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Americans Have Increasingly Big Shoes To Fill - 2003-08-10

Not the elusive, hairy creature that some say is roaming the woods of the American Northwest, but the ordinary American!

It's well known that we're growing taller and fatter. And now it's clear that our feet are enlarging, too - and fast. So fast that the average foot has jumped one full shoe size in just sixteen years.

A 1987 study by NPD Group, a market-research company, found that only 11 percent of U.S. women wore a size-nine shoe or higher. Today, the figure is 37 percent. The best-selling men's shoe in 1987 was a nine-and-one-half. Now shoe and department stores load up on 10-and-a-halfs.

Lyle Haskell, a podiatrist in Austin, Texas, says the asphalt, concrete, and wooden surfaces of the urban environment in which most Americans live or work flatten arches and lengthen feet. The obesity that plagues a growing number of Americans widens them. And attention to nutrition has expanded the feet of fitness-conscious Americans as well.

"I know the children that are coming through in my practice, and I practice in a fairly young community, not only their feet size but also their stature in general is much larger than I ever remember going through school. Kids in general are just a lot larger. I don't know whether that has to do with [baby] formula and what's been changed with infants, to additives that are being put in our foods. I don't know what that is from," Dr. Haskell said.

Dr. Haskell said he sees a lot of women patients, in particular, whose feet are spreading but who stubbornly refuse to buy larger shoes, in the belief that big feet are ugly. So they scrunch into shoes that are too small and pay the price in pain, nerve damage, even a condition called hammer toe in which toes jammed into tiny shoes buckle upward.

Here's the rub, so to speak, for the shoe industry, which sells close to two billion pairs of shoes in the United States each year: While other U.S. clothing manufacturers have responded to the American growth spurt by producing attractive clothes in so-called plus sizes, shoe companies have clung to what they call their sales bell curve, stocking up on average-size shoes that have always accounted for the bulk of their sales.

Fawn Evenson, a division president at the American Apparel and Footwear Association, says shoes hog inventory space. So dealers are reluctant to keep many small or large-size shoes on hand. Most shoes are made abroad months before they're put on display, she points out. So even if retailers were to risk ordering more large sizes, shoemakers could not easily accommodate them.

"I get complaints all the time. Once people know who I am and what I do, that's the first thing people say is, 'My daughter wears a size ten, and I can't get any decent shoes for her. The problem for many women is that they have a very narrow foot. And it costs a lot of money to build the 'lasts,' as the forms on which shoes are made are called. So the manufacturers don't want to make many for larger sizes. So women with narrow feet definitely have problems, because most people wear a 'B,' and so most shoes are produced in a 'B' width. It's the 'A's and 'Double-A's' and 'Triple-A's' where I get most of the complaints," Ms. Evenson said.

For women, what's called the sample size, or the size most often displayed at fashion shows and in stores, was a four just a few years ago, Ms. Evenson says.

"Now a 'four' looks ridiculous, it's so small. If you look around today - just look down at people's feet - those larger sizes are no longer a large size. It is 'run-of-the-mill' at this point. If we want to supply those customers with shoes, we have to now upgrade the size range that our members carry - certainly go much more with the larger sizes," Ms. Evenson said.

Although she is neither obese nor exceptionally tall, Barbara Thornton of Boston, Massachusetts, wears a size eleven-and-one-half shoe - almost three times that size-four shoe that was the industry standard. She was working as a city planner but abandoned that career six years ago to start a shoe company, It does business on the Internet and also operates one real, bricks-and-mortar store in Boston. Both specialize in fashionable, large-size women's footwear. Too often, Barbara Thornton says, such shoes were clunky, comfortable but unattractive granny shoes.

"Older women have been squeezing into Size Tens because that's where the market stopped. And now they've got kind of bad feet. And so they like to keep their feet covered and like to wear more conservative shoes. The younger women who have very beautiful feet, well-shaped, healthy feet, they want attractive shoes," Ms. Thorton said.

Ms. Thornton has her own favorite explanation for the growth of U.S. women's feet. She explained, "I think it's Title IX. Title IX is the act that was passed in the early 1970s, the federal law that said that if you were going to spend money on sports, you had to give as much to women as you did to men in college campuses. They're running up and down the field all day, pounding on their feet. And the feet get bigger with use. In the old days, a woman's job was to look delicate and keep her feet small. After women discovered how good it feels to be physically fit, the young women who come into our store say, 'I want a shoe that fits. And you'd better make it big enough, because my feet are big' because they've been wearing sneakers most of their lives."

For men, thanks to the popularity of sports and the larger-than-life athletes who play them, there are plenty of sneakers and casual shoes to be found, even in gargantuan sizes. But industry officials admit it's still difficult to convince retailers to stock stylish large-size dress shoes. Most local, family-owned shoe stores that once would special-order large shoes for their customers have disappeared in favor of massive, impersonal department stores and nationwide shoe chains that, if they recognize the Bigfoot trend at all, have been in no hurry to react to it.