As the number of people suffering from foot pain rises and the health and wellness market grows in popularity, footwear retailers are being urged to focus more on a shoe’s hidden gem: the insole.
Sandwiched between the midsole and upper, the insole is all about substance over style — and as a result, it’s often relegated to the back corners of footwear stores. But whether sold as an insert or as an integrated part of shoes, insoles are doing more work than we give them credit for.
“The insole is the first thing that touches someone’s foot, yet the interior environment of the shoe is typically a hot, sweaty, smelly place. There wasn’t a lot of focus on performance,” said C.B. Tuite, chief sales officer at Ortholite. “It’s not just about stepping comfort; it’s about long-term comfort and performance.”
While everyone has his or her own way of walking, many people have developed idiosyncrasies that place unnecessary strain on parts of the foot. For those whose walking movement is aligned in a healthy way, it is often the shoe that fails to provide appropriate support. Whether you’re an athlete or commuter, child or retiree, good foot health can have a dramatic impact on quality of life.
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This knowledge has been slowly infiltrating the marketplace. The benefits of insoles have long been known among pain-relief consumers and medical professionals, taking up space next to the medical-grade orthotics that have been helping the more seriously afflicted for years.
But the growing understanding of the human body, combined with the meteoric rise of wellness and fitness culture, is bringing these attributes to the general consciousness.
“You’re starting to see a lot of products that used to be considered pure recovery products — things like foam rollers — becoming mainstream now, and insoles are falling right along that same trend,” said Eric Hayes, chief marketing officer at Superfeet. “Consumers are understanding that they shouldn’t wait around for an injury to occur to start treating themselves to these products.”
For a company like Superfeet, which produces its insoles directly for the consumer, this changing attitude opens up the potential customer base and allows for extended product lines that cater to every possible combination of foot and shoe style. Need a thin insole for pain relief but that is also designed for a running shoe? That’s available, as is a ¾-length thick insole for a men’s dress shoe. Such specificity can provide enhanced performance, which is increasingly important to all kinds of consumers, regardless of athletic ability.
“Over-the-counter insole brands have definitely stepped up their game,” said Jacqueline Prevete, a podiatric surgery specialist in New York. “This affects how I practice in that if someone is not covered for custom foot orthoses through their insurance carrier, I can direct them to a decent over-the-counter brand with particular modifications.”
It’s not just the consumer who is growing wise to the potential impact of an insole. Ortholite, one of the largest insole suppliers in the market, can be found in 500 million pairs of shoes annually and counts over 350 global partners, which continually push for greater innovations in insole technology. In 2018, the company introduced more technologies than in the past 10 years combined, bringing its selection up to about 400 offerings that address everything from high rebound performance to slow recovery foam.
“In the past, brands were talking about cost engineering with components, but now it’s about value and performance engineering; it’s about investment benefits,” said Tuite. “Brands understand that they’ve got to give more value to the consumer today.”
This value is increasingly arriving in the form of sustainable products. At Ortholite, for instance, that’s meant the release of several eco-friendly designs produced from recycled post-production foam. Engineered by its in-house chemist, the foam is patent-pending but has already been adopted by multiple brands for products to launch in 2019 and 2020. Not only does this allow a brand to foster its commitment to sustainability, it permits Ortholite to address its own environmental impact. “When you’re producing over 500 million pairs of insoles a year, you have a lot of waste,” said Tuite.
At Superfeet, sustainability has been incorporated into its latest product offering: the Me3D series. After a year in pilot, Me3D will launch throughout the U.S. this year and offer fully customized insoles produced from a 3-D scan that is then 3-D-printed to exact measurement (minimizing waste) as part of a collaboration with HP Fitstation. Unlike previous incarnations of customized insoles, the Me3D product will not just address the shape of the customer’s feet but also take into account his or her biometric data, providing the most appropriate support at all stages of movement.
Me3D products are expected to be adopted by the consumer due to the level of personalization that previously cost hundreds of dollars and required several doctor’s visits. Now customers can expect their custom insole within 72 hours of purchase. Even Superfeet acknowledged that the product is a steep upgrade to its previous offerings, due to the complete flexibility of the design.
“Anytime you’re starting with a stock product, or blank, you’re inherently limited by the blank itself; you can only adjust the blank from its starting point, and that starting point has degrees of variation that you can adjust,” explained Hayes. “When you’re starting with nothing, we can print to whatever shape is appropriate to your foot.”
For both companies, the best insoles are those designed to work with a particular shoe, which is why Ortholite partners with brands at every stage of the production process and why Superfeet has launched its own footwear line. As customers get smarter about what they need from their shoes, it has never been more important to give attention to the humble insole and its vast range of potential attributes.