Mystery Shopper: Grits goes footwear shopping in Arlington, Va.

The way a store meets footwear fitting challenges says something about its devotion to product knowledge and employee training, as well as the store’s overall devotion to putting the "special" in specialty. So, we sent one of our operatives to the mid-Atlantic region to shop for hiking boots. We were anxious to see if he would find a store that’s focused on fitting, or one struggling to find its footing.
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Savvy mystery shoppers know that they can really size up a retail shop by observing its footwear sales techniques. After all, feet are funky—that is, they vary greatly from customer to customer, so footwear fitting involves special challenges. And the way a store meets these challenges says something about its devotion to product knowledge and employee training, as well as the store's overall devotion to putting the "special" in specialty. So, we sent one of our operatives to the mid-Atlantic region to shop for hiking boots. We were anxious to see if he would find a store that's focused on fitting, or one struggling to find its footing.

Our undercover shopper—code name Grits—stepped into the afternoon warmth and crossed a small parking lot jammed with cars. It was 3 p.m., the weekend was finally here, and the good weather had lured plenty of shoppers to Casual Adventure, an outdoor specialty store. The large mural painted on the side of the store—an adventure travel scene splashed across the red brick—impressed Grits. He walked through a door covered in stickers and entered a well-lighted space that appeared to be well-stocked with gear. A wall filled with footwear was ahead on the right, so Grits walked over and took note of a nice, wide selection of shoes from quality brands such as Asolo, Lowa, Vasque, Montrail and Raichle.

After a few seconds, a blond-haired man wearing a white T-shirt (no name tag, so we'll call him Jim) asked if he could help, so Grits replied, "Well, I'm looking for some hiking boots." Simple enough.

"What kind of hiking will you be doing," Jim asked in a friendly tone as he walked to the footwear wall. He conveyed the attitude that he was interested and fully engaged—not a bad start. Our agent noticed high customer traffic in the store—at least three other people were trying on shoes and boots— and he was impressed that an employee had addressed him so promptly. "I'll probably do mostly weekend trips," Grits replied, intending to see what the store had to offer a mainstream customer base.

Conversations buzzed all around, and Grits overheard an employee tell a customer with a high-and-tight haircut that military members get a 10-percent discount. A variety of people were shopping this afternoon—everyone from young military guys to the Patagonia crowd. Looking at the store's footwear stock, and the eclectic clientele, Grits got the notion that this store is well-known for its footwear.

Jim pointed out that the boots were arranged on the wall by categories of heavier boots, mid-weight models and lightweight shoes. Very nicely done, Grits thought. Good organization, with several choices in each category, including several brands to ensure that the store can accommodate a wide range of types of feet.

"The heavier boots probably aren't what you're looking for," said Jim. "They might be more than what you need." He gestured toward the mid-weight boots and asked if one or two of those looked good. At this point, our Mystery Shopper hadn't received much information to help make a selection. Jim could have asked a couple of more questions to narrow the field—did we want a Gore-Tex waterproof shoe, or something more breathable?

Grits asked the salesman to explain some of the things that differentiate the shoes, and Jim didn't hesitate to offer good explanations of materials and construction. Grits asked the difference between a beefier all-leather model and one with fabric and leather. "The ones with fabric and leather have less break-in time," Jim said. As for the all-leather boots, he pointed out that the leather boots with fewer seams would last a bit longer, though he added "the ones with more seams are still good boots." Hey, not bad. He offered accurate, useful information without getting too technical.

Jim turned his head to glance at the gathering crowd in the store, and Grits sensed that he wanted to speed the sale along, which was understandable. But this is a danger area—the customer should never feel pressed.

Our agent said he would like to try a pair of the Vasque shoes, and the salesman went o retrieve them, but returned and said that the requested size was not in stock. The salesman then asked if our agent would like to try the next half size up, and Grits said, "Sure," excited that he was getting to the meat of the matter —the actual fitting.

In the modest fitting area, Grits sat on a bench to try on shoes when Jim noticed that he was wearing thin socks. He pointed to a wooden box beneath a bench and said, "You can use some of the thicker socks in there and that'll give you a better idea of how they fit." Well, that was a nice touch. It's always great to see that a store has put thought into supplying the footwear department with the necessary tools. And the salesman was obviously paying attention. Of course, it would have been a good idea to find out what kind of socks Grits typically wore with his boots – thicker or thinner, synthetic or wool, it all makes a difference in fit and feel.

Our agent found his feet swimming in the Vasque shoes, so the salesperson asked if he could bring out anything else. "I'll try on those Lowa shoes," our agent said, pointing to a pair of Renegade GTX Lo shoes on the wall. And here is where the main test began. Our agent happens to wear this very shoe, and knows that a certain size fits him well, but only if worn with aftermarket insoles – like those from Superfeet, Sole, Shock Doctor or Spenco. In this store, positioned at the bottom of the footwear wall, was a full complement of Superfeet insoles. Things were really looking good.

Grits tried on the Lowa shoes, as the salesperson excused himself for a moment to work the register. (Our agent glanced toward the register periodically, and noticed that the salesman was keeping a close eye on the fitting department, ever mindful of his customer. Good job.)

When Jim returned from the register, he asked Grits, "How do they feel?" and the agent informed him that the shoes did not quite fit right. "They're pretty close, but not quite there."

Unfortunately, the salesman failed to follow up with more questions to discover exactly what was not right about the fit. He should have asked whether there were pressure points, if the shoe was too big, too small, or too roomy, to name a few. Also, he never bent down to feel the shoes to check the fit or offer any suggestions to improve the fit. Jim simply asked if he could go retrieve some other model.

Grits was waiting for the salesman to mention insoles, such as Superfeet, but the subject was not raised. Maybe one more hint would force Jim to face the obvious. "You know, they're just a little roomy on me. It's pretty close, but I'm not sure."

Unfortunately, the sale, which had been going so very well, came to a screeching halt when it didn't have to. With a little more probing, a few more questions, the salesman could have discovered that our agent has a low-volume foot. He was just a few moments away from solving the problem and also making a nice add-on sale. Even if he didn't recommend insoles, he could have directed our agent to a brand that caters more to low-volume feet, such as Montrail.

This was disappointing because the sale had been going well, and the salesman appeared genuinely interested in helping. Grits decided he'd seen enough and it was time to walk off into the sunset. He thanked the salesperson for all the help and sat back down to put on his socks. Looking up, he noticed a nearby customer standing up and staring straight down as he rocked back and forth in a pair of boots. A store employee about four feet away asked, "How do they feel?" This must be the standard store-trained question to ask. The employee did not go any closer, much less bend down to check the feel by hand. But this time he was lucky. "I think they feel pretty good," said the customer. "I'll take ‘em."

The trouble is, how did the salesperson, the one person in the store who is supposed to be the expert, really know if the shoes were a good fit? We've heard of and seen too many nightmare stories of a boot sale where the boot felt "pretty good" in the store only to turn on the customer's feet on the trail and beat them into a miserable pulp. Not the desired outcome for any retailer.

If a store is really serving its customers by offering good fit advice and service, its sales people will know to:

  1. Properly size the customer's foot with a Brannock device as well as ascertain during the sizing process the shape of the customer's foot and any special fit needs – high volume, low volume, foot deformities, etc.
  2. Ask good questions once a customer has laced up his or her shoes, such as: Are your heels seated firmly in the heel cups of the shoe? Do your shoes feel secure but comfortable around the ball and instep? When you flex your foot, is it comfortable?
  3. If all is good so far, then have the customer walk around, wearing both shoes of course. Ask your customer to be conscious of heel lift and for the toes touching the front of the shoes. Ask your customer to move up onto the balls of their feet, like standing on their toes, and then back down rocking onto their heels. Does the shoe still flex comfortably? Does it bind anywhere? You should be looking at the top of the shoe while the customer is doing this to be sure the break point of the shoe is around the ball of the foot, and not forward or behind the ball.
  4. Ask your customer to wiggle their toes inside the toe box. Have them slide their foot forward in the shoe (you'll likely need to help hold their shoe in place) and then slide a finger down between the heel cup and the person's heel. There should be about 1/2 inch of room indicating (typically, though not always) that there is sufficient room in the shoe to allow for the feet to swell without the toes banging into the toe box.
  5. Ask them again if their heel is staying basically in place while they walk around. With a properly laced shoe, the heel should not slide more than 1/4 inch.
  6. See if you can fine-tune the fit. After-market insoles are perfect for filling up excess volume in a shoe, stabilizing foot movement and more. There are also many lacing techniques that are useful to show the customer to help stabilize a foot as well as alleviate pressure spots. Be sure you know them.

Just asking a customer "how does it feel" isn't even close to getting the job done properly. Closing a sale that way means you're counting on being lucky, not good.

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