The Journal of Commerce

National Edition

May 6, 1996

" Mass Customization "

"Best Foot Forward, Made to Order "


Best Foot Forward, Made To Order

Veteran Shoemaker Hopes to Link Craft, Technology

by Don Amerman

Alan Zerobnick, a Shoemaker by trade and by heritage, is pursuing his dream of mass customization.

Hold on, you say, isn't mass customization a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron?

Not to Mr. Zerobnick, Chief Executive of Digitoe Computerized Footwear Systems, based in Port Townsend, Washington. By the end of this year he hopes to launch a nationwide network of shoe-fitting centers that will allow the average consumer to have a shoe custom made to his foot.

Mr. Zerobnick, 50, has been making shoes since he was 15. For the last 25 years he has been concentrating on making customized shoes. However, in 1985 he began his search for a way of bringing custom made footwear to the masses. He formed Digitoe in 1990.

Big Step

The mass customization bug bit Jayne Woodward, Director of Operations at Digitoe, just last year. At the time Ms. Woodward was Director of Product Development for Seattle based Weaver International, which supplied footwear to Shoe Carnival, a Midwest shoe retailing chain.

She'd heard that Mr. Zerobnick was running 3 day "Shoe Schools" at his Port Townsend base and decided that attending might give her a better feel for the footwear business.

The Shoe Schools, held 3 times a year, take the student from the raw product- a side of leather- thru all the steps of production to the crafting of a finished product. Each student leaves the school with a pair of shoes he or she has helped to create.

During the course of the Shoe School last June Ms. Woodward fell under the spell of Mr. Zerobnick's obsession with mass customization. On the spot she quit her job and joined Digitoe.

In His Footsteps

"Alan's passion was infectious, and I knew I wanted to be part of what he was doing," Ms. Woodward said. "In short, I became a 'Digitoid'."

Mr. Zerobnick's dream for the last decade has been to find a way of marrying age old shoe making techniques with state-of-the-art computerization to create a whole new system for producing customized footwear.

To make sure that he was able to give the perspective shoe buyer the best possible fit, Mr. Zerobnick developed a 3D foot scanner.

With the scanner, a customer could sit comfortably on a bench seat, not unlike one in a shoe shine parlor, place his foot on the scanning window, allowing a technician to examine and measure the foot from several critical views. A computer captures and saves the images.

Last Impression

The next step is the development of a shoe last- the solid form upon which a shoe is molded and constructed- based on the computerized measurement data from the foot scanner.

Once a last is made to the customers individual specifications, any number of custom made shoes can be manufactured, providing there were no fundamental changes in the customers foot, which, barring medical problems, would be most unusual for an adult.

Descended from a long line of Shoemakers from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia, Mr. Zerobnick said he always derived an immense amount of pride from handcrafting a custom made pair of shoes for a customer. But he realized early on that it would be infinitely more satisfying if he could bring custom made footwear to far wider audience.

A Better Fit

"We plan to dig right in and start working aggressively with the equipment, identifying problems and correcting them as we go along until we have a smooth and reliable operation."

By the end of this year, with his staff well trained and completely comfortable with the new system, Mr. Zerobnick said Digitoe will open fitting centers in Seattle, L.A. and New York, with others soon to follow around the country.

Digitoe's presence on the World Wide Web ( barely a month old, has already excited a great deal of interest in customized footwear and the techniques and equipment Mr. Zerobnick's company will be using. He has been averaging several inquiries a week about custom made footwear and was even invited to address a British Conference this summer of the subject of Mass Customization.

It has become more and more difficult for shoe buyers to find a good fitting shoe Mr. Zerobnick said. Increasingly today, shoe manufacturers are narrowing the range of sizes they produce. The fewer the sizes produced, the less likely a consumer is going to be able to get a good fit, he said.

Once Digitoe has developed a shoe last for a customer, additional shoes can be ordered from a mail order or on-line catalog of styles, with the shoe buyer simply specifying the style he wants along with his customer number and last number.

The production of custom made shoes now takes from 6 to 8 weeks. With his new techniques Mr. Zerobnick hopes to shrink that time to couple of days and "hopefully to matter of hours eventually."


Peter Mangione, President of Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, a Washington based trade association, expressed some skepticism about the potential for custom made footwear, particularly when an individual last is made for each customer.

The custom made market "is a very small slice of the total market, and I wonder how costs could be kept reasonable if an individual last must be made," said Mr. Mangione. "In the end, however, I think much will depend on how well the custom made footwear manufacturer can convince customers of the advantages of such a product."

Foreign Interest

Interest from abroad in Digitoe's unique computerized production package has been intense, with inquiries coming in from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Taiwan and throughout Europe, Mr. Zerobnick said.

Mr. Zerobnick sees his mass customization plan as a viable way to help build up local and regional economies.

"My main aim is to bring work back into this country. Shoes that get purchased in Ohio should be made in Ohio. I can't make all those shoes, but I can provide the means and the know-how for others who would like to get into the game," he said.

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