gEARING uP FOR THE PEDORTHIC REVOLUTION
An aging (and active) population wants a perfect fit—are you ready to provide it?
WSA Today - Liane Bonin
While sleek stilettos and towering platform heels may take center stage in glossy fashion magazines, the hammer toes and bunions that can result after years of suffering for such physically demanding fashion aren’t as pretty. But hobbling fashionistas aren’t the only people with a new appreciation for pedorthic footcare. This category is on the verge of booming—and independent retailers will want to pay attention to the trend. “More and more retailers are adding pedorthics to their mix,” says Robert Schwartz, owner of two Eneslow, The Foot Comfort Center stores located in New York. “It’s been a growing trend since the late 1990s, and I think they’re realizing that it can create higher profits, higher turns and, most importantly, consumer loyalty. I consider pedorthics to be post graduate study in shoe fitting. It takes nothing away from a shoe sale, but enhances it. More than anything, it will keep the independent retailer alive. ”
DOING THE NUMBERS
To understand the growing importance of pedorthics, all one needs to do is take a look at the U.S. population. Baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 represent nearly one third of all Americans—and, according to BusinessWeek magazine, those between 50 and 60 have money to burn, with more than $1 trillion in spending power a year. Notably, today’s senior is approaching “old” age far differently than his own father or grandfather. “Baby boomers, like everyone else, are getting caught up in exercising to stay healthier, and so they’re having more problems with their feet,” says Stephen Zuniga, C. Ped, a certified pedorthist at Larry’s Comfort Shoes in Sacramento, Calif.
And when those problems start, this group is willing to put that massive spending power behind finding a footwear solution. “The baby boomer has gotten used to having things his or her way, so having foot issues just doesn’t jibe for them,” explains Luis Altoro, co-owner of Comfort Plus Shoes and Footcare in Leawood, Kan. “Even if they have to delay getting a modified shoe until they can afford it, they’ll do it, no question.”
The boomers aren’t the only ones clamoring for relief. “The age of people who need my services is getting younger and younger,” says Zuniga, whose store carries Ecco, Dunham, Söfft and MBT. “I’m seeing people in their 30s and 40s as well as their 50s and 60s. They’re looking for simpler relief than what they can get from a doctor, who might promote surgery. And they’re much more educated about foot pain now. They know what plantar fasciitis is, and they’re learning about the solutions available for their foot problems, so they understand the value of what we provide.”
Unfortunately, the growing demand for pedorthic footcare isn’t fueled solely by more active consumers. Diabetes, which can cause nerve damage and effect blood flow, has created a surge in the number of people who need properly fitted footwear. The disease affects 21 million people in the U.S. and 189 million people worldwide—a number that is expected to grow by a staggering 72 percent to 324 million people globally by 2025.
NOT YOUR GRANDMA’S SHOES
Whatever consumers’ reasons for seeking out pedorthic fitting and product, the good news is that they no longer have to wear clumpy footwear that advertises their condition. “You can’t expect people to pay hundreds of dollars on shoes that don’t meet their needs,” says Altoro, whose store carries P.W. Minor, Wolky and Birkenstock. “Otherwise, they’d just get an average pair of shoes at an average price. They want their shoes to meet a standard. They want a name brand, a good fit, excellent performance, and long-lasting wear.”
Increasingly, such multi-tasking footwear is getting easier to find. “It’s not the orthopedic jail it used to be,” jokes Mark Hough, C. Ped, an account executive for P.W. Minor. “People need their footwear to meet their personal fashion and social needs, and there is a lot more competition in that world now as compared to 20 years ago. Companies are trying to make the socially acceptable orthopedic shoe, and they’re all trying very hard to get away from that orthopedic cliché.”
The result is that the divide between comfort and orthopedic footwear is shrinking, and in some cases disappearing altogether—making an extension into pedorthic options a natural way for many comfort retailers to grow. “We see comfort and pedorthics merging already,” says Larry Schwartz, CEO of Aetrex. “So many stores have added that element. It’s an opportunity for a retailer to give customers the insole or the shoe that’s right for them.”
For a traditional comfort retailer, adding pedorthics to the mix doesn’t necessarily require adding a certified pedorthist to the staff. Over-the-counter options combined with technological advancements can get customers close to a custom fit with minimal expense. Spenco, Bio-Balance, OrthoFeet and FootSmart are just a few of the brands offering insoles promising improved arch support, better alignment, anti-pronation protection and general foot pain relief. In addition, footwear from brands such as MBT, Earth and SpringBoost promises even greater, whole-body improvements ranging from improved posture to increased muscle tone.
The iStep by Aetrex is the latest high-tech product offering customization with the touch of a button. By stepping on the latest iStep machine, the SP5000, a customer is measured for foot size, arch type (low, medium or high) and pressure points. From this analysis, the machine suggests not only footwear styles but insoles as well. “Many of our retailers don’t have certified pedorthists,” says Schwartz. “But this is something that gives them some added value. If a customer has a minor foot problem, he can get an insole or shoe that’s right for him, and it’s win-win for the customer and the retailer.”
Still, OTC solutions are no replacement for certified pedorthists. “Having one in your shoe store definitely helps,” Schwartz says. “And when we have retailers who get results with the iStep and want to get into this a little deeper, we encourage them to send one of their employees for certification.
And that’s a step that could pay off for everyone in the long run, as demand for certified pedorthists increases. “I’ve read that, because of the aging population and the increase in diabetes, there will be a need for about 100,000 certified pedorthists in the U.S. 10 years from now,” says Brian Legana, executive director of the Pedorthic Footwear Association. “Right now there are just 2,400. There’s clearly room for growth in the profession.”
Growing demand for certified pedorthists underscores the fact that, as retail overall has become shaky thanks to a tough economy, comfort retailers looking for reliable sales may want to get into the game sooner rather than later. “In a recession, businesses like ours are the ones that are thriving, because there will always be people who need shoes and don’t want foot pain,” says Altoro. “We’re tripling our floor space in the next four months, and we’ve been in business here for 28 years. People are looking for not only the right shoe, but someone within the establishment who can provide the proper insight.”
“If all you do for a customer is fit them into the shoe they need, you’re not adding any value,” adds Schwartz, who carries Aetrex, Rockport, Geox and private label insoles. “You’re just doing what they can do without you. That’s a critical concept in retail. I think during tough economic times, consumers become investors, and each purchase is more important. The products need to last longer, and your customer will resent you if things are not exactly right.”
While getting a certified pedorthist on staff opens the door to complications such as medical billing, specially made footwear and keeping up with the Medicare Therapeutic Shoe Bill, it’s one way footwear retailers can grow with confidence in the coming years, whether the economy is booming or going bust. “It’s a lot to consider, but demand for all of this is only going to increase over the years,” says Legana. “It’s really one of the best things you can do to expand an existing comfort footwear business.”
A boost in your bottom line isn’t the only advantage a leap into the pedorthic business can bring. How many other retailers can really say their product is life changing? “Footwear and footcare go together, and my passion has been to get these two connected,” says Schwartz. “It would be great if the footwear industry as a whole embraced the idea that every pair of shoes can have a positive impact on a person’s life.