"There has been a resurgence of footwear easily in the last six years," Kanfer said. "You can easily upgrade your wardrobe with a pair of shoes."
Even smaller chains are trying to cash in on the trend. Fleet Feet Sports-Chicago, a two-store chain of running and fitness apparel, launched a gift registry this year that allows people to record their preferred brand, style, color, size, width and model of shoe from hundreds of options.
Catherine Moloznik, Fleet Feet's product manager, said so far in December, shoe sales are up about 20 percent compared with a year ago, in part because of the registry.
"Shoes have turned the corner in the gift category," said Robert Burke, a New York-based fashion consultant. "They've become the new handbag."
Owen Badillo, 35, certainly never thought of buying shoes as gifts for others in the past. But this season he bought two pairs of $30 Asics running shoes for his 28-year-old sister, who's a mother of two small children and a runner.
Badillo said he's more confident in his gift this year than last year when he ran around trying to pick up clothes for his sister, not really knowing "what she wanted." This year, he said it was clear what she needed.
"Her shoes are all torn up. So I am focusing on what she really needs," said Badillo, who lives in Oklahoma City and works at an oil and gas company.
AP Writer Ashley Heher in Chicago contributed to this report.
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