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It’s shoe love, pumping up sales

For the past two months, sales of shoes in the United States have been up sharply, for a host of reasons.
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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.

Confluence of factors
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.' "

'Shoes to women are like comfort food'
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."

What retailers find particularly surprising about these gains is that they have ticked up despite high gas prices and fears about winter heating bills. Levy of Hawley Shoes said he was prepared to start offering customers a $10 gas card if things got bad as gasoline prices jumped -- but he never had to. More people than ever trekked into his stores.

"Maybe they are walking more" to save on gas, he said, only half joking.

Maurice Breton, president of Manassas-based chain Comfort One Shoes, said sales since August "have been increasing at a far greater pace than they had been." He thinks there may be a "Desperate Housewives" effect. The hit ABC show features sexy housewives with great clothes and, of course, great shoes.

"There are a lot of subliminal references to footwear in the media," Breton said.

Retailers are perpetually vexed by what is really in the minds of consumers. But no matter why women want to buy shoes, the shoes have to be nice enough to buy. Women are snapping up boots, said Nancy Chistolini of Hecht's, especially younger women buying Western boots. Boot sales at Shoe Carnival were up 40 percent in October. Levy said he had just been on the phone with a boot supplier who had come into a sudden supply of 1,000 boots -- and Levy bought them all.

"I can't keep them in stock," he said.

No wonder, when shoppers like Leslie Ramsay of Old Town Alexandria are on the prowl. She bought four pairs of boots at Nordstrom yesterday. Or like Sharon Weiss, shopping with her niece and four friends -- who together had bought 15 pairs of shoes, including several pairs of boots.

Retailers say there has also been a big migration from casual and athletic shoes toward more decorative styles, with buckles, bows, rhinestones, stitching, patterns and color. "Shoes have more character -- they can be a statement in and of themselves," Weiss said, spreading her arms out to the bustling shoe department. "Look, it's not all brown shoes."

And nothing gets a woman more excited than a shoe that is like an exclamation point to an outfit, said Matthew E. Rubel, president of lower-priced chain Payless ShoeSource Inc., the nation's largest shoe store chain, where sales were up 4 percent in October.

"Footwear has a natural emotional place in a woman's mind," he said. "That's being expressed more in product today through color, through silhouette, through material, through novelty."

In other words, women have always gotten excited about shoes, but now there's something to actually get excited about. And it's across all price categories. Chains such as Payless are "getting the fashion trends in footwear available at one-fourth the price," said Cohen of NPD.

Of course, not everyone understands the whole women-and-shoes thing. Janet DeBoe of St. Louis, in town on business, was reveling in her boot purchase and going on about what shoes do for her. Her husband, Curtis, splayed on a chair nearby, could only shake his head.

"I don't get it. I don't get it. Sorry," he said.