The Sneaker Laundry saves more than spent sneakers.

"The price was so good and then it evolved with the Shopify integration; Sendle just made so much sense."

~ Eugene Cheng, founder, The Sneaker Laundry

TL;DR (too long; didn't read)
  • Eugene Cheng started looking for a business idea as an alternative to the nine-to-five grind when he was part-way through his law degree.
  • Sneaker cleaning seemed like a natural winner, but there was little support from prospective customers.
  • An audacious marketing campaign established the brand’s reputation with sneakerheads, while an ongoing commitment to education and social justice has broadened the customer base.
  • Initially attracted by Sendle’s competitive pricing, the business is now also benefiting from Sendle’s Shopify integration which has halved their fulfillment time.
  • Savings are invested into expansion of the business, helping The Sneaker Laundry maintain its position as Australia's No. 1 sneaker care company.

the-sneaker-luandry-founders-chase-and-eugene

Chase & Eugene, founders

Halfway through law school, Eugene Cheng made a deal with himself. Gradually realising that he didn’t want to be a slave to nine-to-five, he set himself the goal of starting a business in his final year. His first entrepreneurial venture – a Melbourne-based nightlife events business – was funding his way through university, but he wanted to try something less “degenerate” for the longer term. 

During his years as a law student by day and entertainer-in-chief by night, Eugene observed two things: law professionals love to party, and an active social life is hard on your shoes. Sometimes his sneakers were dirty after one or two nights out, and not in a pre-scuffed kind of way. And while Eugene was fastidious about keeping his own kicks clean, he was dismayed to find that many of his contemporaries bought a new pair at the first sight of a stain or smell. His friends were caught up in a cycle of new shoes – dirty shoes – new shoes which resulted in countless pairs being hidden away at the back of the wardrobe.

person from the sneaker laundry starting a pop up store surrounded by people

Photo courtesy: @thesneakerlaundryau

“I guess they sit on a shelf somewhere while people buy another clean pair, and you wear them and then eventually they get dirty.”

With an entrepreneur’s mindset, Eugene saw the stained and smelly footwear as an opportunity. People loved their favourite shoes but hated wearing them dirty. Nobody was offering professional sneaker cleaning, so it made sense to do something about it. Following the innovators’ handbook, prospective customers were surveyed to see if there was a need for the service.

“People said no, I'm just going to buy new shoes. There was actually no positive response.”

 

Kicking on regardless

Eugene decided to press on anyway and The Sneaker Laundry was born. Hard work, persistence and a little help from friends got them started.

“Starting a bricks-and-mortar store, especially when you're like 24 or 25 and landlords didn't want to talk to you and … trying to do it where at least people know of you and can vouch for you, that really helped.”

However, there were days in the first few months when they did zero in sales and wondered how they would pay the rent – they had a lease in the CBD to pay for.

“We'd sit around and wonder, f*** are we screwed – how are we going to pay rent? It was definitely scary.”

the sneaker laundry shop sign exterior person cleaning dirty shoes

Photo courtesy: @thesneakerlaundryau

They started playing around with ideas to give customers a good experience, initially shipping shoes back to people who weren’t able to collect them, and later introducing a mail-in service. They knew customer service was the key success, but early attempts at ecommerce were costly and frustrating.

“Postage rates were ridiculous and setting up an account with a courier company was a nightmare. They just hadn't got with the times that ecommerce is pretty much small to medium businesses – to them, you're either massive corporate account or you're nothing.”


Going viral comes at a price

To kick things along, Eugene took an unorthodox path to marketing the fledgling business. He and his partner made custom sneakers by replacing a well-known swoosh with leather from an upcycled designer bag. At $600 a piece, the first drop sold out in three minutes. The campaign went viral and brand awareness got a boost with international celebrities like rapper A$AP Ferg, Kid Ink, and more.

But a cease-and-desist letter arrived almost as soon as the sale ended, and Eugene was caught up in a legal stoush for the next twelve months.

the sneaker laundry shop with a lot of shoes and a person cleaning person restoring shoes with paints

Photo courtesy: @thesneakerlaundryau

Keen to put the controversy behind them, The Sneaker Laundry’s next campaign was grounded in goodwill. They put out a call for people to donate shoes which The Sneaker Laundry restored and gave away to people in need. It was a great idea but not everything went according to plan. In the first attempt to give away sneakers, they found themselves in 40-degree heat driving around Melbourne trying to locate homeless people for the entire van of repurposed sneakers they had. Nonetheless, they pressed on, and the sneaker drive became a great success.

 

Chasing the perfect product

As Eugene and his crew learnt more about cleaning shoes, they were happy to share their knowledge. This in turn led to requests for their products, as well as advice. Eugene credits his ex-business partner Hao Phu for pushing the business into developing a product range.

Having knowledge on the team was a good foundation, but they virtually had to start from scratch to develop the formula.

the sneaker laundry cleaning products set

Photo courtesy: @thesneakerlaundryau

“It was a matter of tweaking and tweaking and tweaking and testing to find out what worked really well and what didn't –without damaging shoes. And obviously, because you're doing this with your hands, it has to work well, be skin-friendly and not cause irritation.”

Their perseverance speaks for itself; by early 2022, The Sneaker Laundry had exported cleaning kits to 65,000 customers in 45 different countries.

 

Staying a step ahead

When lockdown hit Melbourne in 2020, the product side of the business saved the day. While others were scrambling to get online, The Sneaker Laundry’s well-established systems, based on Sendle’s integration with Shopify, put them a step ahead.

Eugene remembers the days before integration –a time when postage rates were high and courier companies reluctant to deal with small businesses. He was doing despatch himself in those days and recounts how every order was a copy and paste exercise: copy name – paste name, copy address – paste address, copy phone number, and on it went for every sale.

“Now my team just click and batch it. They don't know how good they've got it.”

Other providers have tried to lure them away with discounts and special offers, but, as Eugene explains, you have to consider more than just price when comparing costs.

“Say you might save 10% but you lose on delays and the parcel loss rate. Replacement parcels cost money, and if a customer gives a one star review because the courier lost something, that costs money to deal with as well. Alternatively, you have to go and pay for the integration yourself and you're back to square one.”

Back on its feet after a tumultuous couple of years, The Sneaker Laundry now has new locations in Sydney and half a dozen joint ventures overseas. Determined to maintain its position as Australia's No. 1 sneaker care company, Eugene and his team are driven to keep breathing new life into sneakers everywhere.

 

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