This month sees a new shoe brand launched into the mail order market aimed at bringing greater comfort to an ageing population.

First test-marketed in l996, the Natureform range from the Lancashire-based Bacup Shoe Co Ltd is targeted at the increasing number of UK consumers who have difficulty finding comfortable footwear in conventional mass-produced ranges.

"Changing demographic profiles reveal a population steadily topping the 60-plus age range which means a steady expansion of the market for wider fitting footwear," says brand manager Lissa Hunt who joined Bacup five years ago with the specific task of developing a range suited to this niche market. "The existence of such a largely unexploited customer base became apparent to us through our role as a supplier of leisure footwear in the budget to medium price range to major chain store groups such as BHS where they will mainly be marketed as 'own brand' merchandise," says Lissa.

Bacup Shoe Company was founded in l928 by the grandfather of present joint managing director, David Lord. Today it enjoys an annual turnover in excess of £8m, but no longer produces in the UK.

"No longer, that is, until the inception of Natureform," says co-managing director Steven Smith. "All the footwear to be sold under this brand name is l00 per cent British made - the slippers here in our own factory, the shoes made under licence by a local subcontractor.

"Natureform is not only entirely British made but uses only quality natural materials - real leather for uppers and breathable cotton fabric linings," says Steven. "Our aim is to produce footwear which will both care for and support our customers' feet - and the prices for Natureform are accordingly pitched at an average of around £50 for day wear shoes and from £l5 to £20 for slippers."

From now on Steven Smith will be the public face of Natureform. His smiling portrait appears on the flyleaf of the sales brochure mailed out to 22,000 potential customers at the beginning of November, and he personally makes a "no questions asked" exchange or refund offer to any customer less than satisfied with their purchase.

"We do not anticipate any great need for this service however because of the in-depth research we undertook even before the test market launch of the range in l996," he comments.

On the basis of this continuing research programme, the now relaunched range will comprise five ladies' styles each designed in wide fittings up to five E - or H+ in men's styles.

All the styles offer extra toe depth plus deeper and wider than average openings to make them easy to put on and take off, while in sandals and monk style shoes the straps will be Velcro fastened.

At the moment the ladies' styles, which it is anticipated will comprise up to 80 per cent of future business, are available only in classic neutral shades although Steven Smith does not discount the possibility of eventually moving into fashion colours.

"Though primarily targeted at customers aged 60-plus there may well also be more younger folk than we anticipated with 'problem feet' for whom Natureform lines would also be an ideal choice," says brand manager Lissa Hunt. "And this is a market we will be looking at very closely in the not too distant future."

At the moment, however, all energies are being devoted to answering inquiries generated by the November catalogue which concentrated primarily on retirement hot spots such as the coastal resorts of southern England.

Natureform also possesses its own website, established in the mid-90s when the range was initially test marketed. "Through this tool we have already established a 3,000 strong regular shopper base which has been invaluable in providing grass roots data about future directions," says Lissa.

"At the moment most of the customers buying via the Internet are UK based," she adds. "But we believe with the launch of the latest Natureform collection we can begin to build up overseas sales, particularly in the USA where the habit of home shopping via the net is even better established than in Britain."

For overseas customers particularly, the tag "Made in Britain" still carries weight as a guarantee of quality and will therefore form a key strand in all future promotion and advertising campaigns.

By Sonia Roberts