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Making sure the shoe fits


The name of a new children's shoe store opening today in Hunt Valley evokes long-ago games of hide-and-seek, but its high-tech approach to fitting shoes is hardly child's play.

Olly Shoes, a Toronto company, is opening its 10th store in the United States at the Hunt Valley Towne Center on Shawan Road. It distinguishes itself in the shoe market by using high-tech gadgets to add precision to the job of finding the right shoe for a child's foot.

Olly is a relatively new player in children's footwear. Department stores such as Nordstrom and Macy's and specialty chains such as Stride-Rite are major players, although nearly half of all shoe sales now come from mass merchants and discounters such as Wal-Mart, Payless and Target, according to the NPD Fashionworld Footwear Online Tracker.

Tom Stemberg and Katherine Chapman , dissatisfied by what they considered mediocre shopping experiences that often resulted in the wrong shoe, opened their first store in Toronto in 2001. They have since opened nine others, including one in Rockville. Their company's name comes from "Olly olly oxen free," the phrase children used long ago to indicate it was safe to emerge from a game of hide- and-seek.

Chapman said she was frustrated with having to visit several stores to find shoes for each of her three children. Instead, she wanted a destination specifically for a children's shoe-shopping trip, where each child would find a shoe they liked and that fit properly.

Olly's stores feature spacious aisles and also carry toys and colorful accessories like hair bows and teddy bears. But their main draw is a scanning system that measures a child's foot. The scanning centers resemble a toy train for younger kids and a train-ticket counter for older kids. The captured images of feet are stored in a computer database - the 21st-century version of the traditional metal foot scale. Customers can also use a printable diagram on the company's Web site to pinpoint the correct size before visiting the store.

"It's real important to have kids get that fit as fast as possible," said Paul Bundonis, president and chief operating officer of Olly Shoes. "And it's a free scan," he said, explaining that the store's computer database can easily track the growth of a child's foot over time, which on average changes about every two to three months.

Olly's stores feature low displays so kids can easily see and touch the shoes, which are organized by age, seasons, casual and athletic. Shoes are stocked above the displays in ladder-accessible cubby holes.

This allows sales people to instantly see what's in stock and remain with the customer at all times. Chapman said she didn't want customers to feel abandoned when a clerk went to the backroom to find a shoe in stock.

The store carries about 30 brand names, typically between $25 and $45 a piece, including New Balance, Nike, Reebok and Primigi, an Italian brand exclusive to the chain.

Some analysts say the store meets a market for people who place convenience and experience above price.

"People want things customized for them and they also want it delivered quickly," said Candace Corlett, a principal with New York-based WSL Strategic Retail, a consulting firm. "And Olly has enormous potential."

Wearing the wrong shoe size can damage a child's foot, experts said.

"I recommend that parents should not do a lot of self-selecting and should go to someone with knowledge of how a shoe fits," said Bill Boettge, immediate past president of the Columbia-based National Shoe Retailers Association.

A wide foot in a shoe that's too narrow, for example, can cause bunions, nerve damage and other developmental problems, he said.

Some parents and children were curiously looking through the window of the store this week before it opened. Chapman is optimistic that they will enjoy the experience.

"It's all about kids being able to touch and play at the stores," said Chapman, expecting her fourth child any day. "It will be the best shopping experience you've ever had with your kid."

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