Crystal Slippers To Air Jordans: Shoes Still A Smart Buy

Cinderella knew it. Run-DMC’s ode to their Adidas sneakers proved it. Our love affair with shoes goes much deeper than their practical function. Footwear has swelled into a $ 64 billion industry, according to The NPD Group, a retail research firm.

Shoes, on one hand, can lure a millennial generation tilting toward customizable and unique self-expression, according to Kristin Bentz, a longtime consumer sector analyst now heading her own firm, Talented Blonde. They also provide a perfect vehicle for a brand-dominated industry that can attract consumers of all ages, income levels and sizes.

“No one ever said, if I just lost those last 10 pounds I could fit into those Christian Louboutins,” Bentz told IBD.

"Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture," a current exhibit at New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art. Sneakers are increasingly fashion items, and...

“Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” a current exhibit at New York’s Brooklyn Museum of Art. Sneakers are increasingly fashion items, and… View Enlarged Image

Pop culture shoe obsession may have leapt into the 21st century, boosted by the TV series “Sex and the City.” But it has evolved into something much bigger and broader. It’s now OK for men to be as shoe-obsessed as the series’ protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw, once was, Bentz said.

She calls footwear a “fun but volatile” sector, with lots of moving parts that can be challenging for investors: everything from designer whims to consumer interest to the impact of big sports-team contracts. But there are a few themes and dominant players for investors to follow.

Wedding Athletics & Leisure

If “Sex” were being written today, it’s likely that even its well-heeled New Yorkers would be wearing sneakers. The move toward “athleisure” is dominating footwear, according to Bentz and other analysts. NPD estimates that sport leisure and performance footwear make up 41% of the total U.S. market.

For Matt Powell, NPD’s sports industry analyst, Americans’ embrace of sneakers is here to stay. “We’ve been in a period of strong sneaker sales for more than a decade,” he said. “When something lasts that long, it’s not a trend. It really is completely ingrained in the lifestyle.”

Consumers are responding to what Powell calls “the great casualization” — the shift from suits and ties to dark jeans for office workers, for example. Americans aren’t necessarily working out more. Powell said 85% of all athletic shoes aren’t used for their intended purpose.

In fact, athletic shoes remain extremely popular. Consumers upped their spending on performance footwear by 10% in the 12 months ending in May, NPD said. And while most shoppers choose clothing first and then match shoes to the outfit, footwear experts say that among sneaker buyers, the shoes come first, apparel second.

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