In a world of instant gratification with hundreds of options available for almost any product on the market, pedorthic retail businesses have to work harder than ever to deliver comfort, style, and service to their customers. While expectations may be high, the experts say they can be met if the business focuses on the latest trends and strives to meet its ultimate goal of keeping its customers’ feet healthy.
“Customers want their shoes to feel good and look good, and I think we’re able to accommodate that,” says James Sajdak, CPed, president and CEO of Stan’s Fit For Your Feet, which has three locations in the Milwaukee area. “People tend to have a preconceived idea that the shoes that are best for them are not fashionable, but there are so many fashionable shoes on the market that we buy that lack of style is not an issue.”
The Need for Stylish,
The good news is that there is a definite need for shoe stores that provide pedorthic services and comfortable footwear for their customers. A 2014 study by the American Podiatric Medical Association states that eight in ten Americans have had a foot problem, and half of Americans say a foot problem has impacted their quality of life. However, customers do not just want shoes that will alleviate their foot problems. According to the study, 65 percent of adults want shoes to be more comfortable, and 60 percent want their feet to look better.
Women, especially, demand both style and function in their shoes, says Robert Schwartz, CPed, president of Eneslow Pedorthic Enterprises, New York. “Do you know of any woman who wants to wear shoes that are ugly?” he asks. “Doesn’t every woman want to have shoes that still look stylish and have comfort and pain relief? Isn’t that their preference every time?”
“Everyone thinks it’s the kiss of death when a doctor writes a prescription [for therapeutic footwear],” Sajdak says. “They think the shoes will be the ugliest thing on two feet.”
These days, customers do not have to choose between a stylish shoe or a comfortable one; shoe manufacturers have recognized the need for both. A good shoe store with a pedorthist on staff can often give customers what they want and need. People who think their therapeutic shoes are attractive are likely to wear them more often and thus have less foot pain, the experts say.
“Manufacturers are trying to make shoes a little nicer looking so people don’t have to feel so self-conscious and don’t have to wear big, heavy-looking shoes,” says Tab Halberg, CPed, BOCPD, owner of Shoe Boat, Fort Myers, Florida. “As long as it’s something that I think will help their feet, I’m all for it.”
Even with more stylish possibilities, pedorthists still have the ultimate responsibility of fitting their customers with shoes that are good for their foot health. This may mean walking a tightrope between giving customers the best shoes for their needs and giving customers the shoes they want the most.
To help find that balance, the pedorthists we spoke with offer the following suggestions:
- Keep track of the latest styles and keep a large inventory on hand so customers will have several choices acceptable for their needs and aesthetic sensibilities when they are looking for comfortable shoes.
- Be willing to communicate and compromise when needed. This may mean trying to convince customers about what is best, and if that does not work, making additional modifications to a less-than-ideal shoe so it will ultimately meet their needs.
- Provide superior service. If pedorthists listen to their customers, show their expertise, and have a great product, customers will listen and recommend the store to others.
“If you don’t have functional footwear, you won’t be able to help too many people, or at the very least, you won’t be able to help them out properly,” says Halberg.
Search for New Styles and Keep Them in Inventory
One of the key ways pedorthists can provide chic and foot-healthy shoes is to stay current on footwear that meets those criteria and keep them in stock so customers have choices among shoes that will address their foot issues. Otherwise, the customer might go somewhere else, Schwartz says. “They came in today and they don’t want to come back another day,” he says. “It’s the reason why retail exists. People want to have the experience all at once.”
This isn’t as difficult as it used to be. As more customers demand both style and comfort, manufacturers have responded, the experts say.
“The manufacturers have realized that a woman will not wear an ugly shoe,” says Marilyn Strehl, CPed, co-owner, with her husband, Doug, of Strehl’s Family Shoes & Repair, Fortuna, California. “They are designing shoes that are able to be helpful but not look like the oxford grandma wore.”
That said, there are so many sizes and options for shoes that it can sometimes be impossible to have everything on hand, she adds. Thus, it helps to have relationships with manufacturers that offer excellent service and products and that will deliver special orders quickly. If customers know they will be getting a great shoe that addresses their foot issues, they will be more willing to wait, she says.
“We try shoes on, let them walk, and give them our opinions as we listen to theirs,” Strehl says. “Sometimes we find a shoe that fits, but it’s the wrong color. We’ll special order it, and they don’t mind waiting because they already know how good it feels.”
The problem for pedorthic retail businesses isn’t the lack of availability of shoes that meet both aesthetic and pedorthic criteria, but rather finding the best of these shoes. Experts say they need to constantly search out the latest styles and shoe technologies so they have what their customers want. They say that tradeshows— especially those hosted by the Pedorthic Footcare Association and the National Shoe Retailers Association—help them keep up-to-date on this.
“We have to be students of the marketplace, we have to be tuned in to what’s going on, and we have to search the world and go to different shoe-buying shows,” Sajdak says. “We have to be highly educated as to what’s going on out there, as far as looking at the trends and keying in on new manufacturers.” Stores that stay abreast of the latest styles will have the advantage over traditional shoe retailers, he adds.
“Our buyers shop the world for footwear that people aren’t going to find anywhere else,” Sajdak continues. “They won’t find it online or in the big-box stores. Our selections and brands are unique, along with our service.”
Schwartz says he has had good results looking outside of the United States to broaden his inventory and offer footwear his customers would have difficulty finding elsewhere.
“I go to Europe where there are factories that appeal to the European markets,” he says. “Germany, Portugal, and Spain are all dealing with a population of women who want comfort. The Dutch are also functionally oriented. They make shoes for their own population, which also has benefits for my population.”
One of the easiest ways to convince a customer to purchase a pair of shoes that is best for his or her foot health, rather than the most stylish shoe, is to explain why it’s the best, the experts say.
“You need to let them know up front what the expectations are,” Halberg says. “I tell them that I’m really here to give them something that will help them.”
This is where expertise comes in, Strehl says. The pedorthist and other store employees need to know exactly why one pair of shoes may be better than another and how shoes can be modified so they feel and fit better. Most often, her customers come in for the expertise and are willing to listen when the store employees communicate effectively.
“Often, the doctor doesn’t have the time to explain the issues,” she says. “Our job is to explain what’s going on that is mechanically wrong, perhaps [by] showing them pictures.”
For example, she says, if a potential client is pronating and can see pictures of what happens when he or she walks, he or she will be more likely to understand the foot issues that need to be addressed and will be more likely to purchase the appropriate, recommended shoes. “They understand they will feel better if they are not pronating,” Strehl says. “Understanding what is going on with their bodies is the biggest thing. We spend as much as an hour with a person explaining what’s going on and how to make their gait correct.”
Physicians’ prescriptions can also be helpful when trying to work with clients who may want something other than what is most beneficial for them, Sajdak says. “If they come in with a prescription—something written from a doctor— we are bound to fill the prescription per the doctor’s orders,” he says. “Sometimes it requires some tact, sometimes it requires some convincing, and other times it takes saying, ‘Your doctor has prescribed this and I really have to go with what your doctor is suggesting. If you want an alternate version, then I have to check in with your doctor.’”
Schwartz says that store employees should be willing to spend more time with customers, fitting them with several viable options, asking how they feel, and reminding customers that they came in because they want the right shoe. “It comes down to listening, testing, and putting different things on,” he says. “You need to remind them why they came to you, and always ask if the shoe they are trying on makes them feel better. Because that is what really counts.”
Compromise When Needed
Customers can be so focused on fashion that they insist on shoes their pedorthists know are not the best for them. When this happens, pedorthists have a couple of options: They can let customers purchase the inappropriate shoes, or they can try to find a compromise that meets the customers’ tastes and comfort expectations.
“Sometimes you have to compromise when you are trying to get someone to buy something they really need, but they are completely against it,” Schwartz says. “Sometimes you have to find something that is just an incremental improvement but not a total solution. If you give them just what they want, and it doesn’t work, they may still blame you for their discomfort.”
If the customer is persistent about getting a certain style, the pedorthist should be knowledgeable about modifications that can make the style better for the customer, he says. For example, “If you really want that shoe, we can add more arch support and find other solutions to make it better for you,” Schwartz says.
Here again, the retailers with the most expertise will have the advantage. Strehl says Doug is an expert at modifications and can customize most shoes. “He is able to add a lift to 98 percent of shoes that are made,” she says. “Our customers leave walking well and with a shoe that looks like a shoe.”
Sometimes there is not a good compromise. Strehl says when that happens, she errs on the side of what is best for the customer’s foot health, even if it means losing a sale.
“I do refuse to sell people a shoe [style] sometimes if I know it will injure their foot,” she says. “I need to make a living, but my major goal is to have people leave here happy and comfortable.”
Service Is the Key
Unfortunately, a shoe store that is focused on foot health will almost always have higher overhead costs than a big-box shoe store. The staff has to be better trained to help clients find the right shoes, the inventory on hand has to be larger to accommodate different types of foot needs, and the shoes, by design, are higher quality and thus cost more.
“It takes a big investment,” Schwartz says. “It takes an investment in the right people and oversight and management. You have to have the right shoes, at the right time, in the right styles.”
“This kind of business model probably limits the amount of pedorthic retailers that any given city can accommodate, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not a good business model,” Sajdak says.
“We have a very expensive model of doing business and that’s why there’s not a lot of us in-county,” he says. “No one is going to become a multimillionaire doing this kind of shoe business, but I think because we are certified pedorthists and are locally owned, we have a business that is financially sound.”
While the costs may be higher, the experts say, it’s the service provided by pedorthists and the quality and comfort of the footwear that can keep these stores open.
“You have to make women happy in more ways than one to come back and recommend your store to others,” says Schwartz. “You have to approach it so you are trusted, you have to care about them, you have to listen to what they say—really observe what their needs are, provide them with solutions that fit their own view of what works for them.”
Strehl saw the importance of this in her own store. It has been in business for 35 years and she became a certified pedorthist about ten years ago when there were rumors that a big-box shoe store might be opening in her town.
“Instead of stocking fashion shoes, we started bringing in comfort shoes,” she says. “When I became a pedorthist, it gave us credibility, and our clients grew from there and kept recommending us to others.”
In the end, Schwartz says, giving customers exactly what they need in terms of style, foot health, and service will be what keeps him in business.
“Every day there are shoe stores going out of business,” Schwartz says. “No one wants just a shoe store. The Internet will beat the pants out of anyone who is just a shoe store. To stay in business, you have to serve your clients with superior skills.”
Maria St. Louis-Sanchez can be reached at