Consumer Behavior

Shoes Are Complicated

RR shoe shoppingShoes are not that easy to buy. Or wear. If you find the style you like they are often out of stock in your size, don’t fit, are uncomfortable or too expensive. Shoes are the one item of clothing I almost never purchase on sale. Well, I do try to find shoes on sale especially at the twice-yearly Bergdorf markdowns when the high-end shoe department on the second floor of that usually staid and elegant emporium is turned into a partially self-serviced frenzy for a few weeks. But, for me, the calculus of a shoe sale doesn’t work. It is just too difficult because there are so many variables. Like most consumers, I am looking for style, fit and comfort. Especially now, as heels have risen to ever greater heights; five-inch stilettos are de rigueur among stylish women (myself excluded from that category). Finding a shoe that is comfortable, fashionable and fits at the price you want to pay is a tricky business.

Today, we ladies need shoes for every occasion, function and style. A range of sport-specific athletic shoes; mud covered outdoor shoes for gardening and general mucking out; business and evening shoes in a variety of heel heights, colors, finishes and textures for different outfits and occasions; sandals, also in a variety of heel heights; rubber flip-flops, the go-to, all purpose beach and summer shoe; boots for all varieties of weather and fashion in various lengths and heel heights, leathers, patents or suedes; slippers and slip-ons for at-home wear. It seems that only yoga, practiced barefoot, requires no footwear at all.

Of course going barefoot is an option, and that is what most people did in early civilization. Once, footwear was the province of the rich. In Roman days, Citizens wore shoes, peasants and slaves did not. Chinese upper-class women bound their feet, peasants did not. Shoes were a signal of sex appeal, social status and wealth–and one can still be seen as “well heeled” today whether in signature Nikes, Adidas, Manolos or Louboutins.

The modern invention of high heels generally begins in the 15th century when Venetians adopted the Chopine originally worn in Turkey. The thick sole shoe was helpful getting around those muddy Venetian streets. The height also made the women who wore them generally unstable, so they would be accompanied by an attendant who helped them to balance. Heels reached heights of 20 inches in Venice, were artfully decorated, and worn by courtesans. The higher the heel, the higher the nobility; or, in some cases, sex appeal. Catherine de Medici is credited for introducing the heel to France in the 16th century when she was betrothed to the eventual King Henry II and was feeling insecure about her height. Heels became all the rage in France. Louis XIV ‘designed’ the “Louis heel,” a tapered hourglass style, and wore heels as high as five inches decreeing that no one could wear heels higher than his. Stylish to the end, Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine in two-inch heels. Years later, Napoleon banned heels entirely in a show of egalitarian spirit.

Today, shoes, heels or otherwise, are a global business with 13 billion pair sold in 2012 and volume projected to be $195 billion by 2013. Most are produced and worn in China. In 2010, China accounted for 62.4% of global production, and with its rising middle class, recently passed the US in consumption as well. In the US, annual sales are estimated at over $50 billion with women’s shoes accounting for more than half of that number.

The important players in footwear are a diverse bunch ranging from Amazon’s Zappos, to Footlocker, Payless, Jones, DSW, Nordstrom, Macy’s, and, of course, the mega-mass retailers Walmart and Target–all of whom are trying to satisfy the customer’s quest for quality, value, style, fit and comfort. Shoes are tougher to merchandise than clothing. With so many sizes, styles and colors, shoes are SKU intensive and it is a challenge for retailers to be in stock with the right size, color and style when the customer wants to buy. Zappos estimates that one in three brick-and-mortar sales are lost because the customer’s size is not in stock. Self-service for shoes was introduced by Payless, “the largest family footwear retailer in the Western Hemisphere,” in 1956. Until that time, shoes required the assistance of a sales professional, and still do for most traditional retailers requiring extra time for both consumers and sales people in a seemingly unending process of fitting and returning from stock rooms with boxes of desired styles. For most consumers, shoes are a ‘try-on’ operation. Unless a consumer has had previous experience with a given brand/style she is unlikely to buy it without trying it on.

Zappos changed the shoe equation when they introduced quick fulfillment and easy, free returns. Since Zappos’ launch in 1999 and acquisition by Amazon (valued at $1.9 billion) in 2009, consumers have learned to buy and return shoes online easily, and that has made it more difficult for traditional stores to maintain merchandising integrity in an already difficult category. One retail industry senior executive told me, “Our greatest challenge is the whole issue of having the right size in the right store. No matter how good we are, we are never good enough!” Because Zappos taught consumers to buy online and return easily, customers at Macy’s or Nordstrom, or Bloomingdale’s or Walmart buy online and return to a store, screwing up inventory management. The brick-and-mortar store then has to adapt the inventory and despite high-tech systems, it is a challenge to keep the shoes in stock in the stores they were meant for. By the same token, stores can pull inventory from their online resources making, as one industry insider says, “a whole new way of managing inventory.” But, if the inventory management doesn’t work because of returns; and if the weather and seasonality refuse to cooperate, the goods back up and so begins a nasty cycle of markdowns and promotions. All merchandise categories are subject to the throes of weather, but, for shoes, weather is really a factor. “A cold March and a warm September can really screw things up,” says one shoe merchant; very simply, you can’t sell boots in March or sandals in September.

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I surveyed consumers to get their take on shoe shopping. Do they love it or hate it? What do they look for and how do they feel about shopping for shoes versus other categories? The upside of shoe shopping is that it can be fun, and, while most consumers want to try shoes on, there is the benefit of “not having to take off your clothes” to do so. One Long Island woman said she shops for shoes “everywhere,” they “always look good,” and, “your figure doesn’t matter.”

All of the women I spoke with are looking for “the trifecta of style/fit/price.” Comfort is important, and, often comfort is at odds with style. The shoe has to fit, or, it causes problems, some serious and long term.

But, most of the women I spoke with put comfort first, enjoy shopping for shoes, and feel especially rewarded when they find a great style shoe that fits comfortably. Consumers are looking for quality and “timelessness.” Women are willing to pay more for shoes that are “classic, well made and stylish,” and, they invest in retooling favorite pairs. “I’m holding on to my old Manolo’s by getting them resoled constantly at a great shoemaker around the corner.”

The women I interviewed will not wear uncomfortable shoes, and shop accordingly. Designer shoes provide a “lift to my old and conservative clothes and make me feel stylish.” Brands, whether designer or national, signal fit. One Westchester woman says she shops DSW, but prefers “Ferragamo for style, fit and comfort.” Another agrees: “When I find a shoe that fits, I tend to go back so I don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Women agreed that, “shoes can make or break an outfit.” Wearing a “great pair of shoes” make women feel good. Shoes can “change an entire look.” One woman, a teacher, “learned from my very chic mother that shoes are the very most important part of an outfit. They make or break the way one looks!”

Shoes can be fun to buy and at about half the cost of their high-status sisters, handbags. Shoes are, for some consumers, an easier, equally gratifying and fun purchase. A young banker likes shopping for shoes because “they are not so expensive. You can buy something nice for $100.” One retailer summed it up: “There are so many use occasions, needs and wants…customers can always find new reasons to buy shoes.” When asked if she had any more thoughts on shoes, a young mom echoed several other women’s sentiments: “I just love shoes!”

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