Jerry Cook, CPed, calls himself one of “the bartenders of the shoe industry.” When he straddles a fitting stool, he says customers want to tell him their life story.
“Like bartenders, pedorthists listen and are sympathetic to our customers’ needs,” Cook explained. “Then we take them where they need to go in footwear or orthotics. My job isn’t to sell somebody a pair of shoes to just get the store’s numbers up.”
Cook, 43, is the assistant manager at a New Balance franchise store in Creve Coeur, a St. Louis suburb.
“Isn’t being a board-certified pedorthist the lifelong dream of every kid?” he asked with a grin.
Cook grew up in the shoe business. His mother was employed by Pagoda, a footwear trading company that the St. Louis-based Brown Shoe Company ultimately bought.
“I started working with my mom straight out of high school. After Brown took over, I worked for them in manufacturing plants in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and the Philippines,” Cook said.
Ultimately, he left Brown Shoe Company.
“Becoming a pedorthist seemed like a natural evolution of things for me,” Cook said.
Cook started at another New Balance store in Clayton, also a St. Louis suburb.
“I worked with Beth Eilers, who is also a CPed. She told me that Randy Brown, who owns the franchises, had been sending people out to study to be CPeds,” Cook said. “After a couple of years, I told him I would be interested. I had been in the shoe business for 20 years then.”
Cook was certified in 2004.
He mostly practices retail pedorthics.
“But we’re networking with a lot of doctors. Our [medical pedorthics] business is getting larger,” he said.
Cook fits comfort and athletic shoes and dispenses orthotics. While he helps run the Creve Coeur store, he takes his turn waiting on customers.
“Pedorthics involves the personal touch,” he said. “When you spend time with customers, they get comfortable with you. They become your friends, and they’ll keep coming back.”
Cook said foot pain brings many people through his front door.
“A lot of it is plantar fascitis,” he said.
Other pain is self-inflicted. Many people wear shoes too small for their feet and suffer the consequences, Cook said.
“They shop at the mall where there is nobody who knows how to fit shoes. Or they are used to self-service stores where some kid wipes his nose and says, ‘Yeah, man, the size thirteens are over there.”
Everybody who shops at Cook’s store gets his or her feet measured. Both feet get checked for length and width, he added.
Some customers, notably women, balk at graduating to a larger size, Cook said.
“When that happens, I explain that feet usually get larger after you have kids. I also ask them if their clothing size has changed in the past 20 years,” Cook said. “Then I show them where the ball of their foot lands in the shoe they’re wearing. Nine times out of ten, the ball is ahead of where it is supposed to be in the shoe. I tell them that the shoe isn’t going to function properly if the ball and the shoe don’t line up properly.”
Cook said most of his customers agree on the size and type of shoe he recommends.
“If they don’t, I look at it like this – we are not in a mall,” he said. “We are a destination store. People come to us for a reason. So I tell customers, ‘You chose to come here. It is also your choice whether to listen to me. I am just here to help you and guide you in the right direction.’”
Cook said most customers appreciate his candor, even when they need therapeutic shoes that may be long on comfort but short on style. “Sensible shoes” can be a close encounter of the worst kind for fashion-conscious customers.
“I even tell them, ‘I’m not going to sell you this shoe if it’s just going to sit in your closet. It would just be a waste of your money,” he said.
He said therapeutic shoes can save limbs of diabetes patients. He sees some of them in his store.
“Those with neuropathy intentionally buy smaller shoes so they can feel them on their feet,” he said.
That can ultimately lead to the loss of toes, feet and even legs. Shoes that are too small can rub blisters. Even a simple blister can become infected and turn into gangrene, necessitating amputation.
“In the past 5 years, I’ve had a couple of patients who passed away because of diabetes and two others who had to have amputations because they got infections because of their shoes.”
But he also hears good news and sometimes earns sweet rewards, too.
“A gentleman’s daughter came back after he got shoes and brought me brownies. He has diabetes. She said the shoes I fit him in saved his life,” Cook said. “So when I get discouraged, I think about things like that and about customers who come back raving about how good their feet feel because of a pair of shoes I convinced them to buy. That’s a great feeling.”
Berry Craig is a correspondent for O&P Business News.