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Track shoes, without running

Debby Loper drove to three department stores hunting for a pair of simple black pumps in her size. Each time, she waited while a harried clerk rummaged through the bowels of a stock room only to emerge empty-handed.

She hit pay dirt at Macy's in WestShore Plaza. A clerk with a handheld computer slung around her shoulder like a parking meter cop laser-scanned the display shoe price tag. The wireless device confirmed Loper's size was in a stockroom jammed with 65,000 shoes and dispatched a stockroom staffer to bring hers out.

Within a minute, Loper tried them on. Within two, she was leaving.

"What I really liked was they said they had my size instantly," said the Ferman Automotive executive assistant. "It's lunch. I don't have much time."

"I dread shopping for shoes, but I love this," Nicole Davis, a GMAC Bank account executive, said after trying on nine pairs in 10 minutes. "One person takes the order, another brings out the shoes. They come in a continuous stream."

Developed in-house by Macy's, the so-called "shoe locator" is the latest attempt by Federated Department Stores to use technology to improve customer service by re-engineering stores to speed up transactions. While most shoes these days are bought from self-service purveyors ranging from Rack Room Shoes to Sports Authority, department stores have stuck to the old one-on-one shoe-selling technique that remains one of the most challenging jobs in retailing.

"This has changed our lives," said Mina Patel, 11-year-veteran shoe department manager for Macy's. "We used to have to know where everything is in the stockroom by memory."

Shoe sales people pridefully call themselves "shoe dogs" for a reason. They're on their feet all day bending to measure feet, schlepping over and over to the stock room to see if they have the right size for each customer. Each time they are required to lug an armload of boxes: one the right size or close to it, plus other style or color options. Frequently, a dozen boxes are piled up before the customer decides to buy none. Then the same commission-paid clerk has to lug it all back to the right shelf in the stockroom before moving on to the next customer.

On sale days, clerks are mobbed with shoppers clamoring for their attention all day. Many newcomers hide behind the door gathering the nerve just to jump into the chaos.

"Some people were afraid to come out," Patel said.

It's such a tradition that chains fear messing with it. Some such as Nordstrom, which started out as a shoe store, all but require management candidates put in time as a shoe dog to prove their passion for sales and knowing the merchandise. Within a few years, luxury stores may be the only place with old-fashioned shoe dogs working from foot-stools.

"Retailers have not applied technology to shoes because it's probably the most complicated place in department stores," said Bart Weitz, director of the retailing program at the University of Florida. "Selling shoes has always been very personalized."

Macy's jumped in when top management three years ago decided to offer faster shopping options to customers such as central check-out, price-check kiosks, directional signs, shopping carts and hospitable fitting rooms.

Now wireless locators in the women's shoe department know the stockroom inventory. They print an order ticket with the customer's name to waiting expeditors in the stock room. The clerk can help others while expeditors bring the shoes out plus others the clerk keyed in. Up next: wireless checkout that prints a receipt while the shopper is seated.

"The sales people can spend 100 percent of their time with customers on the sales floor," said Deborah Weinswig, an analyst with Citigroup. "This system can drive sales while improving customer service."

A Macy's shoe purchase took at least five minutes.

"We've gotten it down to less than two," said Courtney Orrange, director of store staffing and experience for Macy's Florida.

At WestShore, Macy's added four expeditors to the shoe sales force of 11. Sales rose dramatically enough to pay for the added staff and equipment.

Frances Cusmano, a USF student, was surprised to be fitted for shoes so quickly, but didn't buy.

"I still need my sister's opinion," she said. "It's for a wedding."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@spttmes.com or (727) 893-8252.

THAT SIZE? GOT IT!

Twenty Macy's stores in Florida have the wireless locator systems in women's shoes, including Countryside and Tyrone Square in the Tampa Bay area. Macy's will begin testing the idea in men's shoes and departments such as handbags and luggage where the selection is displayed, but clerks have to fetch products from a back room.

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