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Women's shoes pump up clothiers' flagging sales

Designer shoes on display at Holt Renfrew on Bloor Street in Toronto on May 15, 2012. These shoes on a brand new wall display are from a variety of designers. The foreground shoe is by Valentino.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Women's shoe therapy is helping to drive retailers' footwear sales even as their apparel sales sag.

Consumers are getting their fashion fix with the purchase of a new pair of pumps rather than pants or a suit. In today's shaky economy, picking up a pair of stilettos is a relatively budget-friendly way to update the wardrobe.

As a result, retailers are feeling the urgency to add shoe aisles to their stores, raising the stakes for everyone to grab a bigger piece of Canada's $4.9-billion footwear market. At the same time, they face the invasion of savvy foreign players with their own shoe offerings.

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The allure can show up on the bottom line: Retailers can generate higher gross profit margins from footwear than apparel if they quickly sell the products at full price, rather than having them languish on shelves and cleared out at a discount.

Fashion purveyors Mark's Work Wearhouse, Holt Renfrew, the Bay and Marshalls are racing to expand their shoe departments, investing in new staff and marketing to try to cash in on women's appetite for shoes. Apparel specialist Reitmans (Canada) Ltd. recently started to stock shoes as its core clothing business weakened.

"In a time of austerity, women continue to buy shoes," said Kathy Perrotta, fashion sales director at market researcher NPD Canada. "It's a guilty pleasure."

Footwear sales rose 1 per cent last year, while apparel sales fell 2 per cent to $22.9-billion, according to NPD's latest figures.

The shifting trends are even more pronounced among female shoppers. Their footwear sales jumped 5 per cent in 2011 to $2.8-billion after increasing just 2 per cent in each of the previous few years; in contrast, women's apparel sales fell 4 per cent to $13-billion following flat-to-slight growth in previous years, NPD found.

"There is a trend toward buying fewer overall [clothing]looks and updating a wardrobe with the footwear," said Pat Di Bratto, a senior vice-president at Holt Renfrew.

Mark's Work Wearhouse hired shoe designers with a global background to help develop new lines last year, putting a renewed focus on its footwear business, said Iain Summers, general merchandise manager at Mark's in Calgary.

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Mark's plays up the comfort factor, particularly for older customers. It adds anti-slip material to the bottom of its footwear and keeps the toe area flexible, even in women's wedge heels. "There's a bit of a myth that women don't care about comfort," Mr. Summers said.

Mark's footwear division is its strongest performer, with sales up 15 per cent last year. while its apparel sales grew only "marginally," Harry Taylor, chief operating officer told a conference call of parent Canadian Tire Corp. last week.

Holt's and other retailers, including the Bay, are ramping up their shoe sections with more space and brands. They're pressing high-profile suppliers to ship them exclusive lines. Holt's recently stocked a limited-edition Christian Louboutin 20th-anniversary offering, and in September, will bring shoe design star Manolo Blahnik to a customer meet-and-greet at its flagship Toronto store.

Privately held Holt's efforts seem to be yielding results: shoe sales have jumped 22 per cent this year, rising at twice the rate of apparel sales, Ms. Di Bratto said. Last year, shoe sales rose about 20 per cent, also twice the pace of those of overall company sales, she said.

Still, footwear isn't a shoo-in for all retailers. Some specialty chains have felt the squeeze of burgeoning competition; Struggling Sterling Shoes collapsed into creditors' court protection last year and recently struck a deal to be snapped up by rival Town Shoes.

Discount fashion purveyor TJX Cos. , which runs Winners and Marshalls, closed its smaller StyleSense specialty shoe and handbag chain late last year. But on a brighter note, its Marshalls chain, which it launched in Canada last year, is rushing to expand its shoe offerings with 8,000 pairs and a "strong" footwear business, chief executive Carol Meyrowitz said.

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And Town Shoes, which was acquired by two new investors in February, is now looking to use the cash infusion to grow, a strategy that is already bearing fruit with the Sterling purchase.

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About the Author
Retailing Reporter

Marina Strauss covers retailing for The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. She follows a wide range of topics in the sector, from the fallout of foreign retailers invading Canada to how a merchant such as the Swedish Ikea gets its mojo. She has probed the rise and fall (and revival efforts) of Loblaw Cos., Hudson's Bay and others. More

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