needs your skills.

"Carpenters' helpers are good, and car thieves are great," said cobbler Dave Page, explaining the types of workers adept at repairing hiking and climbing footwear. "They're quick, good with their hands and meticulous. We've had a guy for 13 years who had been a car thief. He started working here when he got out of reform school."

Page, who owns a footwear repair shop in Seattle (www.davepagecobbler.com), told SNEWS® he's in a bind because good help is hard to find and his business has increased dramatically over the past 14 months. "It's been a hectic, hectic year," said Page. "We could use help, and for the first time in years we've been working longer hours, and even paying overtime on weekends."

SNEWS knows the current economic state is important for your business. This is one look at different ways it's affecting our industries and your business in a periodic and ongoing series of stories in SNEWS. This time around we take a look at how people are spending more to repair and take care of their gear and equipment rather than buy new products. Stay tuned for more in-depth reporting on the current situation as it develops and changes, from interviews with experts, closer looks at small businesses and how they are coping, to economic statistics, breaking news and how it affects consumers.



While many businesses have tripped over the economy and fallen, the repair business has hit its stride. Americans are suffering lower wages and facing the threat of being laid off, so they're choosing to repair old items rather than dispose of them and buy something new. Of course, this extends beyond the outdoor market to include all types of goods. Over the past few months, for example, National Public Radio and other media have reported that cobblers who fix women's shoes are barely able to keep up with demand.

"On all fronts, whether it's consumers with Gore-Tex jackets or someone with dress shoes, everybody is trying to make due with what they have for longer," said George Farkas, director of sales and marketing for McNett, which produces repair products such as a Gore-Tex Fabric Repair Kit. According to Farkas, McNett's sales have increased significantly since the fall of 2008.

McNett competitor Nikwax has also seen sales rise noticeably. "After-care is booming," said Chas Fisher, president and global brand manager of Nikwax North America (www.nikwax-usa.com). However, he cautioned that the growth has not been slow and steady, but a series of brief spikes. "It will boom one month in one place and one month in another," he said. While the care and repair market used to be very predictable, Fisher said that has "gone out the window."

Though sales may be up and down, there's no doubt things have changed. "In North America and worldwide, we are seeing an acute interest in durability and prolonging the life of things," Fisher said.

Hundreds of outdoor specialty stores and about 40 manufacturers contract with Rainy Pass Repair in Seattle to fix gear for consumers (www.rainypass.com). Bob Upton, president of Rainy Pass Repair, told SNEWS that his business has increased 25 percent since the fall of 2008. "I do think we're getting more people choosing to repair stuff rather than replace it," said Upton, who noted that Rainy Pass spends much of its time repairing zipper sliders and patching fabrics.

While some retailers will send customers' gear to Rainy Pass, or repair items themselves, most shops provide products and information that allow customers to repair their own stuff. "The shops are handing people our brochures, and that's where the increase has come from," said Page.

McNett has redesigned its website (www.mcnett.com) to include a detailed repair guide that explains how to do a wide variety of things, from re-coating a tent floor to gluing a boot rand that has delaminated. Farkas said that consumers not only save money when they fix their own gear, but they also feel empowered. Plus, retailers have fewer headaches when customers repair something that is fairly worn rather than ask the retailer to replace it. "The dealer can be put in an awkward position, because he has to look like a good guy, and maybe take it back," said Farkas. "And it puts the manufacturer in an awkward position in having to decide whether or not to credit the dealer. If a retailer has a care and repair department set up, a smart employee can provide the customer repair information."

Fisher said that Nikwax has created new merchandising programs to make consumers more aware of care and repair products, and increase retail sales.

"We feel the best method is a base and satellite strategy," said Fisher. Basically, Nikwax encourages stores to set up a care and repair department, or a "base," that customers can find easily. But many consumers will enter the store unaware that repair products are even available. "The vast majority of outdoor consumers, easily 90 percent, don't even know you can rejuvenate the DWR on a jacket, and they may not be aware of after-care products. This is where the satellite merchandising comes in," said Fisher. Nikwax has created a POP display that allows a retailer to place care and repair products next to the items they are intended to treat. The display consists of a metal tray that can be suspended above an apparel rack so it doesn't take up valuable floor space.

"We were able to integrate it pretty seamlessly into our existing fixtures," said Paul Leonard, Eastern Mountain Sports' assistant product manager for camping. "Essentially, it allows us to put Nikwax on top of a four-way housing for shells and jackets. We (added) them in November, and managers and staff feel strongly it is helping the store staff remember to suggest these items as additional sales, and educate customers about options available to them. It's really benefiting the store and the customers."

Retailers also benefit when they place care and repair products next to footwear. "We find that retailers who are using this strategy have seen dramatic increases in sales," said Fisher. "Paragon Sports in New York City had never put after-care on their footwear wall before. We talked them into giving us space on their footwear wall, and it at least doubled their sales of our products," said Fisher.

Speaking of New York City, that could be the place for Dave Page to find a little help for his boot repair business. But it's not because the Big Apple is full of out-of-work cobblers. Nope, think again about the worker Page seeks....

"We won't hire shoe repairmen," said Page, "although there may not be any out-of-work shoe repairmen right now. Guys I know in their sixties who were retired are back working."

There's just a good chance that the person with the right skill set lurks in the shadows of a large metropolis such as New York City: an honest to goodness car thief.

--Marcus Woolf

SNEWS is looking at different ways the economy is affecting our industries and your business in a periodic and ongoing series of stories. Stay tuned for more in-depth reporting on the current situation. Email us at snewsbox@snewsnet.com with any tips, comments or ideas on stories you'd like to see.

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