Where business is concerned, Dave Smith abides by the gospel of Charles Darwin.
As the owner of Dave Smith Appliance Services, he’s learned that evolutionary biology is eminently relevant to appliance repairs. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives,” a poster in the company conference room reads. “It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
The poster more or less encapsulates Mr. Smith’s business model: adapt, or die.
In the age of cheap appliances, fast fashion, and Amazon Prime, it’s hard for any local business to stay afloat. For those who earn their keep mending items that, these days, most people just replace, it can be even harder.
In the words of Dino DiTerlizzi, “It is a throw-away world.”
Some local businesses agree: the key to coping is to stay flexible and get creative.
Mr. DiTerlizzi works at Pasquale & Sons Shoe Repair, a Toledo mainstay on Upton Avenue. It’s an old-school family business. His father, Pasquale, started the business in 1947; at 95, he still comes to work every day. Dino and his siblings grew up working in the shop.
“We just had them do it, and they learned pretty fast,” the elder Mr. DiTerlizzi said of putting his children to work. Dino and a few of his siblings still work there full time.
In the years since they first opened shop, though, the DiTerlizzis have watched as their industry transformed.
It used to be that people would own just one or two pairs of shoes and get them mended, Dino DiTerlizzi said. But now, most will pitch shoes when they start to wear and buy a new pair instead.
“I truly believe some people don’t understand you can get your shoes fixed,” he said.
Not to mention, because of the way shoes are manufactured these days, they’re harder to fix. Manufacturers want to keep their customers coming back for more, not making do with what they have.
According to Jim McFarland, President of the Shoe Service Institute of America, at the time of the Great Depression 100 million people were in the United States and 120,000 shoe shops. Today, the population has tripled, but the number of shoe shops has dwindled to 5,000.
Of those that are still open, he said, “most have diversified in some way.”
The DiTerlizzis are among those who have changed how and for whom they do business. Once, they fixed shoes morning, noon, and night, hundreds of pairs each week. Now, their shop will mend anything from purses to ball gloves, gun holsters to dog kennels.
“When you get desperate you open to anything,” Dino DiTerlizzi said. “We did and that’s why my dad has sustained the business for so long.”
Lynn Williams of Alterations & More agreed: specializing is a tricky business.
“We pretty much do everything, and that’s why we’re busy,” he said.
Mr. Williams and his wife, Suki, have owned Alterations & More since 2002.
The couple have three employees, and their business has gotten busier every year they’ve been open.
Paradoxically, Mr. Williams attributes their success to the Internet.
Often, he explained, when people order clothing online it doesn’t fit them well. Returns are a pain and, sometimes, more expensive than tailoring would be.
“The Internet has killed a lot of brick and mortars,” he said. “But in our case it’s accelerated our business.”
For Mr. Smith as well, technology has aided aspects of business. For one, he said, it’s enhanced the level of customer service he and the seven other technicians at Dave Smith Appliance Services are able to provide. Cell phones make house calls easier, and Googling information about parts is quicker than sifting through microfilm.
As far as the work goes, his biggest competitors are cheap throwaway appliances. But, he pointed out, “we’re always going to have that.”
When Mr. Smith first started working in the early 1980s, he said he’d fix 20 or 30 microwaves a day. Today, you can buy one on Amazon for $40.
So, his business changed alongside the market. He and his team now focus mostly on high-end appliances.
“It’s a changing world,” he said. “There’s more risks to losing your core business if it’s too focused on one thing.”
His Darwinist approach has paid off. Mr. Smith ran a one-man operation for 20 years before expanding eight years ago. In that time, he said, “volume of work has never been an issue.” He plans to keep working for as long as he’s able.
What that work may look like, though, is less certain.
“As a business person, I’m supposed to know my five-year plan,” he said. “The thing with my five-year plan is it keeps changing.”