While most Western retailers tumble over themselves to deafen their merchandise with marketing noise, there is one still humming a fifties tune: the shoe shop.
Not one whiff of originality has since darkened its doors: the same little display tripods for the left shoe in a size 5; the boring soft-top stools being hogged by the huffing-and-puffing shopping expedition hangers-on; functional lighting, music, labelling- all flicking The Bird at the shoemakers’ elves on every British high street.
More vexing than this environmental stagnation is its resolve to retain the customer service model of an old-fashioned department store- the one where the outlet-to-client shoe transaction is mediated by the lengthy intervention of a Member of Staff, using visual stocktaking to communicate news from the warehouse basement, with all the efficiency of a snail on valium.
‘Do you have these in a size 7?’
‘I’m afraid I only memorised the men’s slipper section, Madam. Let me leave you sitting in this store while I transport my body mass down a flight of stairs, amble along an aisle and separate the shoe boxes by lifting, shifting and other means of physical manoeuvring, to investigate. Then I’ll transport my mass back up the stairs to deliver the results, whereupon the boredom induced by my absence will have driven you to find another pair certain to dispatch me on a similar mission.’
The method in this madness could lie, of course, in the re-appearance of said assistant with other options (‘I don’t have a child’s size 9 football boot but I do have these size 8 ballet shoes’. ‘You’re right. He’s a spoilt little shit as it is. Let him curl up his toes and dance.’) But could not this also take place in the digital arena, a la Amazon?
I dream of a store of inspirational presentation that propels me to a screen where- in the manner of weighing a banana at Tesco’s self-service check-out- I punch in my preference and am immediately informed of its availability or, failing that, a photographic orgy of similar size 7’s for my deliberation. And (in the mad REM bit at the end of the dream) to receive that choice via a grabbing arm, like those machines that push you out a Twix after a swim at the leisure centre.
They’re already doing it in Tokyo, for sure- the only shame being that robots have rendered people and their footwear, redundant.
Online shopping is an alternative- though (not unlike internet dating) the profile picture is bound to conceal issues and you’ll end up having to send them back to a Greater London suburb you’ve never heard of.
In the meantime, it’s back to a reality of cheese counter tickets and pop socks; of agonising decisions at the till over whether to invest in the sensible up-selling suggestion of protective boot spray, that will dry out over 7 years under the kitchen sink; of searching for a full-length mirror rather than an ankle-only fragment because the foot part is how the shoes feel but the look on one’s face wearing them is what really matters.
Come what may, buying shoes for children looks set to continue as a lesson in sufferance, the success of the exercise being dependent on the reliable feedback of a nonsensical person given to random motion operating in a confined, soul-sucking space.
Assuming the turbulent river of taste has been navigated between parent and child, a miserable debacle ensues whereby sprog is released to run back and forth (but not in that silly way with the bendy legs and don’t you dare wander onto the no-refunds pavement) before being asked questions about toes touching ends and issues of comfort and prospective suitability, even though they have never once been able to satisfactorily respond to their own name.
All of which could reasonably send a parent to consult the little machine, where- after 3 hours of foot contortion and tangled tape measures- a size will be concluded that has no correlation to shoe world, where all brands differ. ‘Your measurement is your pure size,’ will explain the nice girl. ‘Imagine your face if you hadn’t abused it for years with alcohol and resentment- that’s your pure image; it doesn’t mean much but it helps when you’re trying on hats.’
Eventually, a pair will prevail. This will never, ever be the one you want- not because they don’t have it but because the shoe industry considers it a duty of their profession to test your ability to make decisions: would you rather your little darling wears the right size trainers with pink hearts or the wrong size ones with Fireman Sam? Do you hate flashing lights in the heel more than the thought of going to another shoe shop in Brent Cross on a Saturday?
It’s like Deal or No Deal but with man-made upper soles instead of Noel Edmonds.
And don’t even think of bringing them back unless they’re still in the box, as technically they would no longer be shoes. Once they’ve left the cardboard protection it’s like they’ve been defiled. Did you marry a virgin? Do you understand?
‘So let’s just check you’ve got everything.
Your child needs school shoes for school, plimsolls for school sports, trainers for other sport, boots for wet weather, sandals for holiday, a fun pair for parties and a smart pair for the grandparents.
Plus one pair of Crocs.’
‘What are they for?’
‘Everything. They’re the only shoes they’ll wear.
So that’ll be £2,000 and this little ticket.’
‘A reminder to come back in 6 weeks.’