Death of the bargain shoe

Sales predicted to plummet in next five years as women reject cheap footwear for top quality designer brands

Imelda Marcos was our inspiration; Carrie Bradshaw our high priestess. From ballet pumps to lookalike Uggs, gladiator sandals to ankle boots, we have snapped them up as fast as Primark and Topshop could churn them out: nearly half of women have bought up to 10 pairs in the last 12 months alone.

But enough is enough. Over the next five years the number of pairs of shoes bought annually in the UK is expected to slump by 7 per cent as the female love affair with cheap shoes fizzles out. By 2012, we will be buying 216 million pairs a year, down from 232 million pairs last year, new research suggests.

The volume of shoes purchased is predicted to plummet this year, putting further pressure on specialist shoe chains such as Dolcis, Faith and Stead & Simpson, which have all suffered as clothing retailers have muscled their way into the footwear market.

Before men start to rejoice, however, they should be warned: analysts believe women have wised up to the fact that cheap shoes are uncomfortable, unbalanced and liable to disintegrate in the first drop of rain. So though they may buy fewer pairs, in future they are likely to save up for more expensive shoes.

Footwear was worth £4.5bn to retailers last year, the report from Mintel revealed. Its latest study suggests that shopping habits have already begun to change, with a move away from quantity towards quality. One-third of women said that they now pay more for shoes, either for better quality or a particular brand. And just as many women – 8 per cent of those polled – are prepared to splash out on designer shoes as the proportion buying cheap footwear.

Melanie Rickey, fashion news editor at the style magazine Grazia, thinks designer shoes will replace handbags in women's affection: "Women are saying, 'I've got enough bags now. What I need is shoes.' It's a need thing – in a fashiony way."

Once-obscure shoe designers are now high street names thanks to collaborations with major retailers, such as Pierre Hardy, a formerly little-known French cobbler, who recently launched a line for Gap. Grazia has only to feature a particular £350 Christian Louboutin shoe for the French maestro to sell 35 pairs in a single day.

Fashion houses are driving the change by turning their attention to shoes, which are becoming more flamboyant than ever. Witness Prada's hand-carved heels or Balenciaga's "Meccano" sandals.

Even Mulberry, the doyenne of the British handbag scene, is to launch its first shoe line, designed by Jonathan Kelsey, dubbed the "British Louboutin" by the fashion press.