Think Inside the (Shoe)Box

Having been in the shoe and leather business for more than three decades and privileged to work for some of the finest footwear brands, I learned first-hand the meaning of overall quality.  Talk to an old shoe dog or tanner and they will tell you when we started in the business that we were required to wear suits and ties. Casual Friday meant that you could wear a sport coat and dress slacks — you proudly wore the footwear your company produced and you were expected to keep them clean and polished. 

Imported and domestically produced calfskin was the dress leather of choice, followed by premium shell cordovan, sheep, goat, buffalo and kid.  Dress shoe companies frowned on the use of side leather while others producing work boots and hunting gear used products like crazy horse, pitstop, floater, grizzly, lynx W/P and wheat waterbuck.  All of these items were selected because they were genuine and natural, and would afford years of extended wear and look better as they aged — provided they received some care from the consumer.

Today with our casual lifestyle, our corporate dress codes have all but vanished – business casual, a step up from day-to-day wear, is often jeans with or without a sport coat, never a tie and hopefully a pressed shirt.  It has even gone so far that a leading IT company mentioned in its latest handbook that "employees must wear something."  Apparently it works for an industry filled with "smart creatives" but clothing and footwear that you'd wear to wash your car somehow does not fit for business attire.

Over the years, I witnessed the decline of great shoe companies and domestic tanneries alike.  The reasons are myriad: some companies' products no longer fit changing lifestyles. Other cite rising labor costs. mismanagement, pollution controls, raw material increases, lack of succession planning (second and third generations of the founders were not interested in the tanning or shoe business) and the devil himself: foreign competition. 

Let's say the reasons given are valid but what do the remaining domestic tanneries still in existence today know that the former did not?  Does it have something to do with an unyielding demand for product integrity? Could it be that their legacy to continue making the best product possible, for a fair price that quality conscious brands support knowing that the end result will yield a superior product for their discerning customer?  Perhaps you might say the reason given is an oversimplification geared to making a point about quality: right you are.

Decades ago footwear components moved through the factories on racks or trolleys once stitched, and the lasted upper stayed on the wood at least overnight and the packing or finishing room is where a rather ordinary looking upper was transformed into a work of art by well-trained artisans.  Today, most shoes are produced somewhere in Asia with shoes moving from station to station on conveyors and are taken off the last on the same day. And due to the recent labor shortages, seasoned, experienced operators are replaced with untrained hands, with the least experienced working on the finishing line. How do I know?  I live it. 

It was not uncommon to spend days training operators on the proper use and speed of burnishing wheels, waxes, creams, and how the end result must match the go-by standard only to learn when walking the line the following day that the key people you trained were moved by the manager to another operation. 

Let's face it. Many Western brands are managing Wall Street  and making decisions to improve shareholders equity –which is what they are supposed to do. But, why do so by de-spec'ing the most important part of the shoe – the upper leather; or paying more for the shoe box than the cost to properly finish the shoes.  

Perhaps I am living under a rock but I have yet to see anyone wearing shoe boxes to their favorite watering hole.

Peter  F. Drucker, a well-known writer, professor, and management consultant, writes in the Practice of Management (Harper Business,1993 edition) that "there is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer….The customer is the foundation of a business and keeps it in existence."  To that end, marketing is not the panacea: just ask the U.S. car companies when over a decade ago the American consumer said enough was enough and stopped buying U.S.-made cars because the Japanese imports offered more innovation and greater reliability. 

Many years ago, I worked on offshore projects with a very experienced manager who would always say two things: "Controls are better than trust" and "Don't forget the shoes." Simple, and yet quite profound.  Today, our customer base has unlimited selection at physical stores or online. So in order to maintain that customer's loyalty we need to offer innovation and dynamic styles with natural-looking and aesthetically pleasing uppers geared to our core customer's lifestyle.

Good quality leather shoes are not a commodity or merely a foot covering, and we need to educate our customer that the benefits of leather are many with inherent physical properties that manmade materials can never achieve.  With proper education and a marketing campaign geared to trumpet the natural attributes of genuine leather, we can elevate the consumer's awareness from a commodity to lux — where well-constructed, properly finished footwear belongs.

John Kovach is the director of product development, sourcing for Clarks International in North America, where he has helped to improve internal processes for more than 10 years. Before this John held the position of vice president, materials and sourcing for Wolverine World Wide. He is currently in the process of launching his own consultancy, Global Leather and Footwear Solutions LLC.  

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