Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Happy feet

According to census data, Americans bought over 2 billion pairs of shoes in 2004. With a population just shy of 300 million that year--as Gerber so kindly advertised to us last year, the 300 millionth American joined us in October, and will surely be walking in time to take advantage of the fall shoe line--that makes over 6 pairs of shoes per person.

The Superior Footware company notes that the US per capita consumption is the highest in the world. In Europe the average per person is 4.8 pairs per year, in Saudi Arabia and Japan 4.5 pairs, in Canada 3.8 pairs, in China 2.7 pairs, in Vietnam 0.4 pairs, and in India 0.7 pairs.

In a chapter entitled "Find an occasional use," the book Mass Affluence: Seven New Rules of Marketing to Today's Consumer puts that US average a little lower--only 5 pairs per person per year. The book, which is unabashedly all about solving the problem of getting people who already have more than they need to think they need more, says that in the 1920's the average number of shoes sold per person per year was 2.5. Whereas that rate of purchase was probably just enough to replace a one or two pair shoe wardrobe as they wore out, the average America woman today owns 30 pairs of shoes. And that is the average. "Much of this shoe fetish," the authors say, "can be attributed to the disproportionate buying of the moneyed masses, whose share of total shoes purchases is disproportionately higher than their share of feet."

According to the Worker's Rights Consortium, the hypothetical average present-day Chinese and 1920s American may have it about right, at least assuming (falsely) the existence of a mass of average consumers that isn't, or wasn't, too heavily swayed by the "disproportionate buying of the moneyed masses." Their living wage estimates call for high enough wages to allow each member of a family to buy two pairs of shoes each year, along with three sets of clothing. This is more, for example, than allowed in times of sacrifice in American history. The Witheridge Historical Archive gives the number of shoe purchases allowed during wartime rationing in 1942 as one pair every eight months. It is also more, clearly, than a person living in extreme poverty is able to afford, probably more than most people who make shoes for a living can afford, but enough to keep a couple of pairs of good shoes on each person's feet.

Meanwhile, among the extremely and relatively wealthy, the pressure mounts to own more shoes. And, once we own them, we face the task of deciding which ones are special enough to take along when we travel. A post by JazzCruiseDiva on message boards at suggests being conservative and bringing only four pairs (dressy, casual, tennis shoes and sandals) along on a cruise, and coordinating the clothes you bring to match. Not, the poster warns, a pair to match each outfit. That would be silly. One should resist the urge to take the other 26 pairs along. Those pairs will do just fine resting in their shoe racks at home.

If you don't own a shoe rack, check out the selection at The Container Store, which currently offers 17 styles of floor shoe storage, eight types of shelf shoe storage, five types of hanging shoe storage, and five types of "overdoor" shoe storage. Prices range from around $10 to $150. One overdoor variety will hold 30 pairs of women's shoes, and is a bargain at $40, provided you have an extra door in your house over which to hang it.

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