The symbol of the British Society of Shoe Fitters is a bare foot on a measuring device.
The logo is not just for show, Richard French, a longtime society member, said. “A passion for our work comes from this commitment to fitting,” explained French, who is semi-retired from his 210-year-old family shoe business in Southampton, England.
“There is no legal obligation to know anything about feet or footwear to sell shoes, but we think there is a moral obligation,” said British Society of Shoe Fitters (SSF) Secretary Laura West of Hingham, England.
“Standards are dropping. Children’s shoes are being sold online without any professional foot assessment. It is time to help fly the flag for fitting.”
The group has been hoisting the colors for proper shoe fit since 1959. The Pedorthic Footcare Association (PFA) began stateside the year before.
The two organizations are similar in many ways. The SSF and its American cousin are not-for-profit groups that stress to consumers, the footwear industry and government the importance of supportive shoes and inserts that are properly fitted by professionals.
“We were created from those dedicated one-man shoe fitting specialists within the National Shoe Retailers Council,” West said.
The National Shoe Retailers Council became the Independent Footwear Retailers Association. It is similar to the U.S. National Shoe Retailers Association, to which many PFA members also belong.
Small, independent shoe stores — retail stores are “shops” in the United Kingdom and Ireland — are rare on both sides of the Atlantic. Scarcer still are enterprises with the longevity of W.J. French & Son Ltd.
The French family’s firm has been selling shoes in seafaring Southampton and its environs since 1803. Nearby is Portsmouth, home to the H.M.S. Victory, Lord Horatio Nelson’s famous flagship from which he led the British fleet against French warships in the Battle of Trafalgar.
Francis and Martha French’s Southampton shoe shop was 2 years old when Nelson won his greatest sea fight. But he lost his life in the battle, which is commemorated in a large upstairs mural at French & Son. The men’s, women’s and children’s departments are downstairs.
The SSF has its own special U.S.-manufactured blue and silver Brannock devices, each emblazoned with the group’s logo. But French fitters measure with vintage black and silver Brannocks.
“The Brannocks have been wonderful over many years,” French said. “We especially use the children’s version and all have U.K. sizing.”
The shop’s commitment to the Brannock is reflected in its fitting stools. Brown seat cushions are scalloped to accommodate the rounded ends of the familiar metal sizers invented in the 1920s by American Charles F. Brannock of Syracuse, N.Y., who founded a factory to make them.
The Brannocks are expertly employed, according to French. “We now have six members of staff who have joined the Society,” he said. “And the SSF are very proud of that fact because W.J. French & Son is one of the finest shops in the country, offering superb fitting and customer service,” West added.
Highly qualified members
She stressed that SSF membership is “qualification only.” Most members live in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. But they also can be found as far distant as Turkey and Singapore.
Prospective members complete a distance learning course in footwear fitting that includes two practical workshop days. The course has been written for those new to the industry, but contains so much information even experienced fitters are impressed when they complete it. Fitters with 5 or more years on the job can join the SSF by passing an entrance examination.
The distance learning course includes two hands-on workshop days — 1 day at the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists in London, Britain’s capital city, and 1 day at a shoe factory in Northampton, the historic heart of the British footwear industry.
Like the PFA, the SSF offers continuing education opportunities for members. In addition, the SSF hosts in-store training and seminars, West said.
“Also, we fund a helpline for the public and the shoe industry and we have a website that tells about the SSF. It includes a register of members for those who want to promote their services.
“Our website is popular, with hundreds of hits weekly guiding the public to our members and suppliers. Even Hotter USA [the stateside branch of the British Hotter comfort shoe company] contacted us to say how informative they thought our site was and asked how they could they be involved and linked to it.”
In addition, the SSF works with National Health Service health care professionals who fit shoes and with Job Centres, government offices that help people find work.
Many SSF members show up for work sporting small blue and white SSF logo pins, or “badges” in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Qualifying for SSF membership “gives the highest professional level of skill and confidence to staff, which influences their colleagues who are not currently members,” French said. “Our customers may not recognize the badge but can certainly tell when someone is speaking with knowledge.”
West said that full SSF members are individuals, not corporations.
“Selective companies are invited to become Associate Members and they help to support the organization as we receive no government funding — which is frustrating as without our organization there would be no one to help answer footwear and fitting enquiries. Even the British Footwear Association refers public enquiries to the SSF. Associate Members must share our aims and objectives,” she said.
“Sadly, the public [is] completely ignorant of the damage that can be done to their physiology with misfitted shoes,” West said. “The growing desire to buy as cheaply as possible, often comparing prices online, means our members have a very difficult job selling shoes that they have taken the trouble to fit.
“Consumers simply walk out armed with what they believe to be the size and fitting information they need to buy elsewhere. With so few shops offering a fitting service the public [doesn’t] give it a second thought.”
Even so, French believes public awareness is growing. “There are many enquiries made of the Society that are referred to shops where there are members,” he said. “Laura has sent us many customers with problems we are able to solve and feed back the results.”
On April 12, the SSF is celebrating the second annual National Shoe Fitting Week, an event held the week before Easter. “Our aim is to garner a lot more support from the national media and industry as a whole but that is difficult on a shoestring budget. We have to base this on networking and goodwill. We are therefore delighted that The Society of Chiropodists & Podiatrists is endorsing the event this year. With more than 11,000 members it will be wonderful for more of them to be aware of our membership,” West said.
She explained that Society members include shoe fitters, chiropodists, podiatrists, footwear company representatives and agents, technicians from international companies and laboratory staff who are connected to footwear.
A voluntary Council governs the SSF, whose current president is Ellie Dickins of Hungerford, Berkshire, England. West has handled SSF management and administration duties from Norfolk for the last 25 years.
“We are also producing our own infant’s gauge, which has proved extremely popular,” West said.
She warned that the SSF will not sell its measuring instruments to anyone who has not undergone training in shoe fitting. “This was a promise we made to the Brannock Device Co. [which moved to Liverpool, a Syracuse suburb, a few years ago]. A gauge is just a starting point, a guide to far greater knowledge needed to do the job properly.”