NEW YORK — Shoes are coming out of the closet and landing under the Christmas tree. They're a top seller this holiday season — a big feat considering most years they don't even make gift lists.
Laranda Williams, 39, used to buy clothing, tools and electronics as presents for her family. This year, though, she looked at their feet and got inspired. She bought some Vans sneakers for one of her sons, two pairs of stilettos for a girlfriend of another son, and Nike running shoes for her husband.
"Electronics and clothing get redundant," said Williams, who lives in Clarksville, Tenn. "Shoes are just the wow. I know they're going to use it, and I know they're going to love it."
The shoe-gifting fetish is part of a larger trend of shoppers buying loved ones gifts that they not only like, but also can use. It's this habit of practicality that Americans have been clinging to throughout the economic downturn.
This holiday season, it's meant that mom might not buy Molly an extravagant evening gown she'll maybe wear once. But mom may splurge on $600 Jimmy Choo pumps if Molly needs work shoes or $150 Nike sneakers if her daughter's an avid runner.
"It's about practicality and splurging at the same time," said Marshal Cohen, chief research analyst at NPD Inc., a market research firm. "There's a sense of, 'I know what you need but you haven't gotten it for yourself.'"
As a result, footwear was the fifth most popular gift on shoppers' lists on the day after Thanksgiving known as Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, according to NPD. A year ago, shoes didn't even make it into the top 10 gifts for the season.
Overall, sales of athletic shoes rose 3.4 percent to $3 billion for the three months ending in November, and sales of women's fashion footwear grew 3.2 percent to $6.12 billion.
Chelsey Gates, manager of Chuckies New York, a designer shoe store on the Manhattan borough of New York City, said she's seen more men buying shoes for the women in her life. One of the most popular gifts: Chelsea Paris gold trim ankle-high boots for $695.
"Men come in with cards with perfect instructions: style numbers, sizes and prices," she said.
The trend comes as stores have been trying to find ways to boost sales of shoes, which can carry profit margins of up to 50 percent.
As part of Macy's overhaul of its New York flagship store, the department store combined three different shoe departments and expanded their overall size by 10 percent. The new department has 250,000 pairs of shoes, including everything from $99 Nine West leopard print platform pumps to $400 Donald Pliner multi-colored pumps.
"Women love shoes. This is a category that they care about," said Muriel Gonzalez, an executive vice president at Macy's.
This fall, Saks Fifth Avenue also beefed up shoe departments in about a dozen of its stores. The move continues the luxury retailer's efforts at its flagship New York City store, which it first expanded in 2007 to include more shoes, better service and more stock room capability.
The flagship shoe department, which got a second remake this fall, now takes over the 8th floor, which previously also housed a gift area. The department, which is 40 percent larger, now is the second most productive department in terms of sales per square foot, behind the main floor, which sells cosmetics.
In the past few weeks, Elizabeth Kanfer, Saks' senior fashion and co-brand director for women's accessories, said the retailer has noticed boyfriends or husbands walking in with their significant others and buying a pair of shoes that cost at least $595. She declined to offer sales figures.
"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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