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Footwear That Fits - Lesson One

It was slow that afternoon. We had one customer. The guy I worked with asked if wanted the man who had just walked in, but I said that my fellow employee could have him. After several trips to the back, I was glad that man was not my customer even though he ended up buying two pairs of higher end dress shoes. He walked out, and in our minds, we were done with him. Fast forward a bit. The same man comes back. His new shoes are painful. He doesn't have them with him, but he wonders if some sort of an insert would help. I take a look at his socks. A part of a blackened toenail is visible through his thin dress sock. I explain that perhaps new socks are in order, ones that might provide more cushioning. He assures me that he has more and better socks at home. I ask about the black nail. He tells me that he plays baseball. I raise my eyebrows at this, very few people are playing baseball in Wisconsin during the dead of winter. He's a taller, middle aged, white man. I sell him a pair of orthotics after measuring him and he leaves.

The next time he returns he is extremly angry. It's a busy Saturday. I'm helping other people, but he's more important than they are, or I am, so he interrupts me. The inserts I sold him are the wrong size. He's mad and wants his money back. It was tempting to take care of him right away, just to get him out of the store, but he had to wait his turn. He hands me the inserts and I take a look at them. I measure his feet again. I have him stand on the inserts. I am not perfect, and mistakes can get made by putting the wrong size in the wrong box, me grabbing the wrong pair, many errors are possible and even probable. But when I measured and checked my work, I told him that I didn't think that I had made a mistake. He had a size twelve foot, and size twelve inserts. He could argue with me about the support level, but that is what the scanning system recommended for him. He gives me a disgusted look as if I am the dumbest person he has encountered that day, speaks loudly and angrily to me, and demands to know why his inserts won't fit inside of his shoes if they are, as I say, the right size.

I picked up one of his shoes. Then I took a look at the other. In a calm tone I explain that size twelve inserts are designed to fit into size twelve shoes. His shoes are a size ten. I don't say anything other than that. Suddenly he tries a new tactic. He tells me that the company I work for sold him the shoes he was wearing. He sees the guy I had been working with the afternoon he came in, and points out that he was the salesperson responsible for the shoes that were the wrong size. But I remember this customer, that day, and so does my fellow employee. The customer had wanted a size nine shoe because that's what he typically wore, our staff had talked him into trying the next largest size not because it was right, but because it was slightly more roomy than the shoes he had been wearing. These are the kinds of battles you fight when you work in footwear; customer buys the wrong product, adds a correctly sized product, and this is now our problem on a very busy weekend. We end up returning two pairs of slightly worn shoes in exchange for the correct size. Our company takes a hit, we receive no apology for anything. The man leaves, but he is here today.

Earlier this summer I walked into a shoe store to see what I could find for my children. They've resisted my efforts to buy good supportive shoes at the stores I like, so I check out a store that caters to the younger and more fashion conscious crowd. Last summer my youngest stuck her wet feet into my Birkenstock sandals. She stretched them out and they no longer fit me so when I saw half of a pair that were similar to the ones I had worn previously, I stepped into the left sandal, assuming that it was my size since the smallest sizes are typically displayed first. It fit like a dream. I despise the color brown, so I went up to the counter to ask for the mate, and to see if this sandal came in any other colors. The man I spoke with came back with a really cute pair of pink sandals, but when I tried them on, they didn't fit as well. I took a look at the size. I pulled off the sandal I was wearing. I took a second look. Before I had children I wore a size 4.0 - 4.5, but since very few stores sold this size, particularly in a wider width, I often ended up wearing a 5.0, or even a 5.5. At the time I worked in an office that required us to wear formal suits and dress shoes so I did.

The manager wanted to argue with me about my size. Birkenstock follows European sizing which tends to be much more consistent than American sizing in my experience. Typically I have worn a 36, and at times it has felt too small, or narrow, so I was stunned to see that the comfortable sandals were a 35. But they felt great and I trusted that feeling. I had come in at the end of a work day, so I knew that my feet were larger than they had been that morning. I bought the brown sandals simply because they were so comfortable, and ordered the pink pair. When they arrived, I found that they had ordered the wrong size. I went back, could not get the pink pair in my size, and purchased a pair of black and white adidas sport sandals. These are the two pairs of sandals that I have worn the majority of the summer. I wear them to work, to the pool, when I go out, at home, rarely I will get into a different pair, but for the most part, they do the job I ask them to do. Two pairs of sandals have gotten me through the summer in relative comfort unlike the previous pair of Birkenstocks that wore the skin off the tops of my irritated feet last summer.

There are two points I want to make here, perhaps you have already spotted them yourself. First; most of us have been the man as well as the sales people in the first scenario. We have acted foolishly, believing ourselves to be in the right when we were incorrect. Shoe store employees make mistakes, customers make poor choices, both are true statements. What the man didn't realize that I explained to him is that because he has a very long, narrow, and trim foot, wearing a smaller size makes his foot feel more secure inside of shoes. I have a feeling that his black nail was the direct cause of him cramming his size twelve feet into a pair of size nine baseball cleats. Now I could be wrong, but I know a lot of baseball players, including my brother, whose nails are a normal and healthier color. I also have a girlfriend whose nails remained black for an entire year after she competed in a triathlon while wearing the same too small shoes she had used to train for the event. You need to know your foot shape and its limitations. Understanding this is one of the most overlooked and critical components of finding footwear that fits.

My second point is that sometimes shoe store employees are wrong. Feet can and do change. Last summer I felt as if size 36 was correct. This summer, I need a 35. I had second thoughts as I went down an entire size. Feet typically do not get smaller, however weight loss or gain, lack of swelling, inflammation, and other factors can change what size you wear. This is why I insist that every foot get measured every single time someone sits down in front of me. I don't care if I was there five minutes ago, measuring feet is an integral part of what you do as an ethical salesperson when you work in footwear. Every foot, every time. If someone skips this step, they are not doing right by you. Thank them graciously for their time, and walk out of there. I can usually guess what size people wear, but I don't know how long their arches are, and there is no way to know this unless you are some sort of omniscient being, or you are measuring this. Many computer systems average your feet, I prefer using the Brannock device as I feel it yields more accurate results for significantly less cost.

tl;dr

Shape precedes size. If you have a triangular, or combination foot, you will need footwear that is the mirror image of your foot/feet. Long and narrow feet need long and narrow shoes. Shorter, wider feet will require shoes that meet the needs of that particular pairing. Shape drives comfort. I can give you shoes your size that will be incredibly uncomfortable. Once you start shopping for shape, I predict that you will start shopping for footwear in an entirely different way. This is why you should never listen to a friend or loved one who tells you to get the shoes they find delightful unless you have a foot that is quite similar in shape to theirs. Even this requires a caveat since you may have other needs they don't, and vice versa. Shop for your foot, the feet you have now. I will never be able to rock the dress boots my mom and daughters can pull off with grace, class, and style, however none of them can slip into a pair of stapled clogs and get comfortable stand and wear time out of them. We all make mistakes. Footwear is more humility than glamour, more practicality than pride, and less sexy than we would like it to be, however the lessons learned here ought to serve you well so when you do find that amazing pair you have adored and admired, you will know whether or not you are purchasing footwear that fits. 

Footwear That Fits - Lesson Three

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