To provide a safe environment for both customers and bootfitters, access to the bootfit area will be by appointment only. Bootfitting Meccas like Footloose Sports have made bootfitting appointments part of their routine for years.
During my time on this planet, the value of knowledge – specifically, the detailed understanding of accumulated facts about the past – has been steadily devalued. The impact of the pandemic and the crater it’s left in the world economy has created an uncrossable chasm between now and then. The Firesign Theater once capriciously declaimed, “Everything you know is wrong.” How right they’ve proved to be.
One of the many casualties of our perilous times is that bootfitting as we knew it is over. The last time anyone was able to practice this arcane skill, the best bootfitters would literally lay their hands on the bare feet of their customers. All the good reasons why this hands-on inspection was the part of the state-of-the-art protocol will not be enough to save it.
I could continue to bemoan all the gone-forever charms of bootfitting pre-pandemic, but rather than wallow in loss let’s flip the script and describe this brave new world.
Meet the Gatekeeper
At some point before you can reach a boot bench, you will encounter a gatekeeper. This person may be posted at the front door or at the entry to the bootfit area, where he or she will be as essential and unavoidable as the maître d’ at a fine restaurant. To hold that parallel for one more note, without a reservation, you probably aren’t getting in.
While this sounds like the gatekeeper is more bouncer than greeter – and he/she is indeed a bit of both – the gatekeeper is also there to prepare you for the next steps. Parts of the opening spiel – which may be automated to preserve employee sanity – will most likely include:
- Sorry for any grief these new procedures may cause you, but the health and safety of our customers and employees are our primary concerns.
- To this end, we ask all customers to wear a facemask, to maintain social distancing to the best of their ability and respect the health concerns of those around them.
- After check in, we will take a digital image of your feet. This process will assist us in model and size selection. An attendant will explain the results of your scan and turn you over to your bootfitter for model try-on, insole creation and shell modifications as needed.
- Note that a detailed assessment by a veteran bootfitter is equal or superior to any 3D imagery, no matter how precise, but this methodology entails closer contact between bootfitter and client.
- Any specialty work or irreversible modifications will be supervised by our Senior Analyst, Yoda.
While not required under the new bootfitting protocol, foot scanners like this one from Boot Doctors provide lots of information without any person-to-person contact.
Say Goodbye to All That
Now that we can see the arc of the sale, it’s easier to spot what’s new and what’s missing compared to last season’s norm. Among the missing:
- Fit socks. Sock sharing will seem as quaint as coughing into your hand. So if you don’t bring clean socks with you, you’re buying.
- Trying on everything that seems plausible. You may get two boots to try, following the direction set by the foot images, but exploring multiple options isn’t in the cards. If you do try on boots, you will be asked to wear gloves.
- The customer entourage. An inordinate number of bootfit customers used to bring along a consigliere or two to serve as safeguards against bad advice. This (rarely helpful) extra layer of buffering will discover its entire habitat within the bootfit area has been wiped out.
- Uncovered contact between bootfitter and subject. The bootfitter may wear gloves – although hand sanitizer works as well or better – and the customer will wear sheer socks during fitting and insole casting. Customers who try on boots must use disinfectant.
- Drop-in service. With a one-customer-at-a-time pipeline, the chances of rolling in and catching a loose bootfitter are on a par with expecting a tee time to suddenly open up at Pebble Beach.
- Instant turnaround on fit modifications. To keep customer traffic flowing, time-consuming customization probably won’t be completed during the initial appointment.
Enough nostalgia. If this is to be our future, surely we can find some aspects to celebrate, to wit:
- 3D foot scans will become more common. The technology exists from several sources that allows a trained technician to take a 3D image of the foot and lower leg that can be compared to the fit environment of virtually any ski boot extant, although there are practical reasons why model recommendations should be left up to the bootfitter. The software can even suggest fit modifications.
- Better data equals better fits. The real genius in the 3D imaging movement lies not in any single scan as a diagnostic tool, but the accumulated knowledge represented by all scans in the database. As this data is fed back through the R&D cycle, each new generation of lasts becomes more accurate.
- Custom insoles become the norm. Sure, they’ve been around for years, and almost all true experts use them. Now their recommendation will be practically baked into the sale, which is more help than harm.
- Oversizing meets its match. Customer-led sales have induced chronic oversizing of boots on all but the most skilled skiers. But if the computer’s analysis says it’s your size, you’re more likely to accept the fact you belong in the smaller shell.
- Better skier retention and fewer dropouts. Misfit boots are the number one killer of skier participation among both novices and veterans.
- While I’ve been known to bring a certain theatricality to the boot bench, even I won’t miss the 8-person entourage.
Yoda vs. the Machine
The possibilities and pitfalls of bootfitting in the age of 3D imaging are summarized in a dialectic I call Yoda versus the Machine. Students of buyer psychology know all too well that people are more likely to trust the analysis/advice regurgitated by a computer than they are the counsel of a salesperson.
The digital world imparts an aura of infallibility despite its perpetual propensity to fail at exactly the wrong moment. The realization that all digital interfaces are the product of fallible humans only seems to occur while one is on the line with customer service. But I digress.
The reason every bootfitting arena still needs a Yoda on patrol is that bootfitting remains one of the more nuanced skills in sports. The foot endures enormous stresses in a ski boot that are impossible to quantify statically – and aren’t so easy to identify dynamically, either. People have wildly different tolerances for fit tension and may under-report limitations that aren’t captured in a foot scan.
3D imaging is brilliant at capturing all it can see, but there’s a lot of valuable information that falls outside its scope. Some of this information can be captured at the time of the scan – the skier’s height, weight and self-assessed skill set, for example – but factors such as ankle range of motion, stance and balance point and abnormalities further up the kinetic chain aren’t going to appear in a 3D image.
The moral of this parable is that we need Yoda and the Machine working in concert. The Machine does things Yoda can’t do, like accumulate data until it attains the statistical significance to alter boot shell morphology and influence inner boot accuracy. But Yoda is equally irreplaceable, for his ability to synthesize a lifetime of experience, not just in bootfitting but in how it all works on the mountain, is beyond the Machine’s arid calculation.
Now that we’re in a post-pandemic world, 3D imaging is here to stay. But despite their immanent ubiquity, 3D scanners are still only a diagnostic tool and not a substitute for shop-to-skier communication. We’re going to need vigilant gatekeepers, trained scan technicians, classically versed bootfitters and Yodas gifted with the holistic sensibility to infuse the digitally derived statistics with the understanding that can only be gleaned human-to-human.
Most of all, we’re going to need patience, individually and collectively. We’re all in this together and like it nor not, we always have been. Let’s try acting like it, and we might just come through the current crucible not just intact, but enlightened.