00:00 Jordan: Have you ever worn really cheap shoes? Have you ever worked in retail? Have you done both? Neither is much fun, but for a lot of people who didn’t grow up in families that could afford name brands or fund their education or first apartments or shopping habits, both those things were a reality and for more than 60 years, for those kids and young adults, there was Payless.
00:34 Jordan: Payless is a store you probably haven’t thought much about in recent years, but it was huge and it was everywhere. And by the end of this month, it’ll be gone. More than 2,000 stores across the United States and almost 250 in Canada will be liquidated. Now retail chains go out of business all the time, and most of them don’t rate a eulogy. But Payless does, because it sits or fat, I guess, at the intersection of class ism and capitalism, and it is both a victim of our current retail apocalypse, and also a key figure in the rise of fast fashion. So what legacy does Payless leave behind? What does this store mean to the millions of kids who couldn’t afford the good shoes with the swooshes or the stripes on them? Why is it dying at the same time as more people than ever are falling into poverty? And did it somehow managed to go out with perhaps one of the only meaningful pranks ever performed by a corporate entity?
01:44 Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Sarah Bernstein is an editor at Dismantle Digital magazine, and she wrote a piece about Payless for The Outline. Sarah, thank you for joining us today.
01:56 Sarah: Thank you. I’m really happy to be here.
01:58 Jordan: Well start by telling me about Payless in general. What is it and how long has it been around?
02:04 Sarah: So Payless at this point, it has been around so long that most people have seen one somewhere if they haven’t actually been inside one. But it was started in 1956 in Topeka, Kansas, as just a little discount shoe self serve retailer. By 1975 it was the largest family shoe chain in America, and by the late nineties it had over 5,000 stores. And I think it continues to be the largest shoe chain, definitely in the U.S, and `possibly the world. It sort of made a name for itself because of the self; it wasn’t the first self serve shoe store, but it was the biggest one. So basically… during the seventies there was a massive recession, and a lot of people needed cheap shoes, and Payless was really god at; they had a really kind of nice distribution model, and they got really good at selling cheap shoes and keeping overhead low by not having a lot of salespeople and subcontracting and that kind of thing.
03:14 Jordan: Describe for me what it’s like to walk into a Payless and use them. What makes them different from a traditional shoe store, as we imagine it?
03:21 Sarah: Yeah, I think…. and I have to be honest. I have not been in one in a while, but I spent a lot of time there when I was young, and I don’t think they’ve changed. I’ve been near them a lot, so basically you go in and there are just racks of shoes, and that’s really it, um…. everything is out on display and you kind of, you walk in, you find your size and you kind of just scan…. this kind of wall of shoes to see if there’s anything there that kind of matches your style and you’re in charge of, you know, trying them on, you kind of find; stake out a place on the floor, find a stool, try on your own shoes. There’s not a lot of help from sales people unless there’s something really specific that you need. It’s really just you and the shoes.
04:15 Jordan: And if they are the biggest shoe retailer in America and possibly elsewhere, why are they closing?
04:20 Sarah: They did the thing where they went bankrupt, and then they filed for bankruptcy and then closed a bunch of stores, and rearranged things, and then did the second bankruptcy, and are closing completely now. So what I’ve read is that it’s basically because of competition from online retailing, Amazon and all that, and also that since the time when Payless became really popular, a lot of other fast fashion and big box stores have kind of moved into that space. So payless isn’t a unique phenomenon anymore, and people have a lot more options for where they can get cheap shoes than they used to be able to. There were some ways that it was run into the ground by the leadership, but basically what people talk about is the the changing kind of consumer landscape.
05:16 Jordan: Well, and we wanted to talk to you because in your piece for the outline, you kind of managed to put this discount shoe chain in some really impressive context. Can you just tell me a little bit about what you saw as the big picture, and what this chain has meant to people?
05:32 Sarah: Yeah, so I think what I really wanted to get across is the way that Payless I think…. because it was so ubiquitous and so many people had experiences with it, the way that Payless simultaneously embodies, like everything that we think of as bad about capitalism the way it’s exploitative, the way that you know the kind of race to the bottom capitalism, and globalization, and all of these sort of the excessive disposable consumption. But it also created a space for the same people that that system marginalizes and leave behind. So Payless ended up being really meaningful to a lot of people that didn’t have a lot of other options, and I was a little bit taken aback when I started asking around at the depth of emotion that people felt about Payless shoes. They weren’t just able to go there, but they felt really welcome there, and they felt in place and accepted there and they’re actually things that they could get for their weird feet for prices that they could actually afford.
06:40 Jordan: How do you personally remember Payless? At least at first? What was your first experience with it?
06:45 Sarah: I don’t know if I remember a specific first experience, but definitely sometime in the mid eighties, my dad got laid off from his job and became sort of. He was unemployed for a long time and had really insecure employment, which was something that was happening basically all over the country. That’s when downward mobility became a thing, and the kind of traditionally masculine jobs that were supposed to be supporting families were going away. So my mom had a; she was a jury clerk, so she didn’t you know, it was sort of, ah, mid range administrative position. That was she supported the whole family on that income, and luckily say around the same time, Payless showed up in our town in the strip mall next to Kmart, and that’s where we went to buy shoes, and I don’t think I have a specific memory. It was just like at some point, those trips to the shoes; to a regular shoe store went away, and instead we went to Payless. It was actually called volume and grants pass where I grew up, but it was, ah, a much less exciting experience of shoes. So the kind of thrill of going and having somebody like literally lay cardboard boxes at your feet and have, like, a kind of special choices that you could make went away, and instead, it was very kind of, you know, like grocery shopping or something.
08:21 Jordan: Well, and there is also, and you got at this a little bit and I’ve certainly felt it, and everybody that I’ve talked to about Payless has as well. There’s a social stigma around the kind of knock off brands, and cheap shoes, and cheap fashion that are sold at these kind of places, especially for young kids, and it becomes sort of imprinted on your memory.
08:40 Sarah: Yeah…. when I started thinking about Payless when I first heard that it was closing, I honestly you know, I didn’t care at all, I was just like, you know, boo hoo, another big corporation going away. As I you know, I would kind of pass it on the bus every day when I’m going to work, and I started thinking about all those hours that I spent in there and all of the kind of yeah, that emotional stigma that kind of does get imprinted on you, and how it was really the shoes that made me realize that we were poor. I didn’t. It was a small town in southern Oregon where just about everybody was poor, so I didn’t really think about it, especially in middle school. I got to middle school and you know it’s the eighties. You have to have brand names. If you don’t wear brand names, you’re, you know, socially ostracized, and it was like the biggest insult you could talk about was that somebody was wearing Pro Wings like they’re kind of knock off Reebok’s.
09:38 Jordan: Well that was the era of ah, of Jordan’s ascending to prominence, right and shoe commercials and taking over, you know, sneaker heads taking over, and, ah…. a lot of kids were left out of that shopping at Payless because there’s also a lot of poverty at that time.
09:54 Sarah: Yeah, and I forgot, one of my friends actually reminded me about Pro Wings. Forgotten about them that just, like, got this chill. If you actually were seen in Pro Wings, that was end because, yeah, it was really important to have; for girls in my school, keds were the big thing. You had to have keds. I never had real keds. I always had Payless knockoffs, but yeah, that was the big status symbol, even though… I don’t know if keds were even all that expensive.
10:23 Jordan: But there’s always something, and it’s always just a little bit beyond what the poor kids can afford.
10:26 Sarah: Yeah, and I think the thing with shoes too is there were a lot of ways to get around those issues with your clothes. You could share them, for example. Or I think I mentioned we would sometimes take like the collar tag out. You’d get like, one brand name shirt and you take the collar tag out and sow it onto a knockoff shirt so that you could have, like two Esprit’s for the price of one basically. So you could kind of play with clothes. You could get second hand stuff. You could get hand me downs, but you couldn’t really do that with shoes. Shoes were like the thing that really marked you and marked your class in a way that even other kinds of clothing didn’t, I think.
11:09 Jordan: And how does that change when you go from sort of being a kid to where your shoes are representative of your parents financial status, and you go from, you know, getting your first job or disposable income, and now all of a sudden you have to buy your own shoes. And what does Payless looked like then?
11:25 Sarah: So I stopped judging Payless really, when I was in high school and started doing a lot more thrift store shopping and you know, by that time it was the nineties and we were all into grunge, and we’d never have used that word. But Gen X, you know, middle finger to the man kind of thing, and so any kind of status symbol, you did not want it like that was the opposite of what you wanted. So at that point, I didn’t care about Payless shoes so much, and I actually appreciated being able to shop there and having this feeling of being able to actually go into a place and know that I could actually, I could afford anything in there. Which was pretty rare, and to feel like, you know, when you grow up kind of working class, going into a fancy department story can be a really intimidating experience, and knowing that the majority or maybe everything in there is off limits to you, and you don’t really know the right way to act, and so you sort of appreciate Payless because there’s nothing in there that’s off limits to you, and you kind of know the codes and you know, how to move in that space. So I think I had a much greater appreciation for it when I got a little older, and then at some point when I started making my own money, I realized that I wasn’t actually saving money by buying cheap shoes because they interfered with my life so much that it was sort of worth it to me to save up or put something on my credit card that would last a little longer, so that’s when I stop going there.
13:04 Jordan: But you mentioned earlier the self serve nature of it, and what that means to people who don’t have traditional feet or traditional gender, and that kind of that kind of really got me thinking about how few fashion places are like that these days.
13:18 Sarah: This is something I heard a lot and one of the things; I had a friend who is a professor in Michigan who told me that that was the first place that he bought shoes when he was starting to do drag because that was the only place that carry his size, that he could afford, and I’ve heard that since then from a lot of people. That it’s all about efficiency of space, basically. So even though there’s definitely gendered sections, they’re all about maximizing space, and it’s all about like there’s no one really watching you that much. So I think if you’re; if you don’t fit easily in the gender binary, it’s a much more comfortable space because you don’t look weird if you’re in, you know, if you look feminine and are in the men’s section or vice versa, or anywhere in between right, but also just people that have odd feet that have really you know, that whose feet are larger or smaller than what’s considered average than they don’t have that many options of places to shop. So Payless apparently was one of the few places that stocked;that always had odd sizes, and that really meant a lot to people.
14:33 Jordan: We’ve sort of talked about it so far from the perspective of people who grew up with it or people who are customers now. But this is obviously a huge business. What’s the impact of it closing beyond me not being able to buy cheap shoes anymore?
14:45 Sarah: Somewhere around, 16,000 people are going to lose their jobs, and granted a lot of them aren’t great jobs, but we’re in an economy where every job is necessary, and you heard the term retail apocalypse that everybody is talking about, and this is a big chunk of that that retail apocalypse thing that we’re experiencing, and basically we’ve been living in a world for the last several decades where retail is the largest sector of the economy and I think it’s very strange that when we talk about the retail apocalypse, we hardly ever talk about the labor aspect of it and that we’ve sort of created this whole system where the only job a lot of people could get is retail, and now all those jobs, they’re going away. So that’s a big I think, a big issue. It’s also the… you know, the factories in China that were contracted with Payless are all losing their money. So it has like global ripples as far as labour goes. It’s mixed bag because they weren’t a great employer and they weren’t, you know, the production practices weren’t awesome. But it’s also, you know, to suddenly just go away is gonna be really hard for a lot of people.
16:05 Jordan: Why do you think Payless, as opposed to all the other brick and mortar stores which are also disappearing, gets people thinking this way and inspires this kind of eulogy because it’s not happening for every place that’s closing.
16:17 Sarah: Yeah, I think it’s because so many people have experiences with Payless. It’s such a ubiquitous place. So many people have experiences with it, and I think when you don’t have a lot of money, the ability to express yourself with your shoes is a lot more significant than people think about on a day to day basis. One of the things that I thought was really important about Payless is not just that it was one of the first big chains to use the kind of production practices that we talk about as fast fashion now that you know, this sort of a lot of self serve, a lot of sort of chasing cheaper production around the globe and sub contracting with various factories and controlling tight control over distribution, all of these things that we call fast fashion. Payless was one of the innovators of in a lot of ways, but it also I think, trained us as consumers to shop differently and because, like I haven’t met anybody who hasn’t at least a few times been to Payless, and I think it changed the way that we see the shopping experience in a lot of ways that it’s, you know, we expect to have things that are really cheap, that move really fast that don’t last very long and that there’s this constant imperative to keep shopping basically because things don’t last very long, and you just have to keep replacing them over and over again.
18:00 Jordan: That brings us to Payless as a final little joke. Do you want to describe what they did?
18:06 Sarah: Oh, yeah. So they had a pop up store as a fake luxury brand called Palessi. I assumed that would be how they pronounced it.
18:16 Jordan: I think so.
18:18 Sarah: Okay, so, yeah, they had this fake pop up store and they sold the same shoes that they carry it pay less for these outrageously inflated prices, calling them a luxury brand Palessi, and it was not super well received from what I can tell. Most people were sort of annoyed by it more than anything. But I think what it did was with their point that they were trying to make was that Payless shoes are just as good as luxury brand shoes, and that all of these kind of Instagram influencers who are showing off these like super expensive names, you know, could be going to Payless and getting just as good stuff if they were smart or something. But I think what the point that I saw come out of it was more that there’s actually not that much difference between cheap shoes and expensive shoes at this point. They’re all kind of made the same way, and a lot of them come from the same factories. So it didn’t really make Payless looked better. It just made everything worse. If the only difference between value and luxury is context, then there’s not really a clear distinction between when you’re shopping because it’s a pleasure and when you’re shopping because it’s work, and I think that was the kind of bummer that I took away from it was that, Ah, all shopping is work now, and there’s not really this kind of special experience that you can have.
19:53 Jordan: You got to respect them for choosing to go out on that note really.
19:57 Sarah: I know. Yeah, I wonder. I can’t tell from what I’ve read if it’s supposed to be if it was like a mic drop, I think, he said, which I think would actually be kind of awesome. But I I don’t know if it was that or if it was kind of last ditch attempt to be relevant, and I can’t really tell.
20:16 Jordan: It’s like a corporate approach. It’s like a corporate approach gone totally right in the way they usually go wrong.
20:23 Sarah: Exactly. Yeah.
20:25 Jordan: Thanks so much for joining us, Sarah.
20:27 Sarah: Thank you.
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