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A Not-So-Guilty Pleasure

For months now, consumers have been hunkering down in an economic storm, buying only what they need to survive, like groceries, diapers, medicine — and shoes.

Shoes?

The American public, it would seem, cannot carry on without new shoes. Boots, booties, sneakers, pumps — for the last few months they have all been selling well as the broader economy struggles toward recovery.

Retailing executives and analysts offer varying, occasionally wacky, explanations. The one favored by many of them is that consumers consider shoes more of a necessity than, say, dresses, cuff links or handbags, so people feel less guilt about buying them.

“I would argue you wear out shoes more than you wear out handbags,” said Marie Driscoll, an analyst with Standard & Poor’s Equity Research who is adept at rationalizing her own shoe purchases. Living in New York, she walks everywhere. “I use the argument, ‘If I spend $150 to $300 on shoes, this is my car.’ ”

Lakruwan Wanniarachchi | AFP | Getty Images

Many shoes, of course, can be had for a lot less than that, which makes them a recession-friendly indulgence. Most of the shoes being bought today are moderately priced, according to retailers and market researchers. Executives at Macy’s said women’s shoes typically cost half as much as a handbag of similar quality.

Also, the cost-per-wear of a pair of shoes is far lower than that of a dress or suit, which can only be donned so many times a week before colleagues snicker. And new shoes spruce up old outfits, a cheaper alternative to buying more clothes.

Another popular theory is that as the economy has inspired a back-to-basics mentality, with families dining and vacationing at home, people are focusing on free outdoor activities that require comfortable or rugged shoes.

Scott Savitz, the founder and chief executive of Shoebuy.com, an Internet retailer, said sales of outdoor and athletic shoes by the likes of Timberland , Merrell and Adidas were robust.

“You could spend thousands of dollars to go away right now, or you can buy walking shoes,” said Mr. Savitz, whose company added more than 90 brands in the last quarter when most retailers were cutting inventory.

Shoe buyers for major retailing chains said sales were also driven by styles for children and babies, especially during the back-to-school months. Children regularly grow out of shoes and parents, while willing to sacrifice when it comes to themselves, are typically loath to scrimp on their children.

Among the more curious explanations proffered for the relative strength of shoe sales is that women — who make up the lion’s share of the American shoe market — get an emotional lift from shoe shopping in a way they do not when trying on jeans and cocktail dresses.

“Shoes democratize fashion,” said Kathryn Finney, who writes the Budget Fashionista blog. “You probably can’t buy a Zac Posen dress if you wear a size 14, but you can buy a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes.”

Or, as Jennifer Black, president of research company Jennifer Black and Associates, put it: “It’s just fun to shop for shoes. Maybe part of the fun is you don’t feel fat. And you don’t get hot. It’s exhausting trying clothes on, especially the skinny jeans.”

Certainly, shoes are what retailing merchants refer to as an emotional purchase. Eileen Lewis, director of fashion strategy for Zappos.com, said consumers were snapping up shoes in bright colors like yellow and red, “something that sticks out and makes you happy.”

Jamie Boucher, a lawyer in Washington, snapped up a pair of Christian Louboutin heels recently for 70 percent off at a local Saks store. “I think about value much more than perhaps I did before,” said Ms. Boucher. “But you’ve still got to have your shoes.”

Fashion trends also play a role. Voluminous sweaters and leggings are in vogue, a style well suited to showcasing shoes, said John D. Morris, a retailing analyst with BMO Capital Markets. Retailers said boots were selling especially well. A spokeswoman for J. C. Penney explained that consumers were not sticking with one type of boot for winter but rather creating entire “boot wardrobes,” buying over-the-knee boots, open-toe boots and ankle boots.

Ms. Finney added that with conspicuous consumption being out of fashion nowadays, shoes enable people to update their wardrobes without being ostentatious. “It’s not the same as wearing a Louis Vuitton monogrammed bag,” she said. “It’s this trend of being a little bit more coy.”

Shoe sales have been strong for three months now. They increased 7.9 percent in October compared with the period a year ago, according to SpendingPulse, an information service by MasterCard Advisors that estimates sales for all forms of payment, including cash, checks and credit cards. In September, sales climbed 7.8 percent year-over-year. In August, shoe sales increased 0.5 percent.

Sales of shoes were $1.5 billion in October, the highest they have been in any October since at least 2006. And major retailers like J. C. Penney, Dillard’s and Ross Stores said in sales reports last month that shoes were among their best-performing categories.

“Shoe sales are trending up, without question,” said Rory Tahari, vice chairman of the clothing brand Elie Tahari. “It’s one of our better-selling categories.”

A few weeks ago Larry Smith bought leather Allen Edmonds shoes to replace an old pair. “I needed shoes,” said Mr. Smith, who lives in Indianapolis and runs an educational Web site for children. “We’re still going to buy the stuff that we want, but we’re not extravagant.”

The shoe rally of the last three months is not likely to bring about year-over-year sales growth for the shoe sector, given that the beginning of the year was so bleak for merchandise sales of all kinds. Packaged Facts, a research company, estimates that, like other discretionary categories, footwear sales will decline by double digits for all of 2009.

Still, a few months of healthy sales may be a sign that some consumers are experiencing what Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for market research company NPD Group, calls “frugal fatigue.”

“They are getting tired of having to be so frugal and not spend on anything,” he said recently while observing the packed shoe department of a Bloomingdale’s in Short Hills, N.J., during a sale. “Repairing those boots yet again? Nah. Time to step out and buy a new pair.”

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