It’s a back-to-school tradition: a visit to the neighborhood shoe store, where employees pull out a well-worn metal foot measuring tool from under a seat to measure children’s feet, fit them with the right shoes, and send them out the door, frequently wearing the new kicks.
Generations of students have participated in the ritual. The going wisdom was that young, growing feet needed quality shoes and a careful fit. At each visit, the shoe selection process got an assist from the Brannock Device, which dates back to the 1920s and helps decide whether to go up half a size or a full size, as well as whether a narrow or wide width was required.
But as specialty shoe stores decline in number and shopping trends shift toward online ordering and big box chains, just how essential is a professional shoe fitting? Can parents handle it themselves, or search their phones for an app that might help?
The questions take on particular relevance right now. The U.S. kids’ footwear market totaled about $10 billion last year, and roughly 30% of sales happen between July and September, during back-to-school season, according to market research firm NPD Group.
Parents like Kim Keer, 41, of Chicago, seek out stores like the ones they visited as tykes with their own parents. Keer has taken her daughter, Mila Brill, to Alamo Shoes in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood since the 4-year-old was a baby. Back then, she would cry when employees sized her feet with a Brannock Device. Last month, she hopped right on, then picked out a pair of rose gold sandals to wear to an upcoming wedding.
Keer said she likes the personal service at Alamo Shoes, especially when it comes to a purchase she thinks is important to get right. “You never put a kid in bad shoes,” she said.
But parents have more choices than ever. Department stores, discount chains and sporting goods stores carry kids’ footwear. So do online retailers like Zappos and Amazon. Even the shoe brands themselves compete with the retailers that carry their products. Nike recently launched a subscription service that will ship kids new Nike and Converse shoes as often as once a month.
“[There are] so many families where both parents are working and they’re so used to doing things online, the idea of going into a store and actually being fit doesn’t occur to them,” said David Gotskind, owner of Gotskind’s Children’s Shoes and Clothing in Naperville, Ill.
His customers tend to be people who still want traditional shoe store service. Often that means grandparents who are “used to going in and having it done properly,” and parents of babies and toddlers, he said.
A parent might feel comfortable buying their tween a new pair of Nikes online. But there aren’t as many places to find shoes for the youngest kids, who also tend to be tougher to fit, Gotskind said. Even if a parent can get a child to hold still long enough to take a measurement, the child might not be able to tell mom or dad their toes feel pinched.
The convenience of shopping online or at a big box chain can be tempting, especially when neighborhood shoe stores are getting harder to find.
Local shoe store owners could each name competitors that are no longer in business. One of the more recent was Fit to Be Tied, in Northbrook, which closed after a “retirement sale” earlier this summer.
Others just decided to stop carrying children’s shoes and focus on adults.
Sneakers have become acceptable footwear almost anywhere, which means families don’t buy dress shoes the way they used to, said Peter Hanig, co-owner of Hanig’s Footwear, which has stores in Chicago and Wilmette, Ill. Hanig’s stopped carrying children’s footwear several years ago. Some parents are reluctant to pay for shoes that spend more time in closets than on feet.
“Are you really going to invest $70 in a kids’ shoe when you know they’re going to outgrow it in seven months?” Hanig said.
Getting quality footwear that fits does matter, and having a child fit by someone knowledgeable is ideal, said Cary Zinkin, a Florida-based podiatric physician and spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association. Shoes that fit poorly or lack support can be a recipe for blisters, ingrown toenails, or sore feet.
But even foot experts recognize that’s not how most families shop today. Most parents don’t need to worry about taking a do-it-yourself approach, as long as they’re paying attention to fit and quality, said Lisa Schoene, a Chicago-area sports podiatrist.
“Unless kids have certain needs, like wearing orthotics, I think most parents can handle it themselves,” she said.
Zinkin still recommends parents take kids to a store rather than buying online, even if it’s not the kind where an employee will measure a child’s feet. It’s easier for kids to figure out what’s most comfortable when they can compare sizes and styles side by side.
Lisa Haas, 45, of Chicago, only turns to online retailers when shopping for her 5-year-old daughter if she strikes out at Alamo Shoes and Nordstrom Rack.
“Even though Zappos does free shipping and returns, it’s still a bummer to have to take them back,” she said.
Online sizing guides can help parents who want guidance, Zinkin said. Stride Rite, a popular kids’ brand, has a printable measuring tool on its website, with step-by-step instructions and a how-to video for measuring a child’s foot length and width. The Brannock Device Co. sells its devices online, though even the plastic version, at $51.25, might cost more than an individual pair of shoes.
Another aid for parents worried about getting the right fit: the booming sneaker trend.
Kids have a growth plate in their heel that can become irritated if they spend too much time in unsupportive shoes like ballet flats or flip flops, Zinkin said. Arches can get achy, too.
But parents can usually count on finding good support and cushioning in athletic shoes.
“If you’re getting a name brand that fits well and the kid says it feels comfortable, you can be pretty confident they’re wearing good shoes,” Zinkin said.