If there are unwritten rules of retail Appy Feet breaks several of them. It requires you to get your feet out in public and plonk them in a tank of skin-sucking fish while passing shoppers stop to watch.
This unlikely formula has become a surprise hit, spreading to high streets and shopping centres throughout the UK. One of the newest additions to the Appy Feet franchise opened a week before Christmas in Cardiff’s St David’s Centre.
Pulled in by a perverse curiosity I decided to peel off my socks and test out this foot spa with a difference, courtesy of a species of small fish called Garra Rufa.
Sometimes referred to as doctor fish or derma fish, Garra Rufa are a type of small toothless carp which happily eat all things dead and decaying. However it may appear to mystified shoppers these little fish are no piranhas. They simply suck and nibble on hard dry skin.
Before taking the dip a shop assistant instructed me to rinse my feet and slip on some Crocs. By the time I perched at the edge of the tank a group of shoppers had gathered to watch. The moment I dipped my feet in there was an instant feeding frenzy, but a gentle one.
For the first couple minutes all I could do was sit and giggle helplessly. The sensation of a swarm of fish circling my feet and sucking at the rough spots made me incredibly ticklish. After a few minutes the fish settled down to the task at hand and I managed to stop laughing.
Store manager Amie Hoyle admitted the novelty of watching customers being nibbled alive helps to pull in first time customers but she felt confident the fish were more than a fad.
“It softens the skin and stimulates circulation so feet feel warmer. It has benefits for people suffering from psoriasis and eczema but most of all it’s a pedicure,” she explained.
“We tell customers to think of it like booking a hair appointment. We’ve had one customer come back three times in 10 days,” she said, flipping through the store’s comment book and pointing out testimonials from newly converted customers.
"We came last week, once you take your feet out they feel so soft,” said returning customer Julie Phillips, 48. For the second visit she brought along her two daughters, Aimee and Sarah.
“It feels like pins and needles but in a good way. It’s quite pleasant. It tickles in between the toes,” said 19-year-old Aimee Phillips.
Once my 15 minutes were over I reluctantly pulled my feet out of the tank and examined the results. I was treated to some complimentary lotion to rub on my newly softened heels before zipping up my boots. A couple of kids were eyeing the tanks warily but as I left with my toes still tingling I wondered who would be afraid of these foot loving fish.