Industry struggles with life on its uppers

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The Independent Online
The collapse of Chamberlain Phipps is just the latest in a series of dire announcements from Britain's beleaguered shoe industry. Only last month C&J Clark announced the closure of three factories with the loss of 1,400 jobs and in June FII, which supplies shoes to Marks & Spencer, announced 260 job losses and warned that a pounds 3.5m exceptional charge would push it deep into the red.

Retailers as well as manufacturers are struggling. In 1980, Britain's high streets were packed with almost 12,000 shoe shops. Since then more 3,000 have closed, with retailers blaming over-capacity and a British reluctance to spend more on footwear.

Sears has been selling many of its world-weary shoe brands such as Freeman Hardy Willis, Saxone and Curtess. But it sold them to the Facia group which collapsed into receivership in June. Since then many have been sold on to other buyers though more than 200 branches are still in the hands of the administrator and face closure.

Even in the official retail statistics shoes have been a poor performer, with sales only picking up recently.

For the manufacturers the problems is a familiar one. Cheap competition is the main cause, particularly from the Far East but also from South America. Wage rates are lower and the skills in the mass-market sector are as high.

Arnold Ziff, chairman of Stylo, the Yorkshire-based footwear retailer, recalls how the industry has changed. "When I started out 48 years ago, we used to buy 98 per cent of our shoes and components from the UK. Now we buy more 95 per cent from overseas.

"Back then I used to drive through Northampton and Leicester and every other building seemed to be a shoe factory. Now there are only half a dozen or so left."

Rossendale in Lancashire used to be a main centre for the manufacture of lower priced shoes. But that too has seen closures as cheap imports flood in.

There are exceptions. Dr Martens continues to thrive and at the upper end of the market Church's Shoes is also prospering. Though many of its shoes retail for more than pounds 150 it finds a ready market among the well- heeled.