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The sole answer to the footwear problem
Feature: 3/5/2006

If you looked at the employee uniform specifications put together by some companies, you would think that the human body stops at the ankles. Yes, they're happy to tell their staff what clothes to wear - even to provide the garments themselves - but when it comes to footwear, many companies back down.

The reasons are many. For a start, they are difficult to administer - measuring the shoe sizes of the employees, providing shoes to fit them and dealing with any pairs that do not fit properly or are damaged takes a lot of time and effort.

Their bulkiness also means that they are difficult to store, and unless they are used fairly soon after purchasing, they run the risk of deteriorating while on the shelves.

There is also, of course, the expense - buying shoes, even in bulk, is not a cheap project - and the added difficulties of forcing staff to wear footwear that they do not like or that is not suitable for their personal needs.

It's easy to see, then, why so many companies let their employees buy their own shoes. But even then, they can run into problems. After all, what is the point in dictating what clothes your staff should wear if they undermine it with inappropriate footwear?

Worse, what if they wear shoes or boots that do not provide the right protection for the job they are trying to do? It really can be a lose-lose situation.

So what can be done? One company, Shoe Vouchers Ltd, thinks that it has the answer.

An alternative to footwear management
Enlarge Image click hereNow in its twentieth year, Shoe Vouchers has made something of a success out of a novel system; as their name suggests, they provide vouchers worth £5 and £10 that can be exchanged for footwear at hundreds of high street and specialist shoe stores. It's a simple idea, but one that works.

John Rosling, managing director of Shoe Vouchers, said: "The Shoe Vouchers system allows employees to choose footwear that is comfortable and that they want to wear, within the limits set out by their employer.

"When ordering the vouchers, the employer specifies the kind of shoe or boot that it wants its staff to use - it could be something as simple as design or colour, or something technical, like steel toecaps. The employee then takes the vouchers to one of the stores affiliated with our company and uses them to buy the shoes that he or she prefers.

"We offer the staff convenience, comfort and the motivation of getting vouchers and we offer the employer control and flexibility of budget."

Solving problems
Of course, this immediately does away with the administration difficulties; since the shoes are being fitted by a third party, the employer is removed from the equation completely, and as the employee is free to pick up shoes as and when they are needed, there are no more problems with storage.

The system also means that the employees get their shoes fitted by trained professionals, eliminating the problem of having to send ill-fitting shoes back to be replaced - and since all of this is happening outside of office hours, the company no longer has to intrude on the working day for fitting sessions.

Sceptics might wonder about how easy it is to find a shop that will accept the vouchers, but they would be surprised to learn that they are far from rare.

John explained: "Most of our business deals with occupational shoes, so we have strong links with major high-street stores like Clarks, Brantano, K Shoes and Stead & Simpson. For our safety side, we have a network of independent distributors, as well as an agreement with Arco.

"It means that the whole high street becomes one supplier; you're not restricting the suppliers that your employees can go to, you're restricting the kinds of shoes they can buy. So you can create a uniform look for your employees while still giving them a choice."

These restrictions are imposed by printing them on the voucher itself, so that when it is handed over to a staff member at an affiliated store - all of which train their staff to recognise and use the shoe vouchers - they will make sure that the employee walks away with the right shoes for the job.

Even counterfeiting is not an issue; each voucher uses watermarks, holograms and a unique serial number to make sure that even the craftiest employees can't trick the system to get shoes that aren't authorised by their employers.

Saving money
So after all that, there comes the gruesome bit - the cost. But for the employer, the vouchers comes up trumps again; they only pay the face value of the vouchers themselves, with no printing, handling or postage charges. If you spend £1,000, you will get £1,000 worth of vouchers.

Enlarge Image click hereJohn explained: "We don't charge the clients anything, unlike some vouchers. When the voucher is redeemed by us, the retailer loses some of their margin; they are willing to do that to provide a service and encourage more footfall. The benefit is all to the employer."

But for smaller businesses and those that like to keep a tight reign on money, the fact that the vouchers are bought for face value is irrelevant - they can't afford to spend that kind of money at all.

Luckily, there's a solution to this problem - they can offer staff a partial subsidy of as little as £5 or £10, or even recoup the money spent on shoe vouchers out of the employees' payrolls. That means that they are able to equip their workforce with brand-new shoes of the correct design for little or no cost whatsoever.

Ultimately, then, there really doesn't seem to be any excuse for employers to refuse to equip their staff with footwear. After all, Shoe Vouchers Ltd has turned a novel idea into a well-thought-out solution that solves every possible objection that they could have - and with 20 years of success behind them, it doesn't look like they'll be going anywhere any time soon.

Author: James Wilkinson
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