When New Jerseyite Gabrielle Bove had to postpone her big June wedding due to COVID-19 restrictions, she went ahead with the ceremony, downsizing to just 20 guests in an outdoor event.
With many special occasion events remaining up in the air these days, dress shoe sales are also being put on hold. Coupled with consumers’ growing preference for more casual dressing even at the office, the category is being challenged more than ever.
“[Dress shoes] have been among the hardest hit segments this spring — sales were down about 70% in March and April combined,” said Beth Goldstein, industry analyst, fashion footwear and accessories for NPD Group. “Now, without offices to go to and special occasions to attend, the demand will remain low in the coming months. Dress shoe brands, if they haven’t already, should be pivoting to focus more on more casual offerings.”
At Walking Cradles, known for its offering of comfort-driven looks, there’s been a decline in dress shoe sales since March, according Lisa Schmitz, director of marketing and creative development for the company. “Last year, we responded to retailer and consumer requests for more dress shoes,” she said. “We’re finding there’s little or no interest in the category at this time. Even those returning to work seem to be dressing more casually. As we quarantine, everybody has been wearing yoga pants and flip-flops. [However], if people are able to get out and have larger gatherings, they might want to be a little more dressed up and celebrate.”
Since the pandemic hit, sales of dressier heeled shoes have come to a near standstill at French Sole New York, according to Nisim Frank, head of wholesale sales. “I think if people now are spending their money in a more limited way than before, they are looking for shoes with more purposes,” said Frank, noting steady business in the brand’s signature ballet collection that can be worn with jeans or dresses. “Why spend on a new heel they may not need to wear as they continue to work from home?And, just because things are opening up again, doesn’t mean people are ready to be in a room with 50 others at an [event].”
Dress shoe business has also taken a hit at J. Renee Group, reported Glenn Heidkamp, president of sales, noting retailers have been requesting orders be postponed from June to August. “Since there’s not as much holiday business as there used to be, we do more of our special occasion business in summer for weddings, proms and graduations,” said Heidkamp. “Our biggest months are March through June.”
Like J. Renee Group, Something Bleu, has seen a dip in dress shoe sales, reporting a 30% decline in March and April. However, according to Dennis Comeau, president and designer of parent company Butter Shoes Italy, there were still signs of activity in the formal footwear category. “I was actually surprised that we were still seeing as many bridal and special occasion shoes as we did,” he said. “It was mostly bridal, so people were still moving forward with their plans. May sales actually increased from last year, and we have gotten a lot of reorders from retailers that have e-commerce sites, like BHLDN.”
Looking ahead to spring ’21, Something Bleu is introducing a range of Italian-made wedding shoes, including a soigné sneaker, opulently decorated sandals, elegant flip-flops and debonair, but casual bridal shoes, said Comeau.
While the brand is moving ahead with its occasion footwear offering, for sister labels Butter and Golo, high heels have come to a screeching halt, and dress shoes have slowed down. “The vast majority of what we are selling are either casual or ‘Zoom-friendly’ footwear,” said Comeau. “On social media and e-mail promotions, we have focused almost exclusively on flats and casuals.”
Despite a slip in dress shoe business, brands remain optimistic. “If you’re going to have a wedding and wanted it to be fancy, you expect [guests] to get dressed up,“ said Heidkamp, who expects consumers will once again be craving a pair of formal shoes. “The ladies who buy our dress shoes wear them for certain purposes and aren’t going to change over to gym shoes or flip-flops.”
For designer Sophia Webster, wedding shoes and bags are still performing relatively well, even if these events have to be postponed. “Interestingly, we’ve seen our bridal flats business, including closed-toe [styles] and sandals, increase since the pandemic,” according to Bobby Stockley, CEO. “Pre-lockdown we had very personalized, fun shopping events for our bridal customers that can no longer take place, but we keep up this conversation with them in different, digital ways.”