REI’s In-Store Shoe Specialist Helps Seattle Hikers Find the Perfect Boots
NAME: Pete Smith
OCCUPATION: Footwear sales specialist at REI
CHILDHOOD DREAM JOB: Forest ranger
ON CURIOUS CUSTOMERS: “A year after a customer has bought a pair of boots, they’ll come back saying, ‘I’ve been hiking for a year, and I just realized that I’ve had two left boots.’ It’s happened more than once.”
FUN FOOT FACT: “Almost everybody has one foot bigger than the other; very few people have matched sets. For 80 percent of the population, the left foot is the bigger foot.”
RECOMMENDED HIKES: Rampart Lakes (“relatively easy”) and Necklace Valley (“more of a challenge”)
When Pete Smith majored in physical education at the University of Washington, he had no idea his career would follow his degree so literally. A footwear specialist at REI for nearly 24 years, Smith educates customers on the physical fit of hiking boots—and is something of a legend at the flagship store. The 58-year-old fly-fishing enthusiast spends his days on the sales floor, where anywhere from 50 to (at a busy time, such as the anniversary sale this month) 1,000 pairs of feet are fitted on a given day, and he also trains all incoming employees in the challenges and nuances of boot fitting. The local shoe guru spoke with us about waiting on people foot and foot. Jennifer Lee
SM: How did you get started in the footwear business?
PS: When I started fly-fishing a lot [in the early 1980s], I was often in the REI fishing department, and people always asked me questions as if I worked there, so I thought, why not try? After four and a half years selling fishing gear, packs and clothing, I moved to the footwear department and I’ve been working there ever since.
SM: What makes the ideal fit in a hiking boot?
PS: The most important thing in fitting is the volume of the foot versus the volume of the boot. People often get fixated on width—width has little if anything to do with it.
SM: How much variety do you see in feet?
PS: Feet are like snowflakes: No two people’s are the same. We see all kinds of shapes, from square, Fred Flintstone–type feet to feet that are so narrow it looks like you could ski on them. There are bunions, hammertoes, knobs on the back of heels—for these, we do a lot of boot modification. I had a lady who had large bunions, hammertoes, calcium build-ups. There wasn’t any way to modify one part of the shoe for her, so I made a replica of her foot out of wood and used that to press into the heated shoes. It was a great success—I still have that mold hanging in my work area, just as a reminder of what you can do.
SM: What are the qualities of a successful footwear specialist?
PS: First of all, you have to be very comfortable dealing with feet. You’re being pretty intimate with people. But everyone here is interested in seeing people make the right decision, and it makes you feel really good to help them make a choice and have it be a success. It’s a very enjoyable way to spend the day.