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Why Your Feet Fit Into a Crazy Range of Shoe Sizes

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Photo: Driely S.

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Shoe shopping isn't easy, as anyone who's ever bought a pair can attest. You're a size 8 at Nike, a size 7.5 at Nine West, and a size 7 at J.Crew, so sometimes it feels like a complete guessing game. And shoe shopping online? Unless you're an incredibly lucky (or well-researched) shopper, get ready for a long string of returns and exchanges.

So why aren't shoe sizes more standardized across the board? As it turns out, it's actually an industry-wide issue: Because each brand develops their own personal fit for each size of shoe, the odds of that fit being duplicated exactly by a competing brand are slim.

"People always ask us why shoe shopping is so hard," Christina Cheng, senior director of investor relations at DSW, told Racked. "And it's even more so when you shop online. There's really no standardization between brands. If I bought a Nine West brand shoe, even if I'm a size 7 in another brand, the shoe is not quite right."

There's really no standardization between brands.

Those sizing irregularities usually start at the factory production level. "Sizing usually has to do with factories that are used for each brand," Mercedes Mincks, a buyer from Zappos, told Racked in an email. "Some brands will run more narrow and others more wide, and again, this normally has to do with the factories that are being used to produce the shoes."

During the design stage, fit is determined by a tool called a shoe last: a molded, toeless model of the foot that comes in all different shapes and sizes. A different shoe last is needed for each different size of shoe that a brand produces. Since shoe lasts are a core part of a brand's protected design, it would put companies at a disadvantage to use a standard industry last. A well-honed shoe last is an integral part of an individual brand's success.

To make matters more complicated, each shoe last manufacturer adheres to a unique last design that can also effect sizing. "There are very small, idiosyncratic differences that differ not just brand to brand, but shoe to shoe," Cheng explained. "Nine West could go and say 'Hey, we're sourcing the shoe from this factory' and they're using one last, and then the other shoe is made from another factory and their last is somewhat different."

Then there's the degree to which brands are committed to the development of the fit of their shoes, which varies between different shoe markets. In athletic shoes, for example, brands are expected to pour a lot of time and money into researching the quality and fit of each product to cater to their customers. "Fit really matters, especially in running shoes, because if things are off a millimeter and there's some irritation, people will walk away from a shoe," Doug Smiley, business unit manager at Mizuno, tells Racked. "So we're obsessed with fit."

When it comes to comparing shoe fit to the competition, Mizuno doesn't spend much time looking over its shoulder. "If there are rave reviews out there about how a shoe fits, we'll look at how they constructed the upper, what materials they used," Smiley says. "But to be truthful, we get a lot of really positive feedback on our fit, especially for women's shoes. We feel like we're onto something special, and it's kind of one of those things where if it's not broke, don't fix it."

Outside of the athletic market, fit isn't as much of an obsession. Shoefitr, a startup company dedicated to helping consumers purchase the right shoe size online, has built an extensive database that records shoe construction for hundreds of brands. When online shoppers are browsing product pages on, say, Nordstrom.com, and want to know how those shoes compare to their regular fit, Shoefitr uses the information in that database to provide accurate sizing recommendations.

"What we found was that runners and athletes in general—especially soccer players—are really concerned with small differences in fit," explains Nick End, co-founder of Shoefitr. "When we get into the fashion and casual world, people aren't as concerned about those little nuanced changes. They're more concerned about just getting the right size."

The sheer volume of shoe brands in the fashion industry also creates a larger size discrepancy within the market. "In the running world or athletic world, you might be a half-size up or a half-size down sometimes," End says. "In the fashion or casual world, you could be two sizes in either direction because there's much more variability, and there are many, many more brands and styles available."

In the fashion or casual world, you could be two sizes in either direction because there's much more variability.

Fast fashion's unrelenting pace isn't helping anything either. "If you think about running shoes, every one of those companies making running shoes are putting a lot of research and development into the shoe before it's produced," End told Racked. "Sometimes they are working on shoes two years prior to what you can buy. In fashion, some companies are trying to turn out new shoes every six months—or every three months—and what they're doing is making a shoe that looks cool and making it as cheaply as possible."

Shoefitr's imaging technology has allowed End to see how some brands employ cost-cutting maneuvers to increase profit margins while dealing with the intense production demand. "Sometimes we see instances where a brand will use the same last for two half-sizes," he explains. "So for example, the 7 and 7.5 will be the same length but they'll just be cut a little wider for the 7.5. People think they are getting a longer shoe but it's not actually longer, it's just a little bit wider, and this helps the brand save money." According to End's estimates, a full set of lasts can cost a shoe brand between $100,000 and $200,000.

Although Shoefitr is pioneering the technology to improve return rates among online shoe retailers, it'll be awhile until the e-commerce shoe shopping process has the same success rates as finding the right fit in-store. In Cheng's experience, even millennials still prefer buying shoes in DSW stores as opposed to on the internet because of how difficult it is to find the right fit. "I think online is generally great because it's enriched content and made [the shopping experience] even more interactive," Cheng said. "But there are always items that are going to be best bought in person."

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