When people are young, they have relatively high arches. “As they age, the arch starts to collapse and gets closer to the ground, causing the foot to spread out and ultimately increase in shoe size,” Margiano continues. “That pulls ligaments away from the heel bone, causing sharp pain.”
Regardless of age, some professions – nurse, production line or construction worker, waitress or chef – require people to spend long periods of time on their feet. “Anybody that’s four hours or more on their feet certainly would benefit greatly from our company,” Margiano declares. “We work with people at a high risk that are running or standing on their feet all the time. They are going to have more issues over time – back pain or something else – because of body alignment. These are all people we reach out to and educate about what they can do to be in better shape and body alignment. We also do work with children who have foot and knee pain. Prevention is another area – at some point, you will have some form of foot pain, so start taking care of them now before the pain comes.”
Foot Solutions has 142 stores in 14 countries, 86 of them in the United States and 15 in Canada. All are franchised except two. “The two company-owned stores in Atlanta we use for testing products and training classes,” Margiano says. The company trains its franchisees extensively. “We want all of our employees trained and certified, including hands-on experience working with live customers,” he explains.
The company also has approximately six mobile units in Atlanta, Texas, California and New Jersey that travel to locations in an effort to bring their services to the customer. The mobile units also appear at running and walking athletic events and at retirement communities. “It’s not about selling,” Margiano emphasizes. “It’s about educating the people there how to take care of their feet and what to look for.”
Foot Solutions stays true to its name instead of just being another store selling custom shoes and orthotic inserts. “We deliver knowledgeable solutions for each individual customer and for their specific needs,” Margiano emphasizes. “We do a free analysis. We spend 45 minutes with you whether you buy something or not. That is all free – you get an education at no cost. We make recommendations on how customers can improve themselves or work on prevention that might be an issue for them. It’s never a hard sell – it’s pretty much about helping people. That resonates well with our customers and clients.”
Each store has at least one certified pedorthist on staff along with certified shoe fitters. “They go through extensive training to do the process we do with the computer scanning and analysis of the foot so they can fit and make a custom orthotic,” Margiano maintains. “Each insert is made specifically for the foot that it is going to support. We make our own custom orthotics in our lab in Atlanta for all of our stores.”
That manufacturing process includes many steps. “We get a computer scan of the foot that is sent to us daily from the stores,” Margiano says. “All the scans are reviewed by a certified pedorthist to make any adjustments needed based on customer needs and problems. The scan is used to mill out a replication of the foot, and then the rest is done by hand. We heat-shrink different tensile plastics and materials around the shape of the foot and trim it down, finish it and cover it, all by hand. We build an insert that will fit in the shoe that the person will be wearing. The process is time-consuming and mostly done by hand, so it is a sort of mixture of science and art.”
Although not inexpensive, Foot Solutions’ custom orthotics typically range in price from $125 to $400, compared with $300 to $800 for ones obtained through the medical community.
Pedorthist training includes three weeks of hands-on training in a classroom. “There’s another week or two of web-based or off-site training,” Margiano says. “Then they work in a facility for six months doing work under the supervision of a pedorthist. So for the average person, by the time they take their test, it’s normally a nine-month process.”
Next year, pedorthist candidates will be required to have at least two years of college, and in two years, four years of college will be necessary. “Pedorthics is a relatively newer field,” Margiano says. “It’s been around probably from the 1970s or ’80s, but really started moving into a position of prominence in the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, when a lot more work was being done in the comfort shoe market.”
Shoes no longer need to be ugly to accommodate medical needs and still feel good. “With today’s technology, a lot of movement has shifted to make comfort shoes and support shoes a lot more attractive and supportive,” Margiano reports. “So the pedorthic field has grown substantially over the last 15 to 20 years, [even though] it’s still a relatively small niche.”
Margiano estimates approximately 2,000 pedorthists are certified in the United States and from 300 to 400 in Canada. “Germany and Holland lead the way in pedorthic custom shoe making,” Margiano asserts. “There the requirements are very extensive, and there are many pedorthic shops. People take much better care of their feet than we do in the U.S. – we’re a throwaway nation.”
One of Only Three
Foot Solutions has such a need for pedorthists that it has established its own school. “There only three schools in the United States that are certified for teaching pedorthists,” Margiano maintains. “We have our own school, the Academy of Pedorthic Science.” The academy is affiliated with Kennesaw State University’s College of Continuing and Professional Education and has the leading certification pass rate in the country.
“We do a course every other month,” Margiano continues. “We train people in the medical field who work in labs or doctors that need the pedorthic training, as well as our own franchisees and people who work in our stores. The school is actually the No. 1-ranked pedorthic school in the United States. We get people coming here from all over, from 20 different countries. So that’s a side venture I did to support our franchisees, but it’s turning out to be another business.”
In addition to pedorthists, Foot Solutions locations also are staffed by certified shoe fitters. “Shoe fitters receive about a week of training, which includes hands-on training and working in a store under the guidance of a pedorthist or a certified shoe fitter for at least two months to get the hours you need,” Margiano says. “Then you have to pass a test that is given nationally. You’re looking at two months on average for a certified shoe fitter.”
Margiano has a Ph.D. in international business, so he is experienced in establishing international Foot Solutions locations. His previous business was HeelQuik, a shoe repair franchise he started in 1985. But as cheaply-made shoes flooded the U.S. market, Margiano transitioned to another business model.
“From 1995 to 2000, I was testing and tweaking the Foot Solutions concept,” Margiano says. He established his first Foot Solutions store in Atlanta in 2000. Its holistic health and wellness approach addressed the results of Americans wearing cheap shoes. Margiano discovered that the average purchase at HeelQuik was $6 while at Foot Solutions, it was $200.
“So for a lot less work, you can make a lot more money,” he points out. “It is consistent, and it’s in a niche that pretty much is at the beginning of its lifecycle instead of at the end, which is always a better place to be. Given what is going on in medicine with medical costs and the amount of diabetic and foot issues, there’s a huge potential market for us. We are an alternative solution for many of the foot issues that exist at lower cost than seeing a doctor. A lot of people come to us before seeing a medical person because we’re an easier solution, less expensive and pretty much the results are immediate.”
For the future, Margiano sees vertical integration. One possibility is to have exclusive products. He anticipates opening from 12 to 20 new franchises in 2016 and attributes the company’s success to “being in the right place at the right time and seeing the opportunities, but also the downside is being able to adjust when the market changes. The economic slump from 2008 to 2013 was a difficult time.
“We’re in a very unique position, and we’re positioned to grow,” Margiano concludes. “I think we’re in a very stable part of specialty retail health and wellness. We’re a realistic, holistic alternative that is less expensive and pretty profitable for our store owners. We’re in a good niche where we’d like to see continued growth and success, but we’re happy where we’re at.”