Shoe industry takes notice as feet get bigger

  • Article by: KEVYN BURGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 15, 2012 - 8:30 AM

Average shoe sizes have grown more than a size over the past 30 years. The demand for bigger shoes is forcing retailers to slowly diversify their offerings.

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Cinderella's stepsisters have nothing on Morgaine Padal.

"I was a 7 in kindergarten -- a ladies' size 7."

Now, at 28, she's a size 14, which means she has crammed her feet into many a too-small shoe.

Padal, who lives in St. Paul, said she spends an inordinate amount of time cruising stores to find shoes that fit. Style? That's a luxury.

"Look at that," she said, grabbing a mannish flat from the shelf at Nordstrom Rack at the Mall of America. "Couldn't they make it at least a little bit pretty? A teeny heel, please? Just because I'm 6-feet-1 doesn't mean I'm not feminine."

Women's feet are getting bigger and shoe manufacturers, buyers and retailers are starting to take notice. The National Shoe Retailers Association tracks sizes and reports that foot size (in both men and women) has grown by a size or so over the past three decades.

"For women, we say 8 1/2 is the new 7," said Mark Denkler, chairman of the National Shoe Retailers Association.

But that doesn't mean stores are quickly expanding the range of sizes they carry.

"The assortments, called casepacks, used to come in women's size 5 to 10," he said. "Now it's 6 to 11. But bigger than 11 can hurt the store's margin."

Stores cannot return what they don't sell, so owners are loath to purchase shoes at the far end of the bell curve, even though there are more women filling those shoes.

"The hot topic is how to serve women with the biggest feet," said Stephanie Stratton, a manufacturer's representative for several European shoe lines. "There are too many [of these women] for it to be considered strictly a niche. For the first time, two of our manufacturers have gone from a top European size of 42 to 45. That's from an 11-12 to a 13-14."

But when Padal complains to shoe store owners, they often suggest that she shop online.

"I have to try before I buy," she insisted. "A couple times when I ordered online, they sent me fake 14s. I know a 13 when I feel it."

Barbara Thornton has walked a mile in those shoes. A size 11 1/2, she owns Designershoes.com, a Boston-based online retail site that says it serves women who "leave a larger footprint."

"Within a three-mile radius, a shoe store might have five women in size 12. I don't have a radius," she said.

Although Thornton sells up to size 15, she, too, is frustrated. Wholesalers provide less selection for women with larger feet. Because the shoe biz is set up to service brick-and-mortar stores, she believes that women with larger feet will always be outliers -- underserved, with fewer fashionable options than their sisters in more mainstream sizes.

"A size 12 comes in and the store might have one style to show. She sees 7's and 8's trying on a half-dozen pairs. She feels humiliated, leaves and doesn't come back. And the store still has the 12. Nobody's happy and it's a vicious cycle."

But there is some movement.

"The oversize assortment grows every year," Stratton said. "Some stores I call on still resist; they will forgo the sale to avoid the risk. But I hear more say, 'I'm going to get killed if I don't carry some 12's and 13's.'"

That's good news for women (and their daughters) who've struggled for years to find shoes that actually fit.

A consistent lament comes from parents searching for appropriate footwear for their girls. Once shoes get much larger than size 5, they often no longer look like something meant for a child.

"I hear the complaints," said Dorie Williamson, buyer for Expressions shoe store in Roseau, Minn. "We grow 'em big up there. But it's everywhere."

Customers at Bare's Bootery in Aitkin, Minn., recently had a shelf of larger shoes to try. Clarks Shoes mistakenly shipped four pairs of women's 12's to the longtime Main Street anchor.

"With the hassle of sending them back, I thought, what the heck, and put them out," said owner Steve Bare. "They sold -- all of them," he said. "At full price."

Bare typically doesn't buy women's shoes larger than a 10, but the experience gave him pause.

"If you have the customer, you buy the shoe," he said.

Kevyn Burger of Minneapolis is a broadcaster, podcaster and freelance writer.

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