A while ago I offered to write up a guide for picking work shoes and a few people said they’d find it helpful. For the last year and a half I’ve worked part-time (seasonally full-time) at an apple orchard that has a farm store and café along with seasonal activities during the fall (hayrides, school tours, you-pick apples, themed weekends, etc.) Before that I worked in the ticket office of a big sports and entertainment venue. Both of these gigs (and other previous work) have taught me the importance of choosing the right shoes so that you can do your job, look appropriate for the environment, and not be miserable at the end of the day.
Your first step should be to review any formal dress codes, as well as the environmental norms. If you’re just starting a job you may not have all the data, but do your best and don’t overbuy until you’ve been there a while. My ticket office job had a very specific dress code and uniform; our shoes had to be completely black, no soles or laces of other colors, and leather or leather-look, rather than canvas or athletic shoes, and only plain black socks were allowed. (I saw a few of my younger coworkers get written up for non-black socks; it was that kind of place.)
Fortunately there were no heel requirements for women but some jobs have that as well, or a limitation for women to wear ballet-type flats or heels rather than oxfords or loafers. An all-black requirement is common in hospitality and food service. You may also have a requirement, or a need, for nonslip bottoms, a steel or composite toe, or shock-resistance.
Once you know what you need and what you don’t, assess your current shoe wardrobe and see if anything fits the bill. Especially if you’ve just started a job, you may be able to get by with what you have for a few weeks, so you can find out what features are the most important to you.
If you need something in a hurry and don’t have the time to wait for online shipping, my two recommendations are Payless and DSW. Payless is in the middle of going bankrupt and shutting down most (all?) of its stores, which is a shame because they really can be a great resource if your budget is tight. In my experience, they always carry both a plain blank canvas slip-on, which can work for kitchen jobs and other casual gigs, and a black ballet flat or slight wedge, which is great for retail jobs.
DSW carries Skechers (more on Skechers in a sec) and in my experience always has at least one all-black sneaker in store. In addition, you can probably find a pair of reasonably supportive oxfords or ballet flats (Anne Klein Sport is a good bet for the latter).
Skechers makes a line called Skechers Work which is my favorite for my orchard job, which can range from restocking the farm store to mopping floors to cleaning bathrooms to driving the hayride tractor. I haven’t seen them in stores but they’re available online a lot of places, like Zappos, shoes.com, Amazon, etc., and their own website. The pair I wear most days at the moment is the ‘Skechers Work Relaxed Fit Comfort Flex Pro HC SR’ – as you might guess from the name they are a bit wider than Skechers regular line, which allows me to put a supportive orthotic in without crowding, and they are slip-resistant and the fabric doesn’t grab onto stains or water. (This is the problem I find wearing most regular athletic shoes for work; there’s too much mesh which allows your feet to breathe but also lets in any dirt or liquids you might encounter.)
There’s also a line called Shoes for Crews, originally aimed I think at people working in restaurants. All of their shoes are slip-resistant. Their price point is relatively low, and they even have an ‘under $50’ section on their website. I believe all of their leather-look shoes are faux leather, useful if you’re vegan or just don’t want to invest in and take care of leather shoes. They also work with other brands to add their slip-resistant outsoles to their shoes, and carry those on their website, from sneakers to clogs to work boots. They only have two B&M stores (Orlando and Las Vegas) but they also run partnerships with a bunch of corporations – that’s where I learned about them; the arena where I worked offered orders through them and you could even have the cost automatically taken out of your paycheck.
I don’t have as much experience with the manufacturing/production/factory side of things, but I know there’s a wide range of prices. Start with what your safety rules are – closed toe shoes with a higher vamp are often required – in other words oxfords, sneakers or boots, not ballet flats or anything else that exposes skin on the foot. If you need a protective toe, see if you can get by with an aluminum or composite toe instead of a steel toe, because steel toes are crazy heavy and are tiring to wear. In addition, look at any non-slip requirements.
Real work boots can be really expensive, and there aren’t many options for women. My brother, who works in construction, buys a new pair of Red Wing boots every year or so, then wears them every work day until they wear out. If this is what you need, look at Red Wing and Wolverine, and at outdoorsy/hunting stores like REI, Duluth Trading, Cabela’s, and Bass Pro Shops.
I hope this giant tome is useful for someone. I don’t have recommendations for stores and brands outside the US so if you do, please add.