Barry Croft
2004 Grand Silver Cup Winner

Three points! That’s what separated Barry Croft from the Grand Silver Cup last year. A couple misaligned stitches, a slight miscalculation on the heel breast and not enough detail on the bottom finish were just enough to allow the cup to slip through his hands.

This bothered Barry, an admitted perfectionist who prides himself on providing nothing but the finest quality work to his customers at Shoe Savers in Houston, Texas. He vowed to enter the Silver Cup Contest again in 2004, and that no one was going to beat him. His persistence was rewarded with the 2004 Grand Silver Cup – and first place awards in both the men’s and ladies’ half sole categories, along with a second place award in the men’s full sole category.

Barry grew up in his father’s shoe repair shop, pounding heels before he was tall enough to reach the bench. As a young man, he briefly pursued a medical career during college, but returned to the bench to become a “doctor of heel and sole.” He opened Shoe Savers in 1984, and has been focused on quality craftsmanship ever since.

How’s Business?

Ask many people in the shoe repair industry how business is these days and you won’t see a lot of smiles. Ask Barry Croft and he’ll tell you he has more business than he can handle. The secret? He points directly to the skills that won the awards.

“The work I entered in the contest is exactly what I do every day,” says the third-generation shoe repairer. “Take anything off of my shelf and you’ll see the same quality work as on the contest shoes. We specialize in a high-end clientele and work on very expensive goods. Over the years, my customers have come to know that, if they want quality work, this is it.”

He recommended that those who do quality work should charge what they’re worth.

“I get a good price form my work,” he adds. “We’re one of the most expensive shops in the city. But you get what you pay for. That’s why people come here and they keep coming back. They tell their friends as well. I have even been told by others in the trade not to be so demanding and finicky about my work — that the customers really don’t know the difference. I never listen to this kind of advice. Many customers do know the difference in quality work and that number is growing daily. That’s why they are in my shop and not in someone else’s.”

Building the Business

A significant source of customers and work for Shoe Savers is the Houston Galleria, a large, upscale mall in the heart of Houston. Barry does all of the repair work for stores such as Neiman Marcus, Gucci, Jimmy Choo, Burberry, Yves Saint Laurent, Stuart Weitzman, and a long list of others. His wife, Ellen, gets credit for developing the commercial accounts.

“She took a bunch of samples off the shelf of completed work and work in progress so they could see what goes into our work,” Barry said. “We started with the men’s shoe department at Nieman Marcus. The moment they saw what we did, the manager went into the back room and came out with a load of shoes to fix.”

From there, the Crofts moved to the ladies shoe department, then to the handbag department, then to other stores. Now, they do work for most of the stores in the mall. They pick up and deliver twice weekly and bill each commercial account once a month. The bills are computerized for accuracy and efficiency.

Throughout this process, they expanded their services to meet customer demands. Shoe Savers specializes in finding niche services and filling those needs. Barry has developed different procedures for cleaning, altering or customizing footwear and the repair and refurbishing of handbags.

“When we found needs for different services, I worked on procedures until I got them perfected,” Barry says. “That gave Ellen another tool for her sales presentations.”

“I do a massive amount of alterations on sandals, straps and slings,” he continues when asked about alterations and customizations. “Now it’s boot season. We alter boot tops and make them smaller to fit women with small calves. This is done by taking the entire shaft of the boot apart, tapering the upper and lining and then putting it back together. I can also add an elastic gore to expand the top for women with larger calves. When I’m through, the boots look like they’ve never been repaired.”

Padding boots came about as a result of Ellen wanting to add comfort to a pair of her shoes.

“I bought a pair of shoes with a thin, poron padding,” she said. “I asked Barry to take them apart and see what made them more comfortable. Now, we do tons of that kind of work. We have a display showing this process and it generates a lot of customer interest.”

Another niche Shoe Savers is filling is the introduction of foam ladies shoe trees. They are available for pointed and round toe shoes (both slings and pumps), and for boots. Barry found that the old cedar shoe trees available to him didn’t work on the new high fashion shoes that most of his clientele wears. He researched the problem until he found an Austrian supplier that manufactures trees of this sort. Now, Shoe Savers is the exclusive North American distributor of the product.”

The Power of the Silver Cup

Barry grew up in his father’s shoe repair shop and has long known that quality work is the key to a successful shoe repair business. The Silver Cup Awards, however, are more than just an affirmation of his skills. They serve as promotional tools as well. His most recent awards generated articles in the local newspapers and two large articles in the Houston Chronicle. He credits them with bringing in a good bit of new business.

The awards also reinforce for his customers the quality of his work.

“The longer you stay in business, the more trust you gain with people,” he says. “Now, with the awards on the wall, when people ask about quality work, you can point to them for reassurance.”

Consumer Awareness

Public education is something the industry is sorely lacking, according to Barry.

“There has to be some kind of advertising that all of us can do to educate the public about the benefits of shoe repair,” he says.

Shoe Savers educates customers from the moment the walk in the door. Displays tell customers about the services that are available. Ellen and Barry take the time to show customers the difference quality repair makes. They have also been on television stressing quality repair, and have built a web site to support those television appearances.

“The old image needs to be broken,” Barry says, adding that the appearance of the shop is also critical. “We clean our shop every day and restock the front end at the same time. Every two weeks, we do a major cleaning including all of the machines.”

But when it comes right down to it, the reason Barry is swamped while others are begging for business are quality work and ability to expand his services to meet, and sometimes create, customer demand.

“We do things that most shops wouldn’t dream of doing,” he says. “It’s all driven by consumer demand. A lot of it is personal demand as well. I want to see if I can do things nobody else can. I like challenges. That’s what builds my business.”