Head over heels or simply ‘over’ heels – Retailing Africa


by Terena Chetty. Are consumers purchasing less high heel shoes post-Covid? High-heeled shoes are worn for many reasons, including preference, to fulfil expectations, and even mandates (some companies operating within the hospitality and beauty industries, for example, prescribe high heels as part of their employee dress code).

While some women wouldn’t be caught dead without their heels, many are now opting for flats post-Covid. Comfort is a key factor for this change, with the sale of sneakers, sandals and the like, on a definite rise since 2020. Furthermore, within the context of a global pandemic, the idea of “meeting expectations” is far less of a priority, replaced instead by personal choice and practical concerns.

So, back to the question at hand (or afoot, as the case may be) – are retailers selling less high-heeled shoes post-Covid? The short answer is yes. According to data from research firm NPD Group, sales of dress shoes dropped a whopping 71% in 2020. With most of the global population under strict lockdowns during this time, the retail and fashion industries in general took a major hit. But the question remains, has crisis impacted consumer behaviour in a permanent manner?

Sarah Flint, founder of the self-titled footwear brand, states that since the onset of lockdowns, the penetration of total sales has doubled for flats. Furthermore, the brand listed record sales for sandals as consumers sought more practical wardrobe options. While Flint concedes that its not the end of the line for heels, she does believe that the uptake on comfort-based purchasing is here to stay. “This isn’t going away anytime soon,” said Flint. “Once people start dressing for comfort, it’s hard to go back — so it’s been a huge advantage to have that element of comfort built into our DNA.”

Wall Street stylist and personal shopper, Jessica Cadmus, echoed this sentiment, stating that clients have scaled back from wearing heels every day to just once a week, or only for important meetings. “The shift has been towards a more casual overall aesthetic across the board on Wall Street. The clean white sneaker has been trending for both men and women. It’s a look that works when paired with more formal pieces,” said Cadmus.

Budget restrictions

Furthermore, the consequential economic impacts of the crisis resulted in tighter budgets as consumers focused on more practical needs. People simply could not afford their previous lifestyle and shopping habits. This, of course, had immense impact on the designer shoe market.

In 2020, there was a massive 21% drop in demand for designer shoes (Bloomberg). Even high-end fashion brands were forced to re-assess their product lines. Exclusive Parisian fashion brand Galeries Lafayette – a store that prides itself on elegant French-styled dresses, pumps and designer trenches – had to adapt its offering to include more sneakers.

During the height of the pandemic, brands such as Steve Madden reported being stuck with excess shoe inventories. During this period, Steve Madden CEO Edward Rosenfeld said, “We’ve had a lot of success, and we’re continuing to see a lot of success, with our flat sandals”; and indicted the brand’s increased focus on sneakers and casual boots.

The fact that physical social and corporate events were basically non-existent for a while also meant that even lovers of high heels had no reason to expand their footwear collections. Even now, post lockdown, many companies have evolved to a fully or semi-remote work structure, meaning that the full-time office model may never return – again, reducing the need to increase work wardrobes.

Stepping up or stepping back?

Whether these trends will continue will depend on how consumers balance comfort and practicality against the backdrop of fashion and image over the upcoming months. Future footwear trends will be particularly intriguing to watch as younger generations enter the workforce for the first time, exhibiting their specific brand of consumer behaviour.

As we head towards the fourth quarter of 2022, it is likely that we will see a rise in high heel sales ahead of the festive season. It important to note that this rise will be in comparison to the performance of the last few years – whether this increase will be in line with pre-Covid projections stands to be seen. As we return to (arguable) ‘normal life’, time will tell whether consumers are still head over heels for their stilettos – or are just simply ‘over’ heels.


Main image credit: Pixabay.com.



Terena Chetty is head of strategy at 1Africa Consulting, and has extensive experience in public relations (PR), integrated brand strategy and consumer communications. She works closely with both pan-African and global brands, and holds a BA Degree in Communication Science (cum laude).



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