Dress shoes are back, sort of

Sales of dress shoes like high heels are growing, but that doesn’t mean they’re back to stay.
Sales of dress shoes like high heels are growing, but that doesn’t mean they’re back to stay.
Image: Reuters/Stephanie Keith
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Sales of dress shoes are growing again in the US, buoyed by Americans rediscovering the joys of dressing up. Even so, it may be premature to proclaim a lasting revival of the category. After suffering a dismal 2020 due to the pandemic, dress shoes had nowhere to go but up, and they’re still pressured by the long-term trend toward more comfortable, more casual clothing and footwear, in the office and pretty much everywhere else.

“Sales of dress footwear are rising,” said Beth Goldstein, the accessories and footwear industry analyst at NPD Group, a research firm. But, she noted, that doesn’t mean they’ve recovered. In April, sales of dress footwear were 200% higher than the same month last year, according to NPD’s data, but that was still 40% below their level in April 2019. In 2020, sales fell so far that “really the only direction is up,” Goldstein said.

Some retailers, such as Steve Madden, have noted an uptick in dress-shoe sales on earnings calls, but again, the context matters. Shoe Carnival, which has 383 stores across the US and Puerto Rico and does roughly $1 billion in annual sales, saw its sales of women’s dress shoes surge in the recent quarter compared to their level during the same time in 2020, Carl Scibetta, chief merchandising officer, said on a May 19 earnings call. But they were still below their pre-pandemic levels. “We expect this trend to continue throughout the year,” Scibetta said.

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The long-term decline of dress shoes

Casual shoes offering both style and comfort has been stealing share from more formal footwear for years. The pandemic only reinforced comfort’s priority among shoppers. StitchFix, an online personal styling service that uses a mix of human stylists and algorithms to recommend clothes to clients, says customers do want to dress up again, but there’s more demand for what the company calls “business comfort.”

That extends to footwear. Between January and May 2021, men’s requests for dress shoes and women’s requests for heels were down versus 2020. Requests for sneakers were up.

It doesn’t mean shoppers aren’t seeking other options. For men, loafers are emerging as one popular sneaker alternative. Peter Nguyen, a New York-based men’s stylist, says his clients are currently eager to revamp their footwear collections, including dress shoes and sneakers. He always starts these refreshes with three styles: a loafer, a minimalist white sneaker, and a retro running sneaker. “These three in my opinion are the most versatile shoes, especially now that most dress codes are very casual,” he said.

NPD expects styles such as casual sandals and fashion sneakers—as opposed to the performance variety—will fare well in the months ahead. Back in March, Goldstein predicted dress shoe sales would jump as pandemic restrictions eased, but ultimately it would be short-lived. “I’m not surprised at these results, and maybe they’d be even stronger if brands and retailers had more inventory,” she said of the current rise in sales. “But I still do believe that the long-term trends that were taking place prior to the pandemic will ultimately continue to drive consumers’ purchasing behavior.”