Secrets from a high-end shoe store: How to find, fit, and maintain comfy shoes (and no, there are no unicorns)

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Pamela
i took off my shoes
Are you shoes hurting so much that they're spending more time off your feet than on? (Photo by Danielle MolerCC BY 2.0)

I used to think everyone's feet hurt at the end of the day. This is not true or, at least, it's less true than you might imagine. I've learned a lot working in a shoe store. It isn't some fast fashion mall shop — I work for a high-end store focusing on comfort shoes. (No they're not all ugly, but I'll get to that another time).

We have many older customers and customers with foot problems but we also have plenty of people with no foot problems who have discovered the secret to pain-free feet.

Here are some things that I've learned.

Let's get some shoes: The basics of shoe shopping

Get measured. A lot of people are wearing the wrong size. Usually it's through ignorance, but there are other reasons. Feet change. If you've gained weight, lost weight, been pregnant, been injured or even just aged since the last time your feet were measured your size may have changed.

Shoes are fit based on three values:

  1. Heel-to-toe length
  2. Arch length
  3. Width

Even then, fitting is more of an art than a science. Fitting a fleshy, three-dimensional object using two-dimensional measurements is not a straightforward affair.

Your arch length is super important. Most people who think they know their size only know heel-to-toe length, and maybe width. But knowing your arch length is good since most shoes are constructed to bend and move with your foot — and hopefully offer cushioning and support. You want the widest part of your foot in the widest part of the shoe, which can mean sizing up a little from your heel to toe measurement. If your arch is shorter (which I have yet to encounter) then you'll want to find a shoe with a long toe box because too short a shoe can cause ingrown toenails and other nastiness.

You need extra room at the toe because your feet lengthen and shorten as you walk. Feet also tend to swell as the day goes on. This is why you also need someone else to check the length for you, if you just bend over you're not putting weight on your feet how you would standing normally and your foot will not be taking up as much room.

I've also seen lots of people wearing a size up or down in length to accommodate a wide or narrow foot without even knowing it.

Get measured at a nice shoe store or department store and try some different shoes to find out what fits you best. You don't have to actually buy anything, but tell them up front if you're just finding your size and, please, not right after working on your feet all day or going to the gym.

Not all shoes are created equal

There is no standardized way to measure width in shoes! A certain brand or style may run long/short/wide/narrow. It could be AAA, AA, A, B, C, D, E, EE, EEE, EEEE, etc. It could be Super-slim, slim, narrow, medium, wide, wide-wide, etc. Most shoes are mediums, though women's shoes are usually narrower than men's shoes. A women's medium is a B, while a men's medium is a D.

Most shoes will do one of two things (or sometimes some of both):

  • They will either absorb shock: Shock absorption is achieved through sole construction and cushioning; think of an athletic shoe.
  • Or evenly distribute pressure: Weight and pressure distribution is about the shape of the footbed matching the shape of your foot; think of a Birkenstock.

Some people do great with a soft cushy footbed, while others need a firmer, more supportive shoe. Only you can tell what works for you.

Higher-end brands are made WAY better and will last MUCH longer than something cheap. Divide the cost of the shoe by how long it will last and it's usually worth investing. Plus you'll be more comfortable while you're wearing it.

Maintaining and altering your shoes

The difference maintaining your shoes makes will amaze you and save you lots of money.

If you have a wide forefoot, or bunions, or hammer toes, or a tiny evil head growing on your foot, most shoes can be stretched to accommodate. Any cobbler can do it, and it won't cost very much (ten or twenty bucks, tops). Some shoe stores do it free of charge if you bought the shoe there.

Heel slipping usually happens when your forefoot isn't held far enough back in the shoe, often because the front of the shoe is too deep or wide. If your heel slips DO NOT put one of those stick-on pads in the back of the shoe. If your shoe has a removable insole (and many do, even dress shoes, though they're often held in with a little glue) you can stick a thin piece of cork (or foam or whatever you have handy) under it at the front. Just trace the front third of the insole and cut it to size. This works by helping the shoe hold your foot in the correct place, while those stick-on heel pads just jam your toe to the end of the shoe.

A cobbler can replace a worn heel, fix a split seam, and sometimes replace the whole sole of a shoe.

For minor aesthetic details some superglue and a Sharpie will hide many sins.

To make your shoes last, clean, polish and weather-proof them regularly.

  • For oiled leather, clean and condition with something like mink oil.
  • For suede and nubuck, get a soft brush and nubuck eraser.
  • For white rubber toe caps, gently scrub with a Magic Eraser (be sure to spot test.)

Replacing the laces can make a huge difference in appearance.

Let them rest and air out for at least a day between wears.The heat and moisture of your foot will break shoes down much faster (and smell much worse) if they don't have time to fully dry between wears.

Insoles fit to your arch length and designed for any foot problems you have will make things much more comfortable as well. Seriously. Expect to pay upwards of fifty dollars for them though.

But there ARE these awesome unicorn heels!
But there ARE these awesome unicorn heels!

There are no unicorns

So, you want a really cute shoe that's super comfortable and great for walking in? And could it also be cheap and American made? I'd like that too, but our cultural ideas of beauty do not line up with what is comfortable and healthy, so be ready to compromise. Nobody looks good limping and grimacing in pain.

  1. Thanks for all the information!

    What are your thoughts on those waterproofing sprays? Are they worth using/good to use (I mean for the shoes, they are probably terrible for the user and the environment), or is it better to just keep the leather in good shape with the mink oil?

    Also, any tricks for scuffing on patent leather?

    • At work we sell a basic Kewi weather proofing spray, which will get the job done. I am honestly have not tried many brands, or if you're looking for the best I'd suggest checking reviews on amazon or zappos. with oiled or smooth leather regular maintenance should be fine, fabric, suede, etc need it more. Mostly I'd suggest it if you will be wearing them in moist environment often.

      As for patent leathers, you are pretty much out of luck. Patent is (now)made by coating leather in plastic, and once the plastic is scratched there's not much you can do about it. For future reference be aware that patterns will show scuffs much less that plain color patents.

  2. I KNOW I need to take the leap and buy a great pair of professional-ish shoes instead of rotating through multiple pairs of less expensive sneakers. (Oh, the luxury of working in a lab where on good days I match my sneakers to my t-shirt!) Thank you for the validation and way better explanation that shoes need to rest between wearings. I eventually figured out that my feet never smell if I rotate shoes, but they can if I constantly wear the same pair.

    Does anyone have any thoughts on shoes like Merrel Jungle Mocs, Timberland professional slip-ons, etc? Or are there better brands?

    • I really like my Sanita clogs, and other friends of mine like the Dansco clogs. (Sanita was better then Dansco for me because their narrow was narrower then Dansco's and I have long, narrow, flat feet).

      The clogs cost over $100, but they are worth it.

        • Dansko shoes are fantastic for short flat feet! I love my pairs and they have lasted me years! They would have lasted even longer if I had properly cared for them.

          I also love Keens. I work in a lab all day too, and I love the enclosed leather shoes. Great protection on the toes from chemical spills ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I stand all day working in my studio and Merrells have been my shoe of choice for about 5 years now. I love them for standing and working in all day, they are also great as a hiking shoe.
      It took a long time but I have learned to suck it up and spend the money to get good shoes, they last so much longer than the cheap ones.

    • The other replies pretty much covered it. Merrel jungle mocs are good. I love dansko myself, but be prepared for the super loose fit. It take getting used to.

    • Cobb Hill is my go-to. It's made by New Balance, so super comfy, and they make a variety of widths.

  3. I use a small brush with very stiff metal bristles for my suede heels and that works really well to cover up nicks.

    Also, if you have a nice pair of shoes with leather soles, it is SO worth it to have a cobbler cover the soles with rubber before you wear them. Your shoes will last so much longer and you won't slip!

  4. What about those whose heels are slipping because we can't get the middle to back of the shoe narrow enough while still having a wide enough toe box? The only heels I can wear (without going too narrow and pinching toes) are Mary Janes because the strap keeps my foot from sliding where it shouldn't… Has anyone found any brands still selling a "combination" shoe width? I suspect I need an A at my toes and the ball of my foot (though the number of shoes that I can put my fingers in on top of my toes in the vamp is crazy – I need it to be narrow up and down not just side to side!) and a AA or AAA from there on back… It's hard enough to find anyone carrying narrows in person anymore so I end up ordering from Zappos and sending back what doesn't work, but when you're limited to shoes with straps it's really rather limiting, and if anyone would sell a combination shoe again I think it would solve the problem… But I've seen none on Zappos or at least they're not labeled as such…

    • I should also add that when I lived near one I did go to a fabulous high end shoe store with my favorite shoe guy ever (me:"ooh what about these?" Tony: "too wide, you need shoes with Velcro") but because they mostly carried European comfort brands that don't come in narrows, it was ALWAYS about finding shoes with Velcro straps (if heels) or otherwise Velcro adjusting (in sandals and clogs) so I never left there with a pair of shoes that wasn't velcroed into fitting my feet, instead of actually fitting ๐Ÿ™ they were comfy but generally not very professional or dressy – great for everyday, not so great for dates or going to weddings… (And the one and only professional pair of heels, the Velcro started looking ratty in only two years time, and this was an almost $300 pair of shoes! Don't want strings hanging off the velcro!)

      • Not really – I'd still be back to pinched toes (because the rest of my foot doesn't keep my slightly wider toes from pushing too far forward in the shoe? I don't know, I just know my feet are weird and hard to fit, lol) I have always found it amusing that the same pair of shoes I can walk out of the back of, my toes are crunched in the front of. (I had a shoe salesperson at Dillard's once try to convince me that I could wear ballet flats despite them almost always running very wide, if I'd just go down a few sizes in length… I tried just to show her how ridiculous that was – I think we finally got far enough that my toes couldn't straighten in the shoes and they were still gaping around the sides and wanting to flop off my heels!)

        Sigh… It's a mess… And even the straps don't always solve the problem – I do a fair amount of community theatre and I'm always stuck in Capezio Jr. footlights (noticeably lower heels than most adult character shoes) because the other styles I have ever been able to try on in person (sadly not the student footlights or the professional footlights) fit in hilarious ways (every pair of t-straps just looks awkward on my foot, and the Capezio manhattens were the best example of a shoe being too tall(?) at the vamp, I fit my fingers in old top of my foot/toes and still have space to spare) but almost every dance shoe store in the two places I've lived carried a very small selection of character shoes because they all seem convinced that character shoes are easy to fit (if i ever end up on vacation in NYC I will be hunting down whatever dance shoe store truly has a big selection of character shoes!)

        Sigh sorry folks for ranting but sometimes I just get sick of being the girl who feels I'm always in frumpy horrible shoes…

        • Sounds like you have a not just a narrow foot but also a lower instep. You might try googling local comfort shoe stores, Hopefully well trained fitter can help you figure out what brands and styles that work for you.
          Ara comes to mind. anything with adjustment over the top, buckle, tie, monk strap, will help. Do try adding some padding or cork to the sole or a tongue pad to the upper of shoes that don't quite work.

    • Munro does 3 to 1 lasts, also try Aravon. New Balance for athletic. That said most heel counters are actually super narrow, provided your foot is held back into them enough. So a cork tap, or a halter or tongue pad will oftten do the trick.
      If that doesn't work for you try finding narrower shoes in styles with a wider toe box. The style of a shoe can make a huge difference in fit.

  5. Fantastic article! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us.

    Fellow readers, for what it's worth the higher cost of a good shoe is worth it. I'm only now starting to appreciate how a good shoe can make a difference. I've had heel and arch pain for almost a month before a co-worker recommended Birkenstock. The relief was practically instantaneous. There's still a need for stretching and strengthening my leg and back muscles, but the shoes helped get me there. I'll be buying two more pairs to distribute the wear!

    • Yes! For me, it was finally getting custom orthotics prescribed by a podiatrist (and fully covered by my insurance – yay!). I couldn't believe the difference it made in my back pain.

      • I got custom orthotics prescribed by a podiatrist 2 years ago. I had the revelation that I was a "grown up" with insurance and maybe I'd go see the doctor about the hip pain I'd been having and my flat feet. Turns out one of my legs is slightly shorter than the other. My orthotics give me some arches, compensate for my slightly shorter leg and I have no more hip pain! (When I wear them… a summer spent in flip flops brought it back temporarily)

        • If you love flipflops try orthaheels. They have good arches so they'll save you some pain. Not as good as a custom of course, but better than most.

  6. This is all fabulous advice. Now, if only there were actual brick-and-mortar stores that sold sizes 14-15 so I could actually have half a chance of finding shoes that fit and not wearing "whatever the biggest size they offer as long as I can squeeze it on my feet"…

  7. Are good shoes made to accommodate the fact that feet "tend to swell as the day goes on" and how does that interact with making sure to have your feet measured when they are not swollen? (You recommended avoiding having your feet measured "right after working on your feet all day or going to the gym.") If you work on your feet all day on every day that you work, do you need to get a larger size to accommodate the fact that your feet will pretty much always be swollen after a few hours of work?

    I currently wear Merrill trail shoes for work, but my current pair is wearing out and I'd be open to suggestions for a new pair. I would probably get another pair of the same type, but if there is one that would further reduce my foot pain after an 8-9 hour shift that would be amazing.

    • For feet that swell, have you ever tried compression socks?
      I wear the athletic type because my feet swell while I run – making my feet numb. However, they are common enough that you can get them in just about any style.

      • Wouldn't compressing the swelling make my feet hurt more? When I've had socks with elastic that is too strong, my ankles hurt if if I wear them to work because the elastic digs into them. What I've found is that I need loose socks to avoid foot pain. Foot numbness is not an issue I have after being on my feet for a long time, it is more like sharp pain on the bottom of my feet.

        I must admit I don't understand the point of compression socks, unless they are for a medical condition like a circulation issue. Please tell me more about how it works!

        • Compression is different than too-tight elastic. Yes there is a certain pressure from compression, but it really just keeps your feet & ankles from changing size, so that the fluid that's running through them can't get trapped, it gets squeezed back into the rest of your body.
          They are easy enough to find at any drugstore, and are as cheap as other socks. I would recommend trying them once and see how they help. I find the pressure from the socks more pleasurable than numb toes.

        • The too-tight elastic on the ankles of socks actually traps the fluid IN (which is most of the cause of that long-shift foot pain), whereas like Cass said the compression socks help work it back out. It is a circulation issue. My mom is a nurse and swore by her "diabetic" compression socks. Now they're more widely available because professionals like nurses and chefs, runners and other athletes, people who sit all day, and folks with other medical conditions have found they're really useful for keeping the blood and fluid from pooling in the feet. Kinda makes me wonder if our bodies think we still hang upside down in trees a lot?

    • for swelling you want something adjustable, or something stretchy like goretex or lycra, anything diabetic approved will be good for swelling.
      DO go in when they're swollen, what I meant, I guess I should have been clearer, is don't go in with sweaty stinky feet if you can avoid it. Change you socks first, that sort of thing.

  8. Anyone have tips for having feet that are different sizes? My left foot is typically measured as a 10 and my right foot as a 9. I often just deal with it and have shoes that don't fit. I sometimes have bought nice shoes, but they still don't fit both my feet so I often compromise in the middle and am uncomfortable in both!

    I have bought a few cheap pairs where I bought one of each size. I loooove them so much but I don't think I could do it all the time! Anyone else have this issue?

    • Fit the larger foot and adjust the other shoe. A bigger shoe is easier to accommodate than a smaller one.
      I think there are some websites for people with drastically different sizes, were you can buy/sell single shoes.
      You also might ask stores about mismates, sometimes mismatched shoes get sold by accident, leaving one of each other size. Some places might call you when they get a 9/10 mismate set. Usually they can't be sold at all. Smaller local stores would probably be more likely to do this.

  9. What about Hiking Boots??

    Whenever I go for a serious hike, my big toenails bleed under the nail. It takes a couple of days to show up, but the big purple bruise and all the pressure it creates just makes me not want to hike…

    • It sounds like your hiking boots may be too small. Perhaps try going up a half size, and wearing wool socks for extra padding/dryness? I'm a woman, but my hiking boots are actually a men's size because that turned out to be more comfortable.

      • I'll check all those links HC and rowany!! Thanks.

        The last three hikes that have done this to me have all been in three different shoes. One "Womans" boot, one "Mens" boot, and then my regular running shoes…

        They don't "feel" too small – and I spent hours at REI with the expert for the boots – but I'll see what those articles can teach me.

        Thanks all!! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • my feet often swell slightly when hiking, particularly if I am at elevation. This can make a shoe that seems like it is long enough not fit right on a high elevation downhill hike. my main boot problems have more to do with an unusual foot shape (high, short arches, wide toes at the actual toe, not where they measure, narrow heals, different sized feet, and painfully pressure sensitive ankle tendons) than toenail impacts, but regardless of the problem, I have found the best solution is to only buy hiking boots at REI, because if they dont work out (and I have had some epic boot fails, including backpacking trips spent mostly hiking in socks) I can still return them.

  10. Fascinating! I did not know about the "cure" for heel slipping!

    When I started my career I would frequently have to wear pumps with heels — not super high, just a couple of inches. I would wear through a pair in a couple of months and it would always start with the heel. The tiny sole (??) on the heel would start wearing down and then the leather on the shank of the heel would start accumulating cuts and scrapes and eventually the whole thing would kinda grind down.

    I discovered that if I took them new to a cobbler and had him replace that small bit with a harder, longer-lasting heel, the whole shoe would last longer. It was really cheap and saved me a lot of money.

    • oh wow, I'll totally keep this in mind. I've recently started wearing heels more often recently and know those little tiny squares on the end of the heel aren't going to last very long.

  11. I am curious about bespoke shoes. If I wanted to have a custom pair of shoes made exactly for my feet ( and if I, you know, won the lottery ) where is the best place to go for that? Do you have any information about that?

    • I should elaborate on this question before somebody points me to lmgtfy.com.

      If I Google for women's bespoke shoes, what I find falls into 2 cateogies:

      1) "Custom made" shoes that offer the customer her selection of details (within a range) but with fixed sizing. ( e.g. Shoes of Prey ). The cost of these shoes run in the hundreds.
      2) "Bespoke" shoemakers that will measure you foot, make a custom last and then make one of their stock models for your feet. The cost of these shoes run in the thousands.

      What I'm looking for is a combination of the two. If I were going to spend thousands of dollars on a shoes ( I'm not but let's pretend ), I would want to select any style I wanted AND have a custom last made.

      Does such a place exist?

  12. "Let them rest and air out for at least a day between wears.The heat and moisture of your foot will break shoes down much faster (and smell much worse) if they don't have time to fully dry between wears."

    How necessary is that? Does it really prolong the life of the shoes that much? How about if you are a person that never wears your shoes indoors, so they get all that time to air out when you are at home? To follow that recommendation, I'd have to own more than one pair of everyday/work shoes, and buying two pairs at once would strain my budget. My shoes currently last me a year, and cost about $90. (these are the shoes I'm using.) Should I buy two pairs, and would that make them last longer? (Would they last longer than two years, since that would be how long I would expect shoes I wore half as often to last without any other modifications due to airing out.)

    • To a large degree it depends on you, how much your feet sweat, how the shoes fit etc. If your happy with the way things work for you then great. I would suggest getting a second pair, say, six months in and switching from there, that way you can see how it works for you without straining the budget too much. Believe me, I understand budget constraints. Good shoes aren't cheap.

    • I bought Payless leather slip-resistant work shoes, and I specifically bought them in two different styles to make sure I knew which pair I'd worn yesterday and for the occasional "I worked three double shifts in a row and fuck it I'm not tying my shoes today," which actually turned out to be more "I worked three double shifts in a row and I can't even get my slip-ons ON my feet, time to unlace these other ones." Buying two pairs and alternating made them last almost two years instead of my usual six months. I actually had to replace them because the non-slip sole wore out (it was no longer non-slippy), rather than because their insole was so crushed or the seams ripped out as I had all my other pairs.

      So from my own anecdotal evidence, having two pairs and switching out is definitely worth the seemingly-added expense, in areas of: frustration, comfort, time spent going out to buy shoes which invariably happened during a work shift, being able to plan ahead a bit better to buy my next set on sale, and not buying as many shoes.

  13. Thank you so much for this article! Most of it I knew, but there was some great advice that I didn't know. Particularly on fitting the heels.

    My Dad has always maintained that shoes, like tires, are the only thing between you and the road. So you buy the absolute best you can afford, and maybe a little above. Even when money was tight growing up I always had GOOD new shoes (maybe not always the latest fashion, but good shoes). The rest of my clothes were hand-me-downs, but I always had new shoes.

  14. Now here's a question: what if you need new shoes like NOW but can't afford good ones? Are there any reasonable (absolutely no more than $50, and that's pushing it) flats/boots that one could buy, or any stores/websites that routinely have great sales?

    Also, is it worth looking at second-hand stores for good-but-beat shoes and getting them resoled and fixed up? (If so, what should I look for? Leather, I expect…)

    • I like to look on Amazon and find something on clearance. Many major brands sell last season's style or color for a fraction of the original price. This is how I always get $100+ New Balance running shoes for $50-$60.

    • Definitely worth thrifting, just be careful to evaluate how worn out (squished?) the supportive part of the shoe is. I've found shoes that were practically brand-new, and my wife donated a whole lot of amazing shoes when pregnancy made her feet go up a size.

      • Agreed. Some "professionals" will tell you to NEVER wear used shoes…..but it's really just a matter of common sense. Someone's nasty gym shoes? No. Dress shoes that have clearly been worn only a couple of times? Sure. My favorite shoes ever were a pair of slip-on leather Eastland shoes that I found at Goodwill. I wore them for about 8 years before noticing that the soles had finally cracked completely from side to side. Dismayed, I looked them up online. The same model was still for sale…for $80! Argh. Instead, since I knew my size in that particular brand, I went on eBay. I ended up buying another pair of Eastland shoes for $25, barely used. Booyah! I also use this tactic for finding jeans, since my size/fit is tricky to find in stores.

    • Here's a secret, one pair of my work shoes were thrifted. If they're in good condition I say go for it. Check the soles for wear, pull the insole if possible and check it out. Clarence is great too. Get the best thing you can on your budget, if that means scoring thrift stores and clearance racks for decent shoes then do it. Obviously new shoes will wear longer and conform to your foot better, but do what works for you!

    • One of the salvation army thrift stores in my town consistently gets a few particular comfort shoe brands in. I think it's because we have several local comfort shoe stores and some larger better retailers (Macy's, Dillards, etc.)…I suspect they're getting in donations from either the stores themselves, or their older customers. In any case, I find brands like White Mountain with the tags still on, loads of Clarks and Born shoes, and the occasional Sam Edelman or better…they generally price by the shoe type (boots are $6-8 depending on how "cool" or "nice" the pricer thinks they are–and they're mostly young guys without a clue, flats are generally $3, heels are $3-6). I have scored Adidas Gazelles for $3, several pairs of Clarks at $3 a pair, $80 shoes still tagged for $6…it's pretty much the only place I buy shoes now (I don't drive, so I walk everywhere and wear through shoes like no one's business…), excepting the Goodwill, which has a similar pricing structure but prices up better known brands (i.e. Rockports are $9-12 because they have better brand recognition). Most of them are in new or barely worn condition, many are cheaper than a fancy coffee, and all are cheap enough to dismiss if they simply don't work out. I have a damn near round foot that's a EEE width on a size 7.5, so I tend to fit the toe box and then fuss with the details. ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. I am a huge fan of comfy shoes. My first pair of danskos were a revelation. If you're looking for merrells, danskos, jambus, or even sanitas try sierratradingpost.com. If you sign up for coupons, you will get them almost every day of the week, but you can find great shoes for under $50 by using them. If the shoes don't work, they can go back. And, no, I don't work for them ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. I highly recommend perusing http://www.barkingdogshoes.com/ The site was started by a lady with rhuematoid arthritis in her feet. She and the site's community have been suggesting, reviewing, and comparing comfort shoes for years- and lots of them are cute shoes! Okay, some of them are fugly-but-quirky-cute, but still an awesome resource.

  17. I'm a dancer (I mainly do swing dancing) and I wanted to know if you guys know a good place to make custom-made shoes. I don't want a particular style really, I simply want to make sure I can dance while supporting my feet so I want custom measurements of the shoes. My foot shape is really unique, I have a very wide foot, a narrow heel, and I need insoles because I tend to overpronate. (I'm hypermobile) Thanks for sharing your ideas with me!

  18. Wouldn't you want to try shoes after having worked out or walked for a while so that they won't end up being too small? I walk 10 miles a day in the city and need my shoes to fit during both the first and tenth miles.

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