Why Extended Shoe Sizes = Hard To Find Sizes

Wide and narrow widths are hard to find, as are small and large sizes. This may be hard to believe when you’re willing to pay good money for a hard-to-find size, but there are some very good reasons for this.

Whenever I mention that I’m in the shoe industry in social settings, I usually get one of two questions. It’s either “why don’t you make shoes that are cute AND comfortable?” or “why is it so hard to find narrow shoes? wide shoes? shoes smaller than US size 5 or bigger than size 10??” Usually those questions are delivered with the air of “this is a million dollar idea! I can’t believe nobody thought of doing this before!”

I’ll leave the “cute and comfortable” question for another post and focus on the question of extended sizes in this article. Why is nobody making non-standard sizes? The answer boils down to costs and demand: the costs are much higher than you’d think, and the demand is nowhere near as high as it should be.

The costs of making extended shoe sizes

You would think it shouldn’t be too expensive to throw in a few extra sizes, but the costs sneak up in surprising ways and really add up. I’d say the main budget killers are: the cost of development, the cost of manufacturing, and the cost of inventory.

Developing extended shoe sizes is more expensive than the usual 5.5B through 10B because many factories simply don’t have the experience dealing with them so you cannot rely on already established expertise. This means you have to reinvent the wheel for every step. For instance, did you know that the average foot width varies mostly in the ball of the foot, and only a little bit in the heel area? If not, don’t feel bad – the factories I’ve worked with didn’t know that either. Getting to passable samples becomes a time-consuming and expensive process because every step has to be figured out from scratch. This is complicated by the fact that there isn’t much data out there on current sizing of actual feet. We do know that the average women’s shoe size grew from a size 4 at the beginning of the 20th century to about a size 8 now, so that’s a start. There’s not much out there on distribution across widths, though. In the meantime, we are still relying on the barleycorn as a unit of measurement for grading between one size and the next, and the manufacturing processes we rely on date back to the early 20th century, if not earlier.

Given the development difficulties of extended sizes, fit models become even more essential than for the regular sizes. The problem with that is, good fit models for extended sizes are really tough to find. Partially because some of those sizes seem to be more rare, and partially because so many women don’t know what their size is, which is part of a much bigger problem. Even when we managed to find someone with the right size, they had to unlearn their “weird feet” mindsets in order to provide useful feedback. The cost of finding, training, and retaining additional fit models, scheduling multiple fittings, paying for multiple samples development, shipping costs, the time to provide extra fit comments back to the factory – it all adds up.

Once all the development pain is behind us, we can finally get to the manufacturing stage. Hurray! This gets us to the next major expense: paying for the lasts. A last is a foot dummy, like a dress form for shoemaking. Every style, toe shape and heel height needs a separate set of lasts. A set of lasts includes a last for each size, so offering more sizes means needing more lasts. Offering more widths means needing a lot more lasts. How many more?

Let’s say Scrooge Inc offers one width in sizes 6 through 10 with half sizes.

On the other hand, Angel Corp wants to offer three widths in sizes 5 through 12 with half sizes.

If they both offer five styles, they need five different last shapes. Here’s how the numbers look:

Scrooge: 5 shapes x 9 sizes = 45 lasts

Angel: 5 shapes x 15 sizes x 3 widths = 225 lasts

Ow.

And that’s just the start of it. Then there’s the fact that factories are less efficient when they have to make a bunch of different sizes and switch lasts all the time, which leads to mistakes and strained relationships with the factories. Unless you are a big company with big orders that can keep the factory busy 100% of the time, most factories work with multiple customers and if your order is a pain to make, they’ll make their production schedule less available to you than to the other guys. Which means missed deliveries, unhappy customers and lost revenue.

But let’s say you have successfully navigated all of that. Your fit is perfect, your lasts are ready to go and you are ready to plan the inventory. Since lasts are so expensive, you will naturally want to spread the cost over several styles and colorways for each last. That way you can offer more attractive pricing to your customers and appeal to a wider variety of tastes. If you’re Angel Corp of my earlier example, you would have a harder time doing that because you will need to sink five times more money into your inventory than your conventional competitor in order to cover all the widths and sizes, money you now can’t spend on marketing, development, sales, or anything else. It’s stuck in your inventory and can’t work for you until you sell the shoes.

The real demand for extended sizes

Which gets me to the one question that could make all the rest irrelevant. Will people happily snap up your extended widths and sizes? You’d think they would be thrilled, since these shoe sizes are so hard to find, but there are several factors working against you.

First, most people with non-standard shoe sizes don’t know their size. This makes sense, since their sizes are not generally available, so they got used to thinking that whatever poor substitute they’ve been wearing instead IS their actual size. Imagine if your bra size were 34D, but 99% of bras were only available in the B cup. You would probably wear a 36B as “your” size and if you suddenly saw a 34D at the store, you wouldn’t even think to try it on because you don’t know that is what you should be wearing. Lingerie shops have bra fit consultants who help women pick the right size and fit for them, but shoe stores rarely do. No wonder so many people have no idea what shoe size they should be wearing.

Second, after years of discomfort, people learn to normalize it. They get used to shoes that are (usually) too small. Their feet develop thick protective calluses where the shoes usually rub them, so their shoes don’t hurt quite as much as they used to. If, after years of this, they put on a shoe that doesn’t cut into their feet, they don’t feel secure in the shoe, so they think it is the wrong fit.
Third, there is a ridiculous stigma attached to having a bigger size as a woman. Young girls get teased for having “boats” for feet and as a result, women are reluctant to wear the proper size because the number embossed on the sole is higher than what they were taught is socially acceptable for them to wear. This makes my head explode. Feet don’t need to be a size 5 to be feminine. If your foot is a size 15, it is not “ugly”. The only ugly thing here is unnecessary pain.

And finally, even when people know what size they need, they have no way to tell the shoe companies about it. Sure, you could write them a letter or send them a tweet, but you are just one person, and they need to know that they would have thousands of customers who know their size and would not be deterred from buying it by any of that social stigma nonsense. Right now, companies generally know their customers feet have changed over the past few decades, but nobody know precisely how they’ve changed, especially when it comes to the widths.

So what can you do about it?

First, I urge everyone to get their feet measured. Really get to know your feet. Learn what a proper fit should feel like, even if you’ve never had a chance to actually experience it. Then, let your favorite shoe brands know! Don’t tell the salesperson at the local store, that won’t get you anywhere. Send it to their corporate office. It may feel like one voice would not make a difference, but if enough people did that, it would add up to the incredibly valuable market data that could convince shoe companies that extending their size offerings would be a sound business decision after all.