Feet Are Getting Bigger, and Many People Wear Shoes That Don't Fit Right
The need for better-fitting shoes comes with the news that our feet, like the rest of us, are getting bigger. The average shoe size is up about two sizes since the 1970s, according to a study released last month from the College of Podiatry, a U.K. professional group. Emma Supple, a consulting podiatrist for the College of Podiatry, says she believes the findings apply outside the U.K. as well. "We've all gotten taller and we need big feet to hold us up," she says.
U.S. shoe makers including Stuart Weitzman and Cole Haan report average sizes are creeping up. And retailers are watching the extended-size market carefully. Nordstrom has seen strong sales of larger sizes, says Anne Egan, national merchandise manager for salon shoes. It has held special in-store events for extended-size customers, including women who wear up to a size 14 and men who wear up to a size 20. Long Tall Sally, a U.K.-based apparel and footwear retailer that gets almost half its sales from North America, sells the most shoes in U.S. sizes 12 and 13, says Chief Executive Andrew Shapin. Size 15, added earlier this year, now makes up 10% of its footwear business.
No matter how big or small your feet, though, your shoes could be hurting them—or even causing permanent harm. In the U.K study, involving 2,000 adults, more than a third of men and nearly half of women admitted buying shoes that didn't fit properly. Shoes with a narrow "toe box," the industry term for the front part of the shoe, can push the big toe in and create or accelerate a bunion, says Steven L. Haddad, a Glenview, Ill., orthopedic surgeon and president of the American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society. It can also constrict the toes, resulting in what are known as "hammertoe deformities."
"It's like when your mom said, 'Don't make that face, it will stay that way,' " he says. "It does actually stay that way when you put so much pressure on the toe over a long period of time."
Designers often weigh fashion against function in the quest to grab a share of the U.S. shoe market, where sales are expected to top $68 billion this year, according to Euromonitor International. To make shoes more visually appealing, manufacturers can fiddle with proportions, such as the height of the heel or the width of the "last," the mold on which a shoe is formed.
Stuart Weitzman, founder and creative director of his eponymous shoe line, says he has learned to resist temptation. "I won't make a last narrower in the front than it should be to give it a sleeker look—that's like wearing a girdle," he says. Three decades ago, the company's average size was a 7, and the company made shoes up to size 10. Now, the average is 8, and his company makes shoes up to size 12, he says.
Mr. Weitzman starts with a design based on looks alone, then goes about making it comfortable and functional. If it can't be done, he discards the design. "I've learned not to miss it," he says.
Stilettos top the list of pain-causing styles; the high and often-thin heels place all the weight on the front of the foot. But all kinds of shoes have pain potential, according to a 2014 survey from the American Podiatric Medical Association. About a quarter of people who wear flats, boots or flip-flops reported the shoes made their feet hurt. Two thirds of respondents said they wanted more-comfortable shoes.
Ballet flats are "just as bad as wearing high heels," says Alison Garten, a Washington D.C.-area podiatrist, lamenting their lack of support. "It's like walking around barefoot." She estimates that shoes are to blame for the problems of as many as 40% of her male patients and 60% of female.
Podiatrists are split about the effect that shopping on websites like Zappos and Piperlime has on shoe fit. Some are concerned that professional fitting has been eliminated. Yet online shoppers, in the comfort of home, often try on more than one size and often late in the day, which is the best time to shop for shoes because feet are at their largest. One reminder for all shoppers: Don't buy shoes too tight and expect to wear them in, says Jamie Lewin, director of design and trend at Piperlime, owned by Gap Inc. "I would never guarantee anything to stretch."
Variability across brands, and even within a single brand, can make it difficult to find the right size on your own. Shoppers who always choose the same size don't get the best fit 45% of the time, says Matt Wilkinson, chief executive and a co-founder of Shoefitr, a company that works with retailers to give shoe-shoppers more information about size and fit.
Retailers such as Nordstrom offer Shoefitr as a tool on their e-commerce sites. Shoefitr uses a 3-D imaging device to take up to 300 measurements on a single style. It then creates a 3-D drawing to show where the fit is tighter or looser than average, as well as the arch and footprint. Online shoppers answer questions about what size they typically wear and see the drawings. Shoefitr recommends a size based on how the style fits. To date, it has measured more than 100,000 shoes from 1,200 brands.
Cole Haan tests the fit of styles roughly 20 times during the 14-month development process. "Fit is our number one priority," says Steve Beccia, senior director of product development for men's and women's footwear. In each of its sourcing countries, the company has fit-models whose feet match the measurements of a standard women's-size 6 and a men's-size 8.5. Cole Haan measures length and width, as well as the instep volume. Feedback from the models on how shoes feel is used to adjust the lasts and patterns.
At brands known for a precise fit, such as men's footwear brand Allen Edmonds, fitting a shoe requires a professional. Julie Scott, a master fitter for Allen Edmonds and manager of two stores in New York City, says 95% of her customers don't know their proper shoe sizes. They don't realize that, with just a few millimeters' difference, "you can manipulate sizes," she says. A 10.5 D isn't far from an 11 C, a slightly longer, narrower shoe.
In one extreme case, Ms. Scott worked with a customer who usually wore a size 9.5 EEE, the widest offered. The ball of his foot was too far forward and the shoe was very tight, she says. She fitted him with a size 12C, a much narrower shoe.
Ms. Scott always uses a shoehorn and the sloped edge of a stool to put the shoe on a customer's foot. She listens carefully for a "swoosh," the satisfying noise a foot makes when sliding into a well-fitting shoe. She prefers not to show the customer the size she is asking him to try until after he tries the shoe on. "They look at you like you are nuts," she says.
Allen Edmonds is one of the few remaining shoe retailers to offer a variety of widths. It is expensive to do so, with extra costs for making the lasts and producing the shoes.
Offering width options fosters special loyalty from the customer who needs a certain width. "She can't go anywhere else," Mr. Weitzman says. He often stops people on the street wearing his shoes to get feedback. "I don't remember when the first thing anyone said to me was, 'I just think this is the most gorgeous shoe,' " he says. "The first line I always hear is, 'I can't believe how comfortable they are.' "