The findings may also help Blundstone tweak the design of its boots to provide better support for healthcare workers, though the company does not have any immediate plans to commercialise the smart boots. So far, only a handful of samples have been made for the project.
“At the moment, we’re looking to get a few more working pairs made and collect more comprehensive data sets over the next few months,” Dr Rowan Page from Monash Health Design Collab told Inside Retail.
The smart boots will enable the researchers to collect a huge amount of data on the people trialling them, including not only the number of steps they take each day, but also the biomechanics of each of those steps.
The boots can also measure pressure points across the foot, temperature, whether the wearer is reaching forward when lifting something heavy and much more.
The information will be analysed using machine learning and models based on artificial intelligence to identify patterns and classify different types of tasks, so the results can be shared with healthcare workers.
“We’ve done some early conceptual work around putting that onto a smartphone application, so people can get information about their day and receive warnings if they’ve done things that fall outside safe parameters, like leaning forward and lifting a load above a certain weight,” Page said.
Unlike people working in construction or mining, Page said that healthcare workers don’t have a defined set of safety footwear, and yet, they have a high rate of injury due to the amount of time they spend on their feet.
According to a survey he conducted, healthcare workers wear a wide variety of footwear, including sneakers, Crocs and boots. He approached Blundstone to collaborate on the project because he needed a local manufacturer that could integrate the sensors into their shoes.
“They were interested in the OHS applications,” he said.
An overlooked market?
Dr Louise Grimmer, a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Tasmania, says it makes sense that retailers are starting to view healthcare workers as a target market.
“Covid really forced many manufacturers and retailers to ‘pivot’ their product offerings and ways of doing business and connecting with customers in a range of different ways, and with the spotlight very firmly on the important role of healthcare workers, particularly during 2020 and arguably again now in 2022, I think many brands realised that this was a market that had perhaps been underserved or even ignored in the past,” she told Inside Retail.
“It soon became clear that this was a vital group of workers and consumers and that there was a definite demand for PPE and related products that could be manufactured and sold via retail stores, which up until that point had not tapped into that particular market segment.”
That’s the thinking that drove retail industry veteran Phil Leahy to launch MedCart, an online marketplace for medical supplies, in May 2020.
Initially aimed at easing the shortage of face masks, hand sanitiser, surgical gowns and other PPE in the early days of the pandemic, MedCart recently reported $10 million in sales in FY22.
But where there is opportunity, there will also be those who want to take advantage. Leahy said that MedCart has had to ban some sellers for performance issues in recent months.
“Some were really trying to help, some were trying to do it for survival,” he told Inside Retail, pointing to Zenith Records, a vinyl-pressing facility in Melbourne that started making PPE.
“But then we had other so-called medical companies that took all these orders that they couldn’t deliver, and it was just all about the money.”
Before brands and retailers enter the healthcare market, they should ensure they have a compelling value proposition, Grimmer said.
“What is it that they are offering that is particularly distinctive for this group of consumers and how will it provide value for them?” she said.
“In the case of Blundstone, it is very clear that there is an almost perfect fit or alignment between the brand and the product offering. Blundstone’s reputation, brand recognition and brand value are superior and make their products incredibly attractive to this particular target market.”