It's Shoe Love, Pumping Up Sales

Rhoda Colman shops in the shoe section of Nordstrom in Littleton, Colo.
Rhoda Colman shops in the shoe section of Nordstrom in Littleton, Colo. (By Matthew Staver -- Bloomberg News)
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 19, 2005

Sometimes you've just got to forget all your troubles and buy some shoes.

At least that's what the American consumer appears to be thinking right now.

For the past two months, sales of shoes have been up sharply, for a host of reasons. Department stores, specialty chains, high-end retailers and low-end retailers are all reporting big sales increases, often in the double digits.

At Hecht's, shoes have surged into a top seller for the chain. At Wal-Mart, executives say footwear is doing well "across all categories." At the lower-priced chain Shoe Carnival, October brought a record sales gain of 21 percent. Some independent shoe stores are feeling the frenzy as well.

"This is a record October-November, so far," said David Levy of Hawley Lane Shoes, which has three stores in Connecticut.

As with any fashion business, shoe sales are cyclical, but industry experts say it takes a confluence of factors to send the category soaring the way it has been recently. A lot of new fashion trends are hitting the industry right now, such as fancy decoration and a Western theme, that consumers like. Retailers, at the same time, are keeping their prices down because of overseas production. And finally, though this is perhaps the toughest element to pin down, women seem to be in the mood to buy. Shoes sales have been strong for men and women, but it is women who are driving the numbers.

Bill Boettge, president of the National Shoe Retailers Association, has a clear theory about why, honed by more than 30 years in the business.

"Women love footwear, and they use it for a psychological boost," Boettge said. "It's almost like they're saying, 'The hell with everything else, I'm going out and giving myself a lift. Enough of this war, and gas prices, and worries about terrorism and hurricanes.' "

Indeed, shopping for shoes yesterday at Nordstrom at Pentagon City, numerous women said shoes are the purchase they go for when they need a boost.

"Shoes to women are like comfort food," said Carol Weaver of Alexandria, who picked up a pair of short black boots with a glossy buckle.

Footwear sales figures from the Commerce Department show steady monthly increases over the previous year, starting in June, after about a year of mostly flat sales. The average increase for the three months ending in September was 4.5 percent. In October, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers' chain store index, sales at shoe stores were up 7.3 percent -- the second-highest retail category after wholesale clubs, such as Costco. Retailers say the strong sales have been continuing into November.

"Fashion has lost a little flavor and luster; what's taken its place is accessories, handbags and footwear," said Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst for market research firm NPD Group Inc. "Footwear has become a place where women can express their style."

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