A Finnish custom-molded footbed company is expanding its North American footprint, picking up 15 new retailers since this summer.
Footbalance (www.footbalance.com) is giving specialty retailers the option to offer custom-molded footbeds within 10 minutes to customers, plus provide personalized customer service and the abilty to gather customer footwear data to stock their shelves accordingly.
SNEWS takes a look at the company's expansion from specialty running shops to outdoor retailers.
“A lot of shelf insoles or sock liners in shoes are asking your foot to conform to their shape,” said Matt Kaplan, Footbalance’s president and managing director. “With our product we’re saying, ‘Let’s make the footbed conform to your foot.’ ”
A bit of history
It started in 2003, when Finnish physiotherapist Erkki Hakkala, who specialized in podiatric medicine, sought to offer an alternative to the time-consuming process of molding custom footbeds. Hakkala also wanted to find a lightweight, softer alternative to traditional footbeds.
So he developed a process where he could heat up ethylene-vinyl acetate foam and shape it to a person’s foot, creating a softer product in a shorter period of time. Footbalance launched commercially in 2007, and its North American headquarters are in San Diego.
For many years, Footbalance could be found in running specialty shops where athletes could get their gait analyzed, pick out a pair of shoes and get themselves a customized molded footbed. But Kaplan said the company didn’t want to limit itself.
“We really saw that there’s an opportunity for footbeds in any kind of performance activity,” Kaplan said, adding that custom insoles could help active people keep feet aligned, which keeps everything else in the kinetic chain (ankles, knees, hips and back) aligned.
“We were born out of the physical therapy world, often seeing injuries from all different types of sporting activities,” Kaplan said. Keeping feet aligned prevents many injuries, he noted.
More than a recommendation
In a few pharmacies and big box stores, Dr. Scholl’s offers a machine a person steps onto to get analyzed for an insole suggestion. Kaplan said the benefit of Footbalance is that it’s more than a recommendation.
“Those types of things are still … an off-shelf product,” Kaplan said. “Ours is 100-percent custom all the time.”
A customized footbed starts with an analysis. Retailers take photos of a customer’s feet and collect data from customers using the Footbalance Recommendation System (FRS), determining whether customers are pronators or supinators.
Then, the retailer will warm up the foam pillows in a special heater. Customers will put each foot in a different pillow while the retailer holds the customer’s toes back. The customer will put equal weight on both pillows then quickly step off to let the footbed cool. The footbeds are then trimmed to fit inside the shoe.
Even if retailers provide analysis but don’t sell footbeds, they still collect this data, which can be used for inventory purposes, Kaplan said.
In order for a Footbalance station to be successful, Kaplan said retailers must embrace it and use it as a tool to complement footwear already offered in their stores.
Something for everybody
According to Footbalance officials, the company came out of the summer trade show season with about 15 new retailers, all from the cycling, wintersports and outdoor industries.
Kaplan said Footbalance offers a little something for everybody.
“We have different models that have varying degrees of cushioning and rigidity – with running shoes you’re going to want to have a little more cushion or flex, whereas in the ski (boot) or bike (shoe) you don’t want it to flex as much,” Kaplan explained.
Footbalance is also in various department stores, shoe stores and medical clinics. Though Footbalance hasn’t yet broken into the specialty fitness market, Kaplan said that could be a possibility in the future.
“It’s certainly something we’ve spoken about,” Kaplan said. “We’re trying to target really at this point outdoor and snowsports. There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity beyond that as well but right now we want to a few things and do them very, very well.”
Benefitting the retailer
Offering a custom service where retailers have to sit and talk to a customer offers an additional layer of customer service, Kaplan said.
Specialty ski and snowboard shops spend a lot of time making a boot fit a person as closely as possible, Kaplan said, so having a custom insole could make a boot (or shoe or hiking boot) fit more like a glove.
There is a minimum order or $1,500 to bring Footbalance into your specialty store, which includes 44 pair of footbeds, an analysis station, a laptop, a heater and a web camera. The laptop comes equipped with the Footbalance Recommendation System software.
“In the competitive retail landscape that we’re in right now this type of a product really gives a retailer an opportunity to promote their high level of customer service and expertise,” Kaplan said, “and offer something a lot of people can’t get online.”