"Do you want to sit in the choo-choo?" salesperson Lauren Hulfish asks Jessica Wilson.
"No!" is the 2-year-old's curt reply.
Sigh. Little Jessica is subverting the Olly Shoes system.
The problem is painfully familiar to most parents: how to get shoes that fit your little kid's feet. At most shops, the system hasn't changed much since the introduction of the Brannock Device in 1925: A salesperson measures the child's foot manually, then retrieves shoes in the corresponding size — which may or may not actually fit.
Olly Shoes, one of the top retailers in the Fast Company/Monitor Group Innovation Scorecard, is the brainchild of CEO Katherine Chapman and Staples chairman Tom Stemberg. Since starting in Toronto in 2001, it has expanded to nine stores in Canada and the United States, with plans to open 90 more within five years. The idea: Replace the old slider with scanning technology.
Shoe sizes vary from brand to brand, and "it's hard to know if you're selling something that truly fits a child's foot," says Chapman. So Olly Shoes measures the interior dimensions of all 200 models in its inventory, assigning each a standard OllyFit number. The train? There's a scanner built into the floor. So if Jessica ever gets in, her foot size can be matched electronically to the models in Olly Shoes' stock.
This isn't the first attempt to incorporate technology into sizing shoes. Starting in the 1930s, some stores used X-ray machines to measure feet. (That gimmick was banned in the 1950s.) And a decade ago, Stride Rite and Rockport tested earlier scanning technologies, which didn't work very well.
"The art and science of shoe fitting takes a while, and we don't have a good system of teaching it other than by trial and error," says Bill Boettge, president of the National Shoe Retailers Association. "I think even an experienced shoe fitter would love the additional information that comes from the technology."
Still, "technology will probably take you [only] 70% of the way," says Boettge, an assessment Chapman agrees with. Even with the new system, she says, "we still have the same challenges as any company." Specifically, technology can't replace the kindness and patience that a good salesperson offers.
Indeed, with Hulfish's encouragement, Jessica finally boards the train. Within two minutes, accounting for fidgeting, her feet are scanned and the computer spits out her OllyFit number. While Jessica plays with puzzles, her mother, Andrea Wilson, picks out a shoe — and minutes later Jessica is happily running around the store in her new sneakers. Mom is relieved. "A child under 3," she says, "is not going to tell you how they feel."
A version of this article appeared in the August 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.