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How Foot-Scanning Tech Helps Create Sticky Retail Experience

In case you were wondering whether foot scanning technologies are just another fashion fad, Nike’s acquisition of startup Invertex—which started in footwear fit finding but broadened into larger computer vision ambitions—should signal that novel ways of collecting consumer data on feet and shoes are here to stay, and could influence how companies evolve product design in the future.

Foot scanners measure an individual’s foot, usually in three dimensions, to provide the most accurate information on length, width and volume, all of which can assist in determining the best-fitting shoe size. Different companies have taken disparate approaches to scanning, many for the purpose of selling more orthotics and insoles, which benefit from a custom fit. But Moritz Schiebold, CEO of Volumental, a Stockholm-based end-to-end solution provider, told Sourcing Journal that foot-scanning companies that come from the R&D side of the footwear business are “missing the point.” Any technology that lives in the retail environment must consider the “ideal customer journey,” he said. “That’s when speed and ease become important, when you have a high turnover of people using the scanner.”

The fastest foot scan around

Today, Volumental’s foot scanners take up to 3 seconds to scan a customer’s feet, and another 3 seconds to generate the 3D image, which is emailed to the customer and saved for future reference. For security on subsequent store visits, customers of Fleet Feet Sports, a Volumental client, access their scans by answering a set of questions, such as at which of the running chain’s stores did they last shop. Customers can compare their scans to see if their feet have changed, and make educated choices about future footwear purchases.

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With a small footprint—1 meter by 1 meter—the scanners take up very little space in a retail store and are portable enough for offsite travel. More important, Schiebold said, it’s a “fast and fun” process for consumers, and highly visual. “You can continuously explain to customer the decision they’re about to make,” he said, “and interest them in the machine learning technology.”

“We’re using the data sets to essentially increase the experience that you can have in store to help retailers service their customers better and ultimately have that profit both their top and bottom lines to increase sales and lowered returns,” Schiebold added.

Though customers might get excited about gaining detailed knowledge about their foot shape and size, brands stand to benefit by collecting accurate data on consumer fits. “We’re interested in extracting as much value on that data set for other parts of the organization as we can,” Schiebold said. That could include customer purchase data, what kinds of products a brand should develop and geography-specific trends on foot shape and size, for example.

For Fleet Feet, “theater in the store”

Fleet Feet chose Volumental’s Fit ID scanners for its 173 stores in 38 states after evaluating three or four options, Brent Hollowell, vice president of marketing and vendor management, told Sourcing Journal, adding that the company wanted a “brand-agnostic” solution. “I couldn’t imagine having 10 of these from different brands in our stores,” he said.

Because more than 140 of its stores are franchises and Fleet Feet doesn’t “love to tell stores what they have to do,” it’s “pretty much unheard of” that the vast majority has been enthusiastic about investing in the Volumental scanners, Hollowell explained. “We like to give them things that are irresistibly attractive.”

Stores pay upfront for the scanners plus an annual software subscription.

Though Fleet Feet wanted a high-tech approach to measuring customers’ feet, Hollowell said the company’s biggest concern was that it didn’t want a machine to replace a human’s expertise on the store floor. Those fears quickly were put to rest, and the Fleet Feet executive now describes Volumental’s scanner as a “more developed version of the Brannock device”—the classic foot-measuring tool that’s long been the standard in shoe stores. In fact, the Volumental scanners offer “theater in the store” and a bit of a “wow” factor, Hollowell added.

“When we tell you that you have a high arch or your foot is shaped this way, the 3D visualization makes the conversation go much easier when we actually bring the shoe out,” Hollowell said. “It helps us cut to the chase in a more trusted way. Even though the machine is doing more of the work, it creates more of a bond between the employee and the customer.”

Having extra “validation” from Volumental scanners can go a long way. Maybe a customer refuses to believe he has a wide foot; seeing the scan—and how his feet compare to the 300,000 others who’ve been measured since October—often is highly persuasive. To date, 165 stores have deployed the scanners, and the remainder have their orders in. Fleet Feet estimates that Fit ID will have measured 1 million shoppers by year end.

The Fit Engine factor

Though the scanners might give experienced personnel extra confidence in serving customers, Volumental’s nascent Fit Engine is especially useful in helping new Fleet Feet employees make relevant product recommendations, Hollowell noted. “The Fit engine says, ‘based on the thousands of people with your shape and size foot, we think this is going to work,’” he said, much like recommendations from Amazon or Google’s algorithm. “Every retailer needs to maximize human assets.”

Whereas a typical new hire would have to wait three months before assisting a customer with fit so that “they really know what they’re doing,” the Fit Engine gives them some data points as a starting point, Hollowell added.

What’s more, Fit Engine integrates with store inventory so that an associate avoids the awkwardness of recommending a product that’s not in stock or available in the desired size.

Regardless of how much data is at play, though, the “comfort filter” is the ultimate factor when a customer is considering a running-shoe purchase. “You can sit there and tell someone this shoe is shaped exactly like your foot but if the customer doesn’t feel comfortable in it, they’re not going to run well and they’re probably going to get injured, frankly, because they’re thinking about other things around their feet versus just running.

“The reason it’s so important to go to a running specialty store in the first place is so that you can try on lots of different things. Most people will spend 30 minutes to an hour trying on different shoes so that they walk out very confident that they are in something very comfortable and fits their foot shape,” Hollowell said. “We never dictate to them what to wear but it’s great when the Fit Engine can provide recommendations based on data.”

Plus, there’s anecdotal evidence that return rates are dropping as customers more frequently find the right shoes for their feet.

A defacto marketing tool

For Fleet Feet, Volumental’s Fit ID scanners have become a defacto marketing tool and customer experience investment, according to Hollowell. “People call up and ask how much it costs to get scanned, and want to make appointments,” Hollowell said, adding they’re often surprised to learn the service is free. Some stores are considering purchasing additional scanners just for offsite travel, such as to HR-organized events to scan employees’ feet on a corporate campus.

The word-of-mouth customer endorsements have been a boon to business at Fleet Feet. Since deploying the scanners, the company’s net promoter score (NPS), which have been “stuck” at 93 for some time, bumped up to 94, Hollowell explained, and more than 500 comments specifically praised the Fit ID experience. “People are saying ‘I’ve never see anything like it’ and ‘I won’t buy shoes anywhere else,’” he said.

On top of that, store employees have described customers who return the next day with their spouse in tow, insisting they, too, get their feet scanned.

“Retailers need sticky brand experiences,” Hollowell said.

Why foot scanning now

Foot scanning technology has taken off thanks to rapid developments in computation and sensor technology. “We’re now starting to see the abundance of data we can create, and that a future is possible that can be customized and personalized versus the Industrial Revolution age,” Schiebold said. “That idea is starting to take hold. All of a sudden these topics aren’t just use cases for the luxury market. People see that understanding your customer at granular level can be a competitive advantage.”