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Specialty running retailers look to new tech for better shoe fit

Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

CHICAGO -- Shoes have changed a lot over the past 80 years. The primary tool used to fit them? Not so much.

But specialty running stores are testing new technology that aims to help customers find the best possible fit as they prepare for 5Ks and marathons.

The old-school Brannock Device used to measure customers' feet captures length and width, but it can't measure foot volume -- how much space a foot would fill inside a shoe, said Fleet Feet Sports Chicago owner Dave Zimmer, who brought three-dimensional foot-scanning machines to each of his seven Chicago-area stores earlier this month.

The square white devices can scan a pair of feet and send measurements, and a three-dimensional image, to an employee's iPad in less than a minute, Zimmer said.

Most shoe brands don't provide exact measurement data on every pair, but employees can still use the information to point runners to shoes that tend to suit people with, for instance, a relatively wide forefoot or narrow heel, he said. That guidance should improve as they scan more feet and gather more data, he said.

At Naperville Running Co.'s three suburban Chicago stores, a different system scans runners' feet while standing and walking to make shoe recommendations, but it can also create customized insoles runners can add to their shoes for an even better fit, Superfeet Chief Marketing Officer Eric Hayes said.

Shoe- and insole-maker Superfeet chose 11 retailers to test the scanning system, which has been at Naperville Running Co. since July. Hayes said Superfeet eventually plans to create personalized footwear as well as insoles.

"If you're not trying new things, you're falling behind," Naperville Running Co. owner Kris Hartner said.

Runners turn to sport-specific specialty stores, rather than buying online or at a big-box sporting goods chain, for the expert fitting, so anything that can help employees get people into the right shoes is a big asset, Zimmer and Hartner said.

But since specialty retailers also rely on personal connections between employees and customers, both stress the new technology is just one part of their approach to fitting.

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