Nordstrom's magic foot sizer

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Laser measurements are far more advanced than the shoe industry. But it will give Nordstrom's shoppers a reason to believe the customer service magic.

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Technology gadgets won't help a retailer if they don't have good customer service. RFID and NFC won't bring Walmart customers back—or increase their average basket size—if the shopping experience is unpleasant. But when good customer service is married to customer-facing tech wizardry, look out. Consider Nordstrom's 3D-scanning foot-measuring shoe-fitting rollout.

If a shopper walks into a Home Depot or Lowe's with a need for a specific size pipe or bolt, does he/she need to try it out to know if it will work? What about a customer wanting a specific sauté pan from Williams-Sonoma? The well-known reality is that clothes—including accessories like shoes—has sizing identifications that change from manufacturer to manufacturer, from style to style. And, yes, this is much worse for women's clothing and accessories.

Nordstrom's is trialing a 3D scanning technique that theoretically delivers a precise and consistent measurement of every part of the foot. We'll delve into the details of that technology in a moment, but it's important to stress that if this works in the field, it would only address half of the problem.

Once a retailer—and the shopper—has a lengthy list of measurements of every aspect of the foot, it's valuable only to the extent that there is a comparable counterpart list from major shoe manufacturers and the shoe brands that often package and sell them to retailers. If one can't put that list into a database and find shoes that will work precisely with those stats, what's the point?

If the scan reveals that the customer has an especially high in-step, for example, there needs to be a way to match it to a shoe on the market. That requires manufacturers (and their stitchers and every other part of the apparel supply chain) to adhere to strict procedures so that they can precisely measure every part of their shoes.

Other than using these specs to craft comparatively expensive custom-made shoes—which, by the way, one company involved in the Nordstrom's trial is trying to do—it's hard to convert those stats into something useful on a large scale.

The best area for improvement would be for e-commerce. It's not uncommon today for shoppers to purchase four or five variations on a shoe style, try on the shoes when they arrive at their home and then return all but one (if not all of them) for a full refund. If that doesn't deserve the Academy Award For Least Efficient And Most Friction-Filled Means Of Commerce Ever, nothing does.

The intent behind the Nordstrom's move is to use its renowned customer service. After scanning the foot, the sales associate will use that information to find the best shoe.

How much of this is smoke, mirrors and marketing? Regrettably, a fair amount. First, because the numbers are not easily translated into something that can be entered into a website somewhere, those numbers are only useful at Nordstrom's.

More importantly, is it telling the associate anything that they couldn't get via a 10-second look at the customer's foot?

Here's the business reality. If shoe marketers were able to use these numbers to match specs to specific shoes that would fit effortlessly and not need to be tried on, they could end-run around the retailers and sell their foot coverings directly to consumers via e-commerce and m-commerce. Adidas, Nike, Jimmy Choo and Louis Vuitton will eventually get there. And when they do, retailers will be able to do practical things with those numbers. An associate will scan the foot and a tablet will display every shoe that will fit and is in-stock.

So what is Nordstrom's doing today? They are working with a Stockholm-based company called Volumental that's, according to this Forbes piece, "hardware includes a platform that looks not unlike a high-tech scale. All a shoe shopper has to do is stand on it, and depth cameras take a 3D, volumetric scan of each foot. The company’s software, which includes Intel and Microsoft technology, captures data points including arch length and ball width that a shoe retailer would find it tough to measure accurately using traditional tools."

That characterization is correct, but is also without context. That specific number associate with the ball width, arch length or in-step size means little, other than it is high, low, big or small. The associate knows shoes that do well in those areas, but the shoes still need to be tried on.

Here's where shopper confidence and a history of customer service comes into play. Nordstrom's employees tend to have a lower-than-industry-norm turnover, and the company trains its people better. In other words, they tend to know quite a bit about what they are selling. These new numbers seem impressive and will make customers want even more to use Nordstrom's. Hence, I believe it will boost sales.

Think of this as the shoe merchant equivalent of the digital readouts now used by car mechanics everywhere to diagnose recent-model cars. The theory is that the readouts tell the mechanic the precise nature of the automobile's trouble. The only hiccup is that it doesn't. It gives a code that narrows down the list of possible troublespots (which is, without a doubt, helpful), including the possibility that the sensor itself is what is malfunctioning.

How is that akin to the shoe situation? Because even with the sensor readings, the mechanic still needs to get into the guts of the car to figure out the real problem and to fix it. But those digital readouts certainly look impressive.

Eventually, these kinds of measurements with reshape the online shoe-purchasing world. In the meantime, though, it will be an impressive distraction. With Nordstrom's, though, it will all work out because their associates tend to be well-trained and experienced (like a good auto mechanic) and they will indeed find a shoe that will fit perfectly. The secret is that they would have done that anyway—but the laser scans will give shoppers a 21st-century reason to believe in Nordstrom's old world customer service magic.

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