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When the Shoes Don't Fit

By EMILY CHASAN, Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL  July 27, 2004

shoe-sizesWhen Pam Miller walks into a shoe store, she bypasses the displays with the latest styles, heads for the nearest sales person and pleads, "Bring me whatever you have in a size 13 medium."

After years of sorting through too-wide orthopedic shoes, surfing online sites and competing with transvestites for the trendiest styles, the 34-year-old Houston legal secretary is far beyond being picky.

At times, she's forked over close to $200 -- more than she'd like to pay -- for ugly shoes that at least fit.

There are plenty of lost soles like her. In the past 20 years, the foot of the average American woman has grown a full shoe size to an 8 or 9, up from a 7 or 8, according to Marshal Cohen, senior analyst for the NPD Group. He estimates that more than one-third of women now wear a size 9 or larger, up from 11% in 1987. Male feet are growing too, but only by a half-size in the past two decades.

Yet shoe stores aren't keeping pace. Many retailers haven't changed their size selections in years, Mr. Cohen says. Some stock just one pair of size 12s a year, because they stocked and sold one pair the year before. Retailers "don't know how many they can sell, so manufacturers don't sell them to retailers and don't make them," Mr. Cohen says. By simply stocking more large sizes, shoe outlets could boost their annual revenue by more than 8%, he figures.

Individual foot size is mostly a matter of genetics. But doctors say there are a number of other factors to consider. People are generally taller than they used to be. "The trend is that the population is bigger," says James McGuire, a department chairman at Temple University's School of Podiatric Medicine, Philadelphia. The youngest baby-boomer women turn 40 this year; bearing children and aging has left many of them with feet a good size bigger than they were. "As you get older, ligaments loosen up and bones might change," adds Dr. Stephanie Belovich, a biological anthropologist at Ohio College of Podiatric Medicine, Cleveland.

The biggest single contributor to the big-foot phenomenon may be the rise in participation in girls' sports in the 32 years since Title IX funding rules took effect. "Bones grow in response to demand," Temple's Dr. McGuire says. "Walking and exercise stimulate the foot to be stronger, more muscular and bigger."

Retailers, looking for the biggest return on inventory, typically focus on average sizes, 7 to 9. "A few years ago a lot of stores only went up to size 10," says Bill Boettge, president of the National Shoe Retailers Association. While more stores these days sell size 11s, Mr. Boettge estimates only 2% of sales are basic styles sold to women wearing size 12 or above -- a group that may make up 4% or more of the population. But that is just a guess: Few people track shoe sizes.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Payless ShoeSource Inc. carry big sizes, but Ms. Miller and other women complain inexpensive shoes tend to wear out fast. Nordstrom Inc., famous for its vast selection, has a toehold in the big-shoe business, but even it concedes that the most fashionable shoes sell out in larger sizes first. Federated Department Stores Inc.'s Macy's and Bloomingdale's and most other department stores carry few larger sizes. "We strive to serve the customer where there is the greatest demand -- which in women's shoes is up to size 10," a Federated spokeswoman says.

That's a bummer for Dresden Shumaker, a 28-year-old writer from Tuscaloosa, Ala. As a 12-year-old with size 12 feet, she became so desperate that she bought men's loafers and painted flowers on them. In college, she tried a store catering to drag queens. She wasn't riveted by the go-go boot selection, but she recalls, "There was this sense of camaraderie."

Marck Jankowski, executive vice president at Steven Madden Ltd., says retailers must buy shoes by the dozen, typically a mix the most popular sizes. Manufacturers don't make more big sizes because of cost. Larger shoes can use twice as much leather as smaller ones. For each additional size and half-size, makers must create a new last, or mold, further ratcheting up costs by tens of thousands of dollars per style.

Barbara Thornton, founder and chief executive of, a Boston store and online retailer, says she is on a crusade to encourage manufacturers to make bigger sizes. But at a show in Italy in the fall, Ms. Thornton, a size 11½, says she couldn't persuade a single vendor to produce larger sizes. To get enough Chinese slippers for her customers, the CEO carried a giant trash bag through New York City's Chinatown, buying every size 11 and 12 she could find.

Fashion is another sore spot. Suppliers try to sell Ms. Thornton "sensible" big shoes, but her customers want heels in polka-dots. "Respected people in the shoe industry think that the only people who wear size 12s are old ladies with bunions," she says. The market, she says, "is a 26-year-old woman who used to row crew, play soccer, volleyball or basketball. Now she's a lawyer or investment banker, and we have to keep her well-shod."

Anne Klein New York says it sees larger sizes as a possible growth area, despite the costs. Within the past two years, the company has taken most of its shoes up to size 12, from size 11. "Talking to people, we thought it was an opportunity," says the company's president, Steve Shapiro. Another influence may have been the chief financial officer's daughters, who had trouble finding shoes that fit.

At stiletto-maker Manolo Blahnik, company President George Malkemus notes a rise in demand for shoes greater than European size 42 (the equivalent of U.S. size 11). Still, there's only so much wiggle room: Blahnik takes special larger orders at no extra charge, but only up to size 43.5.

As many as 10% of high-school girls now wear shoes bigger than size 10, according to a 2001 survey of 650 high-school girls by Carol Fry, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles. But many teen brands don't come in large sizes. Maren Matthias, a recent University of New Hampshire graduate, says finding a size 12 pair of shoes is so hard for her and her basketball teammates that when she finds some, "I'll buy one for a friend too."

Alexa Manuel, a 6-foot-4-inch 13-year-old from Eden Prairie, Minn., says she hasn't found shoes -- in size 15 -- to wear to church in years. She says she's embarrassed to shop for sneakers and sandals in the men's department. "Especially at my age," she says, "all girls really want to do is just fit in."

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