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Volumental Takes On Inconsistent Footwear Sizing

With the pandemic prompting many consumers to shop online, accurate sizing is more crucial than ever.

Digital sales have risen to record levels this year, with return rates following close behind. A recent report from CBRE estimated e-commerce returns could reach $70.5 billion during the holiday season, a 73 percent increase from the previous five-year average.

If retailers want their customer returns to stop eating into their profit margins, one area ripe for improvement is sizing. A recent study from Volumental offered a quantitative look at the problem within running footwear.

By comparing its expansive database of foot scans with the shoes that those customers ended up buying, Ales Jurca, vice president of footwear research at Volumental, said the footwear technology company was able to estimate how each shoe fits.

“If we have hundreds of scans of customers that bought this one shoe in the same size…we can calculate what’s the ideal foot that fits into that shoe,” Jurca said. “When we compared these ideal feet of hundreds of styles, all exactly the same size, we saw huge differences, which means that even though they’re all labeled with the same size, they fit very differently.”

Looking at 78,000 foot scans and purchases of women’s size 9 running shoes, Volumental reported only 62 percent of the 623 shoe styles met the parameters of a true size 9.

Even buying from the same shoe line did not guarantee consistency, Volumental found. The Nike Vomero lineup, for example, ranged as much as 6 millimeters for each size. Since shoes size up or down every 5 millimeters, the same person could be a size 9 in the Nike Vomero 9, a size 9.5 in the Vomero 10 and 11, a 9 in the Vomero 12 and a size 9.5 in the Vomero 13 and 14, it reported.

Furthermore, a brand’s own sizing guide may not offer a helpful aide for consumers looking to buy the correct fit. Jurca said the company looked at 69 different Nike shoe styles, of which only two fit within what Nike defined as a size 9. By comparison, 52 percent of Nike styles analyzed in the study fit as an average size 9 shoe.

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“We can see this problem across all the brands and there is a good explanation to that,” Jurca said. “It’s really hard to standardize this because the final fit of the shoe depends on many different parameters.” These various factors, he explained, can include the size of the shoe last, the elasticity of the upper material and padding thickness.

Solving Sizing

When customers order footwear online, many often will purposefully buy multiple sizes simply to ensure one fits and then return the rest. The process, Jurca said, is not only “cumbersome” and not good for the environment, but also ultimately bad for the consumer.

“Shoes are more expensive because of this process,” he said. “If the retailer doesn’t charge for that directly to the customer, shoes have to be more expensive to cover that cost as well, so there’s definitely a lot of benefits of solving this issue.”

With its large reservoir of foot scan data—Jurca said the company has a data set of 15 million—Volumental has worked with brands such as Adidas, Allbirds, Saucony, New Balance and Bauer to provide a more accurate view of what consumers’ feet look like. Looking at measurements such as the forefoot width, the instep height and the heel width, Jurca the company has been able to provide these companies with averages for specific markets and gender.

“There are significant differences between customers’ feet in North America, Europe and Asia, and there are significant differences between male and female feet within the same size, so brands should be really designing shoes for that specific market and gender, and use the actual data,” Jurca said.

However, when it comes to what shoppers can do to ensure they find a good fit, Jurca indicated it’s not so simple as walking into a store and offering a few different measurements. Even that oversimplifies the diversity of foot shapes and sizes. “Variety of feet is so huge, it’s not just the length and width, it’s in-step height, it’s different toe shapes, the ratio between the forefoot width and the hell, so it’s really going to be difficult to narrow it down to a few numbers and describe the foot really well,” Jurca said.

Moreover, he said he doesn’t think solving the issue by simply standardizing all shoe sizes is possible. “Shoes will never be consistent in size,” he declared. The other important piece is “not every shoe fits to every person,” he said. “It really depends on whether you have a wide foot or you have a high instep or narrow heel, all those factors influence which style will fit you and even in what size.”

Instead, Jurca said the solution lies in consumers having access to 3D data about their feet and retailers producing a recommendation based on that information. This is, of course, essentially what Volumental currently does with its retail partners like Fleet Feet and Road Runner Sports.

But, as consumer habits shift, he said the next step will be to bring these capabilities online and for retailers to target consumer outreach based on whatever data they may have on a customer. Whenever there’s a new shoe that would perfectly fit to that individual’s foot shape, Jurca said the retailer could send them an email letting them know. “This kind of approach will result in a much better fit on the general level,” he said.