Many foot care professionals would probably confess to a love-hate relationship with the footwear industry. At times, it may feel like the manufacturers of tottering stiletto heels and poorly supported platform shoes are the bane of one’s existence when it comes to helping people walk or run more comfortably. And customers’ desire to look stylish far too often wins out over awareness of the short-term and long-term health problems the wrong footwear can invoke.
But Lamey Wellehan Shoes, based in Augusta, ME, may be one exception. With its emphasis on employing certified pedorthists and putting those knowledgeable professionals in front of customers rather than generically trained sales staff or footwear fashion mavens, the 101-year-old company, which has six storefronts throughout Maine, is showing a genuine commitment to foot health.
“We sell footwear, cradle to grave, for little children all the way up to the oldest seniors,” said Don Stowell, the company’s operations manager. “We provide options in every category: dress shoes, work shoes, sneakers, sandals.”
The company has always put a premium on customer service, but over the past decade or so, its leaders have had a slight change in vision as far as what that means.
“We’ve been working hard at improving our fitting and pedorthic skills as more people come in with foot problems and back problems,” Stowell said. “We don’t make medical diagnoses, but we can certainly try to find the best solution for each customer’s needs.”
Stowell points to colleague Chris Stanley, CPed, director of pedorthic education for the stores, as leading the charge when it comes to integrating a genuine and educated understanding of pedorthics into the sale process. Under the mentorship of current business owner Jim Wellehan, Stanley, who is on the board of directors of the Pedorthic Footcare Association, has helped to increase the level of medical expertise within the company, through both external and internal training.
“Over the years, Jim felt that the skill and knowledge of the sales staff had eroded somewhat, so we decided to send a couple of associates to a pedorthic precertification program,” Stanley recalled. “They had a great time learning about feet and footwear and fitting, and it made them better retailers. Now we send a number of associates every year for pedorthic certification, and we’ve also designed an internal curriculum that we call our retail pedorthic specialist program. The goal is for all of us to be more educated about the foot issues that we can be expected to handle on the sales floor: things like plantar fasciitis, tendinitis, or shoe needs following foot surgery. We’ve also used our increased understanding of biomechanics to grow our running shoe department.”
Stowell noted that the business is riding the wave of two trends: an aging population and a greater interest in fitness and physical activity. The combination of the two factors means Lamey Wellehan’s loyal customers need more help when it comes to taking care of their feet and ankles, whether the result of a new habit of walking several miles a day or problems that frequently develop in older adults, such as diabetes and edema.
The sales staff is known for going the extra mile—literally—to help a client: If a customer has physical difficulties getting to a store, the company will send a sales associate out to see them, whether in their home, a retirement facility, or a hospital.
“It may not be the most efficient process, but some of our customers don’t have anyone else who will do that for them,” Stowell said. “That kind of service, plus the fact that we have committed, knowledgeable, and attentive sales staff in every store, is what brings people back. Those qualities are not easy to find in the big-box retail world.”
Nancy Shohet West is a freelance writer in the Boston area.