Sneakers are killing high heels in more than one way

With a name like "fashion footwear," one would assume that high heels, sandals and espadrilles would always be in style.

But as shoppers became more interested in finding the perfect pair of sneakers to go with their yoga pants, that didn't exactly prove to be the case.

Now, things are slowly starting to change.

While athletic shoes remain popular, so-called fashion footwear—defined as footwear that falls outside of the sport performance realm—is also gaining traction, ironically with a kick from the once-lowly sneaker.

Kate Spade Lodero sneaker
Kate Spade

According to the data from the NPD Group/Consumer Tracking Service, dollar sales for the segment in the six months ending in June rose 5 percent, to $14.3 billion. That marks an improvement over the prior six months, as sales during the full-year period were up just 3 percent.

The category's revival, however, isn't the result of shoppers looking to trade in their low-key looks. Instead, fashion footwear is making its comeback by keying into the athleisure trend's hallmarks of casual comfort—a preference experts don't see changing anytime soon.

"I think we're getting spoiled," said Jaime Barr, footwear and accessories editor at trend forecasting firm WGSN. "Now that people are used to having comfort features worked into their shoes it's going to be really hard to go back."

As casual styles have become more acceptable across all facets of life, from Saturday brunch to work, designers have started to incorporate more laid-back designs into their fashion-footwear offerings. The successful ones, Barr said, are expanding into these categories while staying true to their brand DNA.

She pointed to the sneaker selection at Kate Spade as an example. Although these items resemble running shoes, their use of high-end fabrics and brand-consistent color palettes appeal to the company's target customer.

And with more design houses and celebrities jumping on the trend (think Kanye West's "Yeezy" sneaker for Adidas), the selection has dramatically changed at luxury department stores.

"You go [onto those sites] now and you have pages and pages and pages of designer-level sneakers to look at," Barr said.

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Along with lace-up sneakers, Barr listed over-the-knee and knee-high boots, as well as ankle boots with sneaker bottoms, as popular trends for the fall.

What's more, Canaccord Genuity analyst Camilo Lyon said earlier this month that vendors at a recent trade show indicated the dress category has been performing well—something he said bodes well for DSW.

In the most recent quarter, that retailer's management team called out women's dress shoes as an underperformer.

Consumer spending habits shifting... here's why
Consumer spending habits shifting... here's why

Lyon also noted that as more consumers buy into the revival of flare jeans, the stacked heel seen on Steve Madden's boots and booties serves as a complementary purchase. The festival-inspired looks that have dominated the racks at retailers including H&M are also starting to show up in footwear, he said.

And as women continue to trade in their sky-high stilettos for more comfortable styles, trends continue to favor brands such as Ugg, Crocs and Skechers, which have a reputation for being friendly to women's feet.

The shift to casual footwear has led most consumers "to expect comfort in their footwear, regardless if it's athletic, dress or casual," Sterne Agee CRT analyst Sam Poser said.

That's not to say athletic footwear is going away. In Foot Locker's most recent quarter, the popularity of this segment helped the retailer expand same-store sales by nearly 10 percent.

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Even DSW, which is traditionally associated with its fashion footwear, said that the athletic category represented 16 percent of its overall business in the second quarter—the highest penetration it's ever achieved.

According to NPD, sales of athletic and outdoor footwear rose 6 percent in the six months ended June, to $15.7 billion.

Both consumers and retailers should expect the shift toward casual and comfort to remain in 2016, Barr said. WGSN is already calling for a continuation of casual trends with an athletic wear influence in the spring, including sandals that incorporate the bottom grip typically associated with sneakers.

"I think it's going to stay like that for quite some time," she said.