Defining Comfort in a Shoe
When you try on a new pair of shoes, you have certain expectations. You want a high-quality product that can perform the function for which it has been designed; you also want it to be comfortable. But are these really disconnected goals?
On average, a human being will circumnavigate the Earth four times on foot during their lifetime (115,000 miles).1 Much of this will be done in some form of footwear. In the US, the world’s largest apparel market, the average revenue generated by the shoe industry per consumer was USD 277.09 in 2019.2 Footwear is a large and lucrative market which is built upon function and comfort, and yet, with more of us buying shoes online, we often don’t spend nearly enough time considering what a ‘comfortable’ pair of shoes means to us.
While we spend a good portion of our days on our feet, we also spend 1/3 of our lives in bed.3 As with a new pair of shoes, when we buy a new mattress, we want it to be comfortable. While a mattress that is soft and marshmallow-like might feel comfortable when you lie down, it will often leave you with a stiff neck and a bad back in the morning. Initial comfort has been enhanced at the expense of long-term performance.
Choosing a mattress that provides comfort throughout the night is therefore a complex job. You must consider how you and your partner sleep (front, side, back), whether either of you have back problems, etc.4 It is only right, therefore, that we consider more factors than simply an initial feeling of comfort when buying new shoes.
Comfort vs Performance
It is in fact easier to consider what makes an uncomfortable shoe. Bunions, blisters, athletes’ foot, corn, fallen arches, heel pain, joint aches, and in-growing toenails are all signs that your shoes are not performing correctly and are therefore, by default, uncomfortable. Just as the soft mattress might leave you with backache, a shoe that leaves you with one of these conditions certainly does not match the broader concept of comfort.5
When considering comfort, it is also important to think about what task the shoe is designed to perform. When Captain Scott led his attempt to be the first person to reach the South Pole, he had specially designed shoes that incorporated the latest technology and knowledge. They failed, leaving the explorers with frostbite that was so bad that when Oates went for his famous final walk, he went in his socks because he could no longer get his boots on.6
Comfort is therefore protection and performance, alongside softness. Shoes are ultimately functional items that are designed to protect our feet and enhance our abilities. In terms of enhancement, this can be seen most clearly in running shoes where technology is now threatening to augment inferior runners to the point where they may be able to achieve world record beating times.7
When Olympian Usain Bolt competed for his final 100M title, he wore custom made shoes with ‘Forever’ and ‘Fastest’ written on them.8 These shoes had to be comfortable in terms of his job but he only needed to wear them for a very short period of time. A nurse or a waiter, by comparison, will need shoes that are comfortable over a long period of time. If they are uncomfortable, they will leave the wearer with a variety of foot problems that will make it difficult for them to perform their duties day after day.
Finally, when considering comfort in shoes, it is also important to take into account the job the piece of footwear is required to perform. A walking boot, for example, must protect the ankle, toes, etc. This will necessitate a robust and more rigid design that, in comparison to a soft running shoe, might be considered ‘uncomfortable’. Certainly, like a pair of ski boots, they cannot be considered delicate – delicacy is abandoned in favor of practicality.
There can be no single definition of comfort when considering shoes. Comfort is intricately linked to the job the shoe is designed to perform, the consumer’s requirements, and the individual physiology of the wearer. This is not to say consumers will continue to wear uncomfortable shoes because they are practical. An uncomfortable shoe will be discarded, which, in these days of social media and online reviews, can be very damaging to a brand’s reputation.
Developing Comfortable Shoes
When a consumer slides on a new pair of shoes, they want more than just an initial feeling of softness. They want a shoe that will fulfil its task, protect their feet, not give them any physical ailments, and be comfortable. Manufacturers cannot disconnect performance from comfort if they wish to build their brand’s reputation.
SGS provides a comprehensive range of testing services to help manufacturers bring high quality and compliant footwear products to markets all over the world. Our comfort testing capabilities include:
- Water resistance & penetration
- Drying times
- Cushioning/shock absorption
- Compression/energy absorption
- Sole skid resistance
Learn more about SGS Clothing and Footwear Comfort Services.
For further information on our range of services, please contact us direct:
Deputy VP CRS Softlines
Head of Footwear Services
t: +44 (0)7841570250
REFERENCES1 The Health Dangers from Wearing Uncomfortable Shoes
2 45 Shoe Industry Statistics, Trends & Analysis
4 The Definitive Guide to Buying a Mattress
5 The Health Dangers from Wearing Uncomfortable Shoes
6 Historical Cold Weather Clothing - Evolution to the Modern Form
7 Nike shoes ‘threaten Usain Bolt’s sprint records’
8 Forever Fastest! & Usain Bolt's incredible custom shoes for his final 100m race have something awesome on the inside