Footwear Brands Turn Attention to Indians with Large Feet
So, what does a person with large pedal extremities do? One option is to yell at the top management of India's biggest shoe maker. That's what a shareholder did at Bata's annual general meeting in Kolkata this month. He told them about the ordeal he has to undergo whenever it's time to get a new pair of shoes, accusing manufacturers of being insensitive. He has size 11 feet and shoes that fit are hard to find.
But things could be about to change. Bata is running a pilot project to ensure people with large and hard-to-fit feet will have a greater choice in shoe styles, Rajeev Gopalakrishnan, group managing director, South Asia, told the shareholder, pacifying him somewhat.
It's not just Bata. Puma, Metro, Adidas and Arvind are realising sizes haven't kept pace with rise in big-foot demand. But amid sluggish sales and a plethora of rivals, companies don't want to lose even a single customer.
That's "precisely the reason why we have started tracking lost sales data. To understand why a store lost a customer and for which large size, and ensure those are available," said Abhishek Ganguly, managing director at Puma India, which is also tracking size as part of monitoring sales data and not just style so it can better forecast demand and availability.
Puma and other sports shoe makers need to be on their toes. Asics of Japan has just entered India with its first store in Delhi and is offering running shoes with extra width variants (2E and 4E), such as for the top-ofthe-line Nimbus 17. Apart from this, brick and mortar shoe stores also face the threat of online stores, which allow customers to shop around widely.
Until now, most consumers with large shoe sizes had little option but to buy multiple pairs when they lucked out and were able to find something suitable. Those with the means, on the other hand, would buy shoes overseas.
There's another why companies are getting more accommodative—foot sizes are expanding. India's geographical regions have traditionally differed in terms of average foot size--9-10 is dominant in Delhi and Mumbai, 8-9 in south India and 7-8 in Kolkata. But with migration and communities intermarrying, these averages no longer hold good, a key learning forcing shoe makers to be more cosmopolitan in their approach.
"It's a problem to keep all sizes in store due to limited space, but we try and keep at least till 15-16," said Metro Shoes chairman and managing director Rafique A Malik. He said the retailer, which has more than 300 stores, keeps bigger sizes, even up to 18, in its warehouse for each city.
So why have companies not bothered previously? Such changes are always difficult to make because they may mean reworking the model, said an expert. "It is a brave step if a retailer increases shoe styles to accommodate larger or odd sizes," said Sandeep Mittal, managing director at Cartesian Consulting. "For higher margins, a retailer needs to optimise styles and not increase SKUs (stock keeping units). Only a company with the wherewithal to manage a large inventory can do it profitably."
It's not just enough to invest in bigger sizes. Customers also want to be sure they get a wide choice and not just limited styles. But retailers also need to be confident that such shoes will indeed have enough buyers.
"If a store doesn't have a bigger size when a consumer demands it, protocol will still be to check availability in nearly outlets and try to deliver, perhaps after few days," said Rajiv Mehta, CEO at Arvind Sports Lifestyle, which will launch shoes by Diwali. "If large or odd sizes, hard-toget shoes don't sell, then there is a slim chance of them being sold ever even after discounting."
Nevertheless, competition and the ability of online stores to stock wider inventories have improved availability greatly. Especially as many retailers are rolling out omnichannel initiatives covering warehouses, online and brick-and-mortar stores.
There's a larger lesson for India here. A one-size-fits-all approach works only to a point. In crowded sectors, it is finding the niche, and expanding it to a critical mass, which will separate the shoe from the sock. With e-retail taking care of much of the inventory challenges, products lying outside the usual customer spectrum become more readily available. This not only adds value to the brand — the proverbial Model T no longer having to be available in all colours as long as it is black — but also fill angelic spaces that less entrepreneurial companies fear to rush into.