Potomac River Running goes high-tech to give customers more

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Potomac River Running, a family-owned running specialty store with eight locations in Virginia and Washington, D.C., has found a way to enhance customer service without adding to inventory — the Vienna, Va., location also offers customized insoles through a FitStation from Superfeet, a designer and manufacturer of insoles for running and casual shoes.

The FitStation uses scanning technology and 3D printing to produce customized insoles. At $150, the insoles cost more than most found in mass market and drug stores, yet remain far less expensive than the insoles offered by many medical professionals.

“We wanted to give this a shot,” says Ray Pugsley, one of Potomac River’s founders. The chain already had been working closely with Superfeet; the partnership, “and our desire to be cutting edge and serve our community,” drove the retailer’s interest in the FitStation.

SuperFeet started as a biomechanics lab 40 years ago; a sister company makes fully custom, corrective orthotics, says Marketing Manager Amy Olive. The founders of the company saw a need for a lower-priced custom product, which led to the development of Superfeet insoles, sold online and through bricks-and-mortar running, sporting goods, outdoor and other stores. They range from about $30 to $60.

The Superfeet insole differs from most other over-the-counter insoles in several ways: The heel cup is deeper, and the arch is further back to support the subtalar joint, which is involved in foot movement. It’s also firmer than many insoles; that provides longer-lasting support, Olive says.

Now, Superfeet is offering customized insoles and footwear. “Every person walks a little bit differently,” she says. “Everybody has a little bit of a different muscle makeup.”

‘Non-inventory’ sales

Until now, it hasn’t been cost-effective for manufacturers to tailor insoles and footwear to account for the differences in people’s feet. That’s changing, and it benefits both consumers, who can obtain footwear personalized for them, and retailers, who have another service to offer customers. With the FitStation, Superfeet can create products built specifically for each user.

“This disruptive technology allows for a non-inventory sale,” Olive says.

The FitStation system stems from a partnership between Superfeet and Hewlett Packard. Each FitStation consists of a scanner, pressure plate and computer. As a consumer walks across the pressure plate, a 3D rendering of their foot is created.

Potomac River Running’s customer base includes walkers as well as people who spend a great deal of time on their feet, such as teachers and medical professionals.

Superfeet uses the information to create a kinetic profile for the user that takes into account the unique way they move. This includes the pressure pattern, which is how the person interacts with the ground, and their heel rotation and propulsion index; this measures the amount of effort required to move their body forward.

The FitStation can do several things with the information, including recommend products — Superfeet scans the shoe inventories of FitStation retailers, Olive says, allowing customers to find out what size fits their feet in which brand.

The FitStation also can be used to design customized 3D printed insoles, or what it calls ME3D insoles. And starting this year, it will allow Superfeet to offer customized footwear. “It’s not just the colors or the laces,” Olive says. Instead, the customization focuses on the mid-sole of the shoes, which will be crafted based on each user’s kinetic profile.

As of late last year, Superfeet was piloting the technology with more than a dozen retailers, all running stores, and will continue focusing on run specialty stores this year. “Once we have proven success in run specialty, we will look to other segments,” Olive says, including better footwear and outdoor shoes.

Similarly, Potomac River has taken efforts to extend its brand beyond runners, Pugsley says. Its customer base includes walkers as well as people who spend a great deal of time on their feet, such as teachers and medical professionals.

No matter what the customer’s needs, sales associates take the time to observe them both standing and walking in order to recommend shoes and, in some cases, insoles, based on their observations and knowledge.

“That’s the normal process,” Pugsley says. “The FitStation supplements it.”

More tailored information

Not only does the FitStation allow for personalized insoles, it helps sales associates gain additional information they can use when fitting customers for shoes.

“The HP scanner is a ‘wow,’” Pugsley says, given its ability to capture the many details concerning how a customer stands and walks. “We’re in the business of providing knowledge and information to customers.” The FitStation helps Potomac River provide more, and more tailored, information.

Olive says other insole companies don’t create 3D printed insoles from individual customer biomechanics; instead, they might measure a customer’s arch or capture an image when the customer stands on a piece of paper. Superfeet draws from its 40-year heritage in crafting shapes based on customers’ kinetic profiles and creating products that are specifically tuned to the way each user moves, she says.

At about 3×5 feet, the FitStation pressure pad can fit even into stores of about 2,500 to 3,000 square feet, Pugsley says. It’s heavy and durable, so it stays put even after multiple customers walk on it. “It’s not fragile,” he says. “You don’t have to have the space roped off.”

Retailers do need to teach their employees how to work with the FitStation, Olive says; Superfeet’s education department can help with the training. “It’s very much a partnership,” she says.

Customers’ interest in the FitStation “has been great,” she says. “Our program is growing and it’s going to continue to grow, which is really exciting.” The pilot program started with nine stores, jumped to 11 and then to 13, she says; Superfeet has set a goal of placing 400 FitStations in 2018.

With the launch of the FitStation, Superfeet is able to offer “different levels of personalization,” Olive says. The FitStation also positions the company at the forefront of this technology. “We are very much an expert in what we do,” she says. “If we don’t do this, someone else is going to.”

Olive notes that consumers “go to retail environments because they like the experience.” Often, they’re looking for trusted, knowledgeable sales people. The FitStation enables retailers to enhance the experience and value they offer customers.

“We look at ourselves as conduits to information,” Pugsley says. Customers want to know what’s new and can help their running or activities. At the same time, few “realize the incredible amount of research and development that goes into proper footwear design.”

Potomac River Running takes the time and offers its expertise to help customers identify the shoes that will help them continue the activities they enjoy; about 15 or 20 percent of customers also purchase insoles. “FitStation gives us another tool to help us do a great job,” Pugsley says.

Karen M. Kroll is a business writer based in Minnetonka, Minn.

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