Retailers bet on the power of premium shoes

Why towering heels are the new fashion signifier and who’s cashing in on the trend

Eugen Sakhnenko / A-Frame

A hormonal buzz, the feral scent of female hunters, infuses the 50,000-sq.-foot shoe sanctuary on the ground floor of the Hudson Bay Company’s flagship Toronto store. The glowing white marble space, a Yabu Pushelberg-designed shrine, is hopping on a Saturday afternoon in late October. Some visitors are here to buy, others to gawk at Canada’s biggest women’s footwear department, the fourth-largest in the world. It’s an urban female Serengeti, home to 150 brands and more than 40,000 shoes.

The class structure underlying female footwear is on full display. At the far end sits “the Room,” an airy gallery-like space bathed in natural light and filled with $1,500 Swarovski-encrusted high-heeled Christian Louboutin mules, $575 patent-leather Lavin sneakers and $2,000 suede Azzedine Alaïa platform booties with lethal six-inch heels. Shoes sit on Lucite platforms, like little sculptures.

As you move into mass-market brands, many of them knock-offs of the upper end, the air thickens, prices drop and displays become more crowded. Still there are “special edition” exclusives such as $120 Converse sneakers striped like the Hudson’s Bay blanket. Salespeople hover holding scanners, summoning shoes from the back where a Ferris-wheel-like machine turns through a two-storey stockroom.The tableau, complete with its backstage machinations, offers a revealing glimpse of the retail moment, one in which women’s well-cultivated shoe lust dovetails with merchants’ desire for profit.

Expanding the Hudson Bay Company’s shoe offerings was a priority when president Bonnie Brooks arrived at the company six years ago. Hired from high-end Hong Kong-based retailer Lane Crawford to infuse HBC with fashion moxie, Brooks knew the power of premium shoes, having seen the Asian market explode in the late 1990s.

Footwear outperforms other departments in terms of store productivity and profitability, she says: “Shoes and cosmetics offer the highest sales per square foot.” Since her arrival, HBC has tripled its shoe sales. Figures for the downtown store alone are up 63 per cent over last year.

There’s solid mercantile rationale behind courting shoe buyers. Footwear is the only part of the fashion market that’s growing, says Sandy Silva, director of client development for fashion in the Toronto office of research firm NPD Group Inc. Sales of footwear, a $5.2-billion market in Canada, are up two per cent over the past 12 months ending July 2013 versus a two per cent drop in apparel sales, Silva says. Saturation of the women’s clothing market has led to cutthroat competition and heavy discounting earlier in the season: “Footwear offers a longer life cycle in terms of preserving margin; that’s why retailers are really on board.”

The upper end of the market offers better gross profit margins— as high as 50 per cent, versus 45 per cent on women’s apparel more generally. Getting high-end designers on board with HBC’s new shoe floor, two years in the making, was a challenge, says Brooks. Some were hesitant to sit in a moderate shoe department or alongside designers they might feel are copying them. “If you can’t provide proper adjacencies, you don’t get a brand,” she explains. In the end, all was resolved. “It’s our dream come true to have all the shoes together,” she says.

HBC is not alone in using shoes as bait. Last year, Macy’s flagship New York store unveiled a 63,000-sq.-foot shoe department offering 300,000 pairs. Saks Fifth Avenue, recently purchased by HBC, added 7,000 sq. feet of footwear space at its main New York store. And Barneys New York opened an expanded unisex designer shoe floor featuring more obscure designers to appeal to rich shoe savants. Stores are also sinking money into making the experience luxurious, even emotional. Macy’s provides a champagne and chocolate bar, Saks a camera pointed at shoppers trying on shoes that display images on a big screen.

Such niceties shrewdly capitalize on the tales girls are told about the transformative power of shoes. Cinderella’s compatibility with a glass slipper saved her from a life of drudgery. A click of Dorothy’s ruby red slippers transported her home. More adult female folklore, notably Sex and the City, is peppered with high-end shoes—Manolo Blahnik, Louboutin, Jimmy Choo. Now they’re the old guard, refreshed with new names—Paul Andrew, Nicholas Kirkwood and Charlotte Olympia, who just launched a girls’ line.

Cobbler celebrity is such that there’s a market for their memoirs. In the newly published In My Shoes, Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon writes of footwear transcending mere accessory status: “Shoes were no longer what you bought to complement the dress; they were the sexy centrepiece of the look.” Mellon, who owns more than 3,000 pairs, just launched an eponymous label, which, of course, includes shoes.

They’re the new fashion signifier, says Brooks: “Shoes, more than handbags, have become a statement of whether you’re part of the fashion cognoscenti. Nobody cares about what handbag you’re wearing; now people are focused on whether you know what shoe to wear with a certain pant.” At the recent spring fashion shows in Europe, she reports, women in the audience were all wearing open-toed, high-heeled leather ankle booties. She credits the current rage for high heels to the arrival of Louboutin’s hidden platform high heels in the late 1990s: “Louboutin is a genius,” she says. “Women could be as tall as models.”

Shoe shopping, inherently more pleasurable than shopping for clothes, appears to provide female democracy in other ways. It’s a way to buy a designer name for a fraction of a clothing purchase. It doesn’t summon body-image anxieties. (You reject the shoe as not comfortable or the right colour; it doesn’t reject you.) And high heels offer the benefit of what anthropologists call “lordosis”—a lift of the behind and an arch of the back commonly seen in primate sexual display.

Marketing gurus have their own theories about the unique allure of shoe shopping. “Shoppers rationalize shoes as a practical buy—something they can wear multiple times a week—so they hold on to that pleasurable feeling longer,” Martin Lindstrom writes in Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. Academic Suzanne Ferriss, co-editor of the essay collection Footnotes: On Shoes, compares collecting shoes to finding rare stamps; both provide a “mini-adrenalin rush.”

Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, has a more scholarly take on conditioned shoe lust. Shoes have become a primary definer of femininity as other accessories defining status and gender—hats, gloves, pearls—fell by the wayside, she says. Women and men can now buy the same Gap jeans and T-shirt. But it’s how they accessorize that establishes nuanced social position, she says: “A woman who pairs a Gap T-shirt and jeans with high-end designer heels is saying things about her sexuality, her desirability, her socio-economic status or ambitions; a woman who pairs the same outfit with a high-end sneaker is conveying a different message.”

A long tradition links the social construction of femininity with fashion consumption, Semmelhack says. “It becomes a self-feeding cycle: if all women love shoes and you want to be a woman you have to love shoes. And if markers of idealized femininity are linked to shoe consumption then women with the most shoes are the most feminine.” She traces the notion women are “shoe-crazy” or irrational in their purchase of shoes to 18th-century concepts of women being innately irrational. “This is expressed and identified through their desire to consume fashion,” she says.

The current mania for high heels in particular is retrograde, says Semmelhack, author of Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe. She laughs off the argument that high heels signal female power or success: “If high heels were really a signifier of power, then men would be as eager to embrace them as women. The fact they aren’t means it remains linked only to ideas of sexualized power.”

But the fact women today have access to a wide range of footwear choices—beautiful flats, sneakers, riding boots, biker boots— does reveal social evolution, she says: “There’s this huge range of options that suggest we’re living in a less constricted world. But the obverse side of that is that we are now constantly expected to reveal some aspect of ourselves in an interesting nuanced way through consumption, so it’s a double-edged sword.” But that’s no problem for anyone scoping out female footwear’s expansive new retail habitat. There, the choices seem to go on forever.

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