Swedish footwear fit tech company Volumental, founded in 2012, recently appointed industry veteran Brent Hollowell as its first general manager for North American operations, responsible for accelerating growth in the region. Hollowell talked with SGB Executive about his role, Volumental’s push into North America, the barriers to fit technology, and the potential of generative AI in the fitting process.

Hollowell has over 25 years of footwear industry experience, including CMO for Fleet Feet, where he also managed the brand’s vendor partnership program. Before that, he was the director of marketing at Adidas America and VP of global marketing at Foot Locker.

What is Volumental?
Volumental is all about helping footwear shoppers find their perfect fit, whether they’re in-store or shopping online. We’ve developed a cutting-edge FitTech solution driven by our proprietary AI algorithm, the Fit Engine. This algorithm is trained on millions of 3D foot scans, matched with retail purchase data from our extensive network of partners worldwide. Currently, we collaborate with over 100 retailers and brands in about 3,000 locations across 56 countries. Contrary to what some might think, we are much more than 3D scanners in-stores…we’re a full-fledged “Fit as a Service” for omnichannel retailers.

Who are you working with? Is Volumental just getting started in North America?
While we’re based in Stockholm, it’s worth noting that more than 60 percent of our business is already in North America. So, we’re not newcomers here. In North America, we have a strong presence with partners like Red Wing Shoes, Fleet Feet, New Balance, FootJoy, Bauer, Stride Rite, Dillards, Scheels, and Kintec.

But we’re not limited to North America; we also have an extensive presence in Europe, the Middle East, Japan, Korea, Australia, and Southeast Asia. Our customer base includes Wintersteiger, The Athlete’s Foot, XXL, Hervis, Bever, A.S. Adventure, O&CC, Mizuno, Fischer, Yonex, Hoka, Fila, Vivobarefoot, ECCO, and many more. Additionally, we’ve played a pivotal role in footwear R&D projects with global brands like Adidas, Nike, On, Saucony, Allbirds, Anta, and Lululemon, helping them create innovative footwear based on precise fit data. We also recently opened an office in China in order to support our global partners and prospects who have large growth initiatives there.

Can you tell us about your new position?
Our expansion in North America is driven by the increasing recognition of the powerful business impact of integrating FitTech into retail operations. We’ve reached a tipping point where it’s become a mission-critical part of the business for current customers, and more retailers are now keen to explore the potential benefits. To better support our existing and new customers, we’ve decided to establish a local presence. This move promises several advantages, including faster onboarding of new customers and deeper connections in the region. I’ve taken on the role of North America GM alongside my position as CMO, drawing on my extensive US retail experience to help support our expansion.

How has the acceptance of Volumental been in North America? Is it mainly running stores?
Volumental initially gained traction in the run specialty category, where our technology was a natural fit. We started collaborating with retailers like Fleet Feet, which has a strong team of footwear fit experts in over 300 stores. However, our success extended beyond running stores. Red Wing Shoes, specializing in work boots, also embraced our technology in all of their 500-plus locations and actively promoted their core shopper journey as “The Ultimate Fit Experience.” As more retailers understand the potential of FitTech, we’ve adapted our solutions to serve various shopper journeys and footwear categories. So, our progress in North America has been exciting and diverse.

What other areas in the active lifestyle space are you tapping?
While we have a strong presence in run specialty, our reach in the active lifestyle space is broadening. We’re actively engaged in outdoor specialty and sporting goods, covering products like hiking and ski boots, hockey skates, soccer shoes, cleats, and golf shoes. We’ve also expanded our Fit Engine to accommodate work boots, fashion, and lifestyle brands. Our goal is to cater to the diverse needs of active individuals across the spectrum.

What are the general barriers to footwear fit technology? Is it cost or old-school skepticism from retailers? While cost and initial skepticism might have been barriers in the past, the landscape has shifted. Retailers now understand that creating true omnichannel experiences is critical, and FitTech plays a significant role in achieving this. The biggest challenge lies in gaining consensus among stakeholders within large omnichannel organizations. The recent changes in team structures and processes, often driven or accelerated by the pandemic, have positioned retailers to leverage FitTech successfully. The cost of in-store FitTech is minimal compared to the potential ROI, making it an easy decision. Ultimately, FitTech adoption is gaining momentum across the board.

Are the emerging online fit technologies a threat to Volumental?
Online is a significant opportunity, not a threat. While our technology begins in-store, the online arena holds enormous potential for both shoppers and retailers. It addresses critical issues like sales conversion and the high rate of returns associated with online footwear purchases. Our technology already enables shoppers to access their unique fit profile and shop for perfectly fitting shoes online, eliminating guesswork.
So, it’s not just about the in-store experience; Volumental empowers retailers to enhance their online offerings significantly.

What’s next? I know Volumental is beta testing a self-service user interface that may be a step forward. During the development of our new UI, we observed that very few footwear retailers classify themselves as fully “self-service.” Even in the cases where customers are left largely on their own to browse and try on footwear, there are often employees nearby to help locate specific styles and sizes, either out on the floor or in the back room. So, our new UI was specifically designed to cater to both shopper-led and staff-assisted experiences. This hybrid service approach aligns with how most footwear is sold globally, bridging the gap between independent shopping and personalized assistance. This new option has significant growth potential in the FitTech landscape, and retailers with a vision to implement it stand to gain substantially.

We’re also on the cusp of a full launch of web-based mobile scanning, which has been in beta testing with several online retail design partners. No longer an app-based experience, the speed and accuracy of our mobile solution are now at levels where it’s nearly ready for unlimited and widespread adoption. Stay tuned for more details and metrics on this over the next few months, but any brands interested in testing mobile scanning now as part of your online CX can contact us directly.

Are further technologies with AI, etc., likely to continue improving the tech-driven footwear fit process? 
Without a doubt! AI is a continually improving tool that, combined with human subject matter expertise, delivers outstanding customer experiences and cost savings. FitTech leveraging computer vision and machine learning is still in its early stages, with untapped potential in profitability, inventory management, marketing, and personalized product production like 3D-printed footwear, which we’re already enabling for some players in that fast-growing space. Generative AI will open doors to even more specific and personalized recommendations as we add more data inputs into the mix, creating a seamless, trustworthy shopping experience.

I’ve been a front-row witness to the issues around fit since my earliest days in the industry. From working on the retail floor at Foot Locker to helping start up both footlocker.com and adidas.com (when we didn’t really know if people would buy shoes online), to being an early customer of Volumental when I was with Fleet Feet. It’s so fun to be part of an inspired and talented team that’s at the forefront of this exciting field, and we’re really just seeing the tip of the iceberg relative to what’s possible.

Photos courtesy Volumental