• U.S.

Marketing: The Shape of Shoes

3 minute read

The shoemakers of the U.S. would be happy indeed if men were as vain as women are. American women impulsively buy shoes to match mood and outfit, acquire an average of one new pair every three months. The typical American man is far less affected by this urge: he buys shoes hardly once every eight months.

This lack of male vanity is the bane of the $5 billion-a-year shoe industry, and a chief reason that its sales have lagged behind the nation’s economic growth. To remedy the situation, America’s more than 1,000 shoe manufacturers are rapidly changing shapes, styles, selling strategies and even materials. Last week, at the National Shoe Fair in Manhattan, they showed off 300,000 kinds of footwear designed to give a lift to their old and slow business.

Buckles and Bows. The shoemakers have focused on the male desire to look young and rugged. In men’s shoes, the pinched, pointed-toe “Italian look” is out; it has been replaced by broader toes, bolder stitching, longer wing tips and plentiful perforations. Shoemakers have succeeded so well in selling men on the casual look that sales of sneakers, sandals and moccasins are expected to equal those of regular shoes this year. The industry has also brought out dozens of suède-and cloth-topped models with such names as Floaters, Renegades, Tweedies, and Lazy Bones.

The new women’s shoe styles stress comfort at the expense of sleekness, and emphasize a “little-girl look,” with ankle straps and conspicuous buttons, buckles and bows. Needle-nosed tips have been replaced by rounder, softer toes, and heels are becoming even shorter and wider. At the same time, somewhat alarmingly, teen-age boys are taking to high heels. International Shoe has had a runaway success with its “Beatle Boots,” which have 11-in. tapered heels; Melville Shoe Co. (Thorn McAn) has brought out a boot with a 2-in. tapered heel, also offers the teens zebra stripes and wildly colored linings.

No Longer Hidebound. The hard drive to sell more shoes is a product of some major changes in the shoe industry. The industry has been for decades a casual and fragmented father-to-son business, with a relatively high rate of profit (up to 20% on invested capital) and little mechanization; even today 220 people work on the average pair of shoes. In the last few years, however, mergers and some failures have reduced the numbers of producers by 10%, and the few big manufacturers —International, Brown, Endicott Johnson, Genesco and U.S. Shoe—have expanded their share of the market by opening more retail outlets in discount houses and department stores.

Most important, the development of leather substitutes has shaken up the hidebound industry, opening new prospects in automation and styling. Though Du Pont’s new synthetic, Corfam, has conquered less than 1% of the market so far. 79 major shoemakers are using it and Du Pont is struggling to keep up with demand. The company predicts that out of a total of 650 million shoes sold this year, up to 7,000,000 will be made of Corfam, hopes that the synthetic will stimulate U.S. shoe sales much as nylon increased U.S. clothing sales.

Du Pont cut some Corfam prices two weeks ago by 10% to 15%—or about 150 to 300 for each pair of shoes—and will cut further as production rises. Corfam shoes now sell for just about the same price as comparable leather shoes. Several of Du Pont’s archcompetitors are trying to crack the Corfam formula. Secretly and intently Union Carbide, B.F. Goodrich, US Rubber and other companies are developing their own synthetics for the changing shoe industry.

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