Lolo Ndlovu's sneaker laundries have re-invented shoe care in SA - here's how he did it
- The global shoe care business is worth billions, and one local entrepreneur is hoping to tap into a small part of that.
- The Sneaker Shack says it's trying to make cobblers cool and accessible again by offering a range of sneaker cleaning and repair services in-store and via their website.
- The stores, which look more like vibrant coffee shops, clean and return sneakers in 48 hours for under R200.
- And at last count they average more than 3,600 pairs of shoes a week - which include everything from sweaty gym shoes to high-end collectible Nikes.
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South African sneaker laundry service The Sneaker Shack is looking to reinvent shoe care in South Africa, and after starting out as a small pop-up store in Joburg, it now cleans in excess of 3,600 pairs of sneakers - from rare limited edition sneakers to grimy gym takkies - each week.
The Sneaker Shack is the brainchild of sneaker fan and self-confessed “clean freak” Lolo Ndlovu, and it's grown to include six physical outlets, including a flagship store in Rosebank, and a brand new shop on Cape Town’s trendy Kloof Street.
The concept is a fairly simple one - sneaker owners drop off their shoes at one of the branches, or book a pickup and delivery time on the Sneaker Shack website, and within 48 hours the shoes are returned a few shades brighter, smelling decidedly fresher, and - where necessary - with some critical repairs. If you need your sneakers cleaned faster, they offer a same-day express service for R70 more.
The cleaning options available at The Sneaker Shack appear more like items on a coffee shop menu, and cost as little as R140 for a “Classic Clean”, up to R260 for “Red Detail”, which is “a complete overhaul, with microscopic attention to detail”.
And the physical stores, which have a feeling of Vida E Caffe meets Apple, have very little that speaks to the otherwise fairly mundane and unexciting world of sneaker cleaning.
“Many of our parents used to know where the cobbler was in the neighbourhood, and we’ve lost that a bit. So we’re making cleaning and repairing sneakers accessible again, and we’re trying to make the cobbler feel cool again, make it younger,” says Ndlovu.
“In my household we always placed an emphasis on looking after your stuff - we’d keep our sneakers in the box and would put them back there after wearing them. That childhood care and attention to my sneakers never left, it just grew into what it is now - the sneakers just got more expensive, and the care became a bit more of a fixation," says Ndlovu.
And at a time when high-end sneakers in South Africa can reach prices of up to R30,000, and even a pair of stock-standard running shoes costs more than R1000, it seems like a clear value proposition to help footwear last a bit longer, and look a bit newer.
“For a while people would just throw items away when they were broken or weren’t cool anymore - but what we’re seeing with brands like Patagonia is that what’s really cool is trying to make things last, and to repair stuff. That’s the new school cool,” says Ndlovu.
This concept of sneaker cleaning, or “treatments”, isn’t exactly new - there are several small and growing competitors in the local market, and in 2018 the global shoe care market size was valued at R700 billion. But it was a chance wander into a the flagship store of global sneaker care giant Jason Markk in Los Angeles that was the early genesis of Ndlovu’s idea.
“Jason Markk is the gold standard for sneaker treatment at the moment - he’s the guy who took sneaker care to the level that we see today,” says Ndlovu. “And that’s something that really sparked my interest.”
It wasn’t until he returned to Johannesburg, and took a walk around the Maboneng precinct, where he later opened up his first sneaker cleaning pop-up store, that Ndlovu saw the similarities between that and Little Tokyo, where Markk's flagship store is based.
“At the time I felt a combination of wanting to start something fresh in South Africa, something that hadn’t quite been done, but also something that wasn’t completely out of the box,” he says.
Although South Africa had a growing sneaker culture at the time, cleaning your shoes professionally wasn’t something exciting or necessary, and it was largely uninviting to the non-sneaker heads.
Ndlovu decided to change this by launching a sneaker cleaning brand that was local, trendy and accessible, with an in-store experience that felt less like a traditional dry cleaner or cobbler, and more like an actual sneaker store crossed with a vibrant neighbourhood donut or ice cream shop.
But unlike elsewhere in the world, where sneaker cleaning still has an air of elitism, Ndlovu has worked hard to focus not only on those who are precious about their R30,000 kicks - he wants to tap into a sneaker culture in South Africa that he believes is multi-faceted.
“Sneaker culture here is a lot broader than sneaker culture in the Untied States, for example. I think it’s a little less elitist - anybody here who has some sort of taste can consider themselves a sneaker head. It’s a friendlier environment - you don’t have to be super cool or elite or have certain kinds of shoes in South Africa,” he says.
Even so, after its launch in 2016, the Sneaker Shack got almost immediate buy-in from Johannesburg’s sneaker aficionados, who slowly learnt to trust the startup to clean their prized collections - a process Ndlovu says has been both good for business, and nerve-racking.
Last year the store saw an influx of Nike’s popular Air Max Sean Wotherspoon sneakers come in for cleaning. These shoes retailed locally for R2,399 to select raffle winners, but now fetch as much as R28,000 on the international resale market.
“They were super, super popular in South Africa for some reason, and we got extremely nervous. If you have one or two pairs coming in that cost ridiculous money it’s OK, because you can put all your focus into the one pair, make sure it gets the best treatment. But when you get dozens of Sean Wotherspoons coming in, it gets pretty scary,” Ndlovu says.
“The owners were passionate - they were sitting there or calling in asking how the cleaning is going. Some guys did get super intense - but that’s the customer we want to make feel as comfortable as possible. They’re the guys who can really go out there and advocate. And we were able to do an impeccable job on all of them.”
But Ndlovu is also aware that there’s a broader base of sneaker wearers that they need to attract - and part of this process is educating the public that chucking even entry level trainers into the washing machine for a quick spin isn’t going to do the shoes any favours.
“We’ve had to teach people things like how putting sneakers into a washing machine can actually damage them over time, and that using the wrong detergents can make the colour run out,” he says. “This is for anyone who wants to take care of their shoes and make them last a bit longer. It’s not only for cool kids, it’s also for your gym shoes that you spent R1,300 on - that’s a lot of money, and you don’t want to damage them,” he says.
The recently-opened Cape Town store has taken this approach to the outdoors, too - the Kloof Street “menu” includes an item called Mother City Cleanse, a “post adventure treatment” that promises to remove all traces of Table Mountain grime from your much-loved tread.
And the business appears to benefitting because of it. The Sneaker Shack now has six stores in Johannesburg and Cape Town's leafiest suburbs, and employs 16 full time staff who go through extensive training - including on how to handle the emotions of sneaker wearers in South Africa, because they’ve “got to understand the position sneakers occupy in the consumer’s mind”.
In the last three years Ndlovu says the business has grown at about 20% month on month, and they’re now cleaning in excess of 3,500 pairs of sneakers per week.
The company is also aligning itself to have a strong corporate social investment angle - aside from their messages around repairing and sustainability, they have also launched Project Run, which encourages the public to drop off old but wearable sneakers at their branches, which they’ll clean up and pass on to youth in need.
“This is something that’s very important to us. South Africa is incredibly passionate about sports, and we’re trying to get as many youngsters as possible equipped in the right way,” says Ndlovu. “Giving them a chance to go out there and do their best is critical - and we chose to do so with sneakers.”
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