Spend any time in a running specialty store and you will hear the question: “What size shoe do you wear?”

Well, until recently, there’s typically been one way to find out. Invented in 1927 and patented in 1929, the Brannock Device has been the “go-to” tool for determining the best way to confirm a customer’s shoe size. Found in almost every running specialty store, the familiar black and silver metal plate quickly identifies length and width.

Ninety years later, Fleet Feet has introduced “fit id,” a cutting-edge technology that provides a unique personal profile of a customer’s foot.

“Within 3 to 5 seconds, the unit produces an accurate three-dimensional representation of the foot,” says Victor Ornelas, senior manager, brand management, Fleet Feet, Inc. “Our staff can interpret the data and point out unique details of the foot. Based on the scan data we can recommend footwear from a shape perspective in a much more fine-tuned way.”

When people enter a running specialty shoe store, they can be overwhelmed with the number of choices and rely on the store staff to tell them where to start. But that might lead to trying on numerous shoes that ultimately don’t fit well. The fit id system is aimed at reducing the complexity of that process.

“The scanning process removes a certain amount of paralysis and overwhelming nature of the choices,” says Paul Langer, sports podiatrist, and part owner of Marathon Sports in Minneapolis, Minn. “Since fit is one of the most important aspects of comfort, the fit id system gives you a good starting point matching the shape of the shoe and the shape of the foot.”

Fleet Feet brand managers expect the fit id system to improve the customer’s experience selecting running footwear. After the fit id scan is completed, in-store shoe-fitters review the findings on a tablet computer and then generally explain it to the customer. The report documents measurements like arch height, heel width, instep girth and heel-to-toe length. A scan report, however, does not recommend a specific shoe size or model.

“The results are specific to your foot size but doesn’t recommend shoe size. That’s intentional so our employees can really tailor the shoe fit. The fit id scan provides a level of professionalism and context in explaining footwear recommendations,” Ornelas says.

Bob Shooer, owner of Pittsburgh Fleet Feet and president of the brand’s retail advisory council says, “We work to match the shape of shoe to the shape of the foot. The scanner is not being used to recommend shoes but used to help us evaluate the biomechanics and size of the foot, That’s when the skill of the fit professional kicks in and they can bring out the shoe that most closely matches the foot.”

Fleet Feet positions the fit id system as a complementary tool, rather than replacing store staff in the fitting process.

“The fit id process doesn’t take the job away from the fit professional, but it helps validate what the fit pro is talking about the scan gives a perspective of a foot that the customer can’t see when we are evaluating their gait,” Shooer says.

A Fleet Feet shoe-fit specialist shows a customer the digital report produced from a fit id scan of her feet. Photo: Courtesy of Fleet Feet Sports

“Most shoe stores have a wall with 30 to 50 shoes on display. The store staff can do a scan and quickly zero in on the footwear that has the shape that matches the customer’s foot best. It creates some efficiencies,” Langer says.

The Pittsburgh Fleet Feet store was the first shop to start using the system, but Fleet Feet plans to install it in 90 stores nationwide in 2018.

“I haven’t heard a single negative comment,” Shooer says. “Having technology as part of our fit process has really resonated with our customers. It’s enhanced their experience in the store.”

While the scanning process takes just a few seconds, explaining the findings takes more time and training. Even experienced runners may not understand language like “ball girth” that’s delivered in the report. As the program evolves, scan reports may narrow the range of information presented.

“We’re evaluating what information should be there and what’s superfluous,” Shooer says. “We want to be consistent in what we are saying to every customer and make sure we have an understanding of what we are explaining. If we can’t explain it, the customer will never understand it.”

A more skeptical consumer may not appreciate the sophistication of the technology.

“People try to use technology to look smarter or more expert than they really are,” Langer says. “The fit id system goes above and beyond a simple gimmick. It’s impressive.”

Langer notes access to more information can lead to mixed results.

“In this big-data age we have all this information. Now, how do we interpret it and what’s the significance and relevance,” he says. “People are already making judgements and assessments of overpronation and telling customers what it means for them. You may have that same risk here. What does this measurement mean for me? Is that a factor in this problem I’m having. People may misinterpret or overstate what they think they know about a certain measurement. Most people in running stores mean well, but may not have enough information to understand the relevance of what they are looking at.”

Once the fit id process is complete, customers receive a copy via email and the data is archived for future use.

“This is a wonderful customer retention tool,” Shooer says. “We can ask customers come back in 6 months and let’s see if any biomechanics look differently.”

Since the scanning equipment is lightweight and portable, Fleet Feet retailers may use the device at corporate fittings or race expos. Long term, the fit id profile information may lead to partnerships with sports podiatrists evaluating injuries and additional sales opportunities for accessories like orthotics. “With the 3-D scan customers can visually see what’s going on now,” Shooer says. “The technology and the way we use it will evolve.”

Ornelas adds: “We are exploring and evolving ways to use the data with our valued vendor partners.”

Sooner or later, every traditional technology gets replaced. While the Brannock Device may remain in many runner specialty retailers, Fleet Feet’s fit id system will raise the bar in defining the dimensions of a customer’s foot.

“At the very least, Fleet Feet retailers will know more about your foot than someone watching you walk around a store barefoot,” Langer says. “Knowledge is power.”