Walking the line between trendy and affordable

College is expensive enough without the added cost of having to get dressed for it. Not everyone deems it necessary to buy overpriced clothing and shoes in the vain attempt to appear "posh." Yet many with limited financial resources still want to look just as stylish as their lavish looking classmates.

This is where many designer bargain stores come into play. Filene's Basement, TJ Maxx and Loehmann's are all good for the body, but none of them really focus on the sole the way Payless Shoes does.

According to its Web site, Payless (or Payless ShoeSource, Inc. proper) is the largest family footwear retailer in the Western Hemisphere. The company sold more than 215 million pairs of shoes at the end of the fiscal year for 2002, generating $2.9 billion in net sales. There are approximately 5,000 stores total, including the one by Tenleytown's Metro stop.

That's not bad for a company that was founded in 1956 in Topeka, Kan., by two cousins who just wanted to create a store where customers could browse and try on shoes without waiting for sales help.

"I know several people who wear Payless shoes," said Shammara Henderson, a senior in the School of Public Affairs. "I think most people do but they won't admit it."

Ophir Caicedo, a senior in the Kogod School of Business, says that she too knows people who shop at Payless, but do so in order to preserve other footwear.

"If they're walking around campus or going to work they'd rather scuff up a pair of Payless shoes than a pair of expensive shoes," Caicedo said. "They'd rather wear their expensive shoes for special occasions."

Yet special occasions are one of the most common reasons to shop at Payless if you are not a regular customer.

"I think a lot of girls go for dances that you get a dress for that you're never going to wear again and you want the shoes to match," Henderson said.

Courtney Haran, a freshman in School of Communication, agrees.

"I bought [from Payless] for a one-time occasion," Haran began. "I needed shoes to go out in for one night. Instead of buying shoes I know I'm not going to wear everyday, I bought shoes from Payless."

Yet Haran also said that if she saw a pair of shoes there that seemed appropriate for everyday wear, she would purchase them.

"I know they're not made of expensive leather, but for the price I think they're worth it," she said.

Star Jones, one of the hosts of ABC's "The View" and a graduate of AU, boasts of owning over 500 pairs of shoes and has remarked that 10 percent of them are from Payless. She recently inked a three-year contract with the low-cost footwear company to be its spokesperson, creating the slogan: "Look smart. Payless." Jones, who has been a vocal Payless shopper since law school, makes no allowances for her low-priced footwear.

"I am not contractually obligated to wear Payless," said Jones, 40, in an interview for USAToday.com in May 2002. "I choose to wear Payless. I'm not a shoe snob. I own everything from $3.99 shoes to $1,500 crystal sandals."

Jones began shopping at Payless after graduating from law school and landing a job in New York City as an assistant district attorney at $22,500-a-year.

"Payless was a great resource for me coming out of college," she said in the interview. "You needed to look like a professional on a budget that's very limiting."

That story is similar to that of the average college student. With limited funds available, most have to make due with what's attainable, and Payless is a place where one can look trendy and not go bankrupt while doing so.

"Consumers today want value, but they don't want to be a season behind," said John Haugh, head of marketing and business development at Payless, in a USAToday.com article published in May 2002. "We want to tell consumers that Payless [is] evolving and pushing fashion more than before."

The shoes, as the Web site states, are created by design through the use of a network of agents and independent factories, which insures that all the materials, production processes and shoes undergo the most stringent quality control inspections in the industry.

However, not everyone is convinced that every Payless shoe is made of the highest quality.

"Sometimes you can find really cute stuff there," Henderson said. "I've had pairs for a couple of years that actually don't look bad at all, but some of them fell apart."

Caicedo agrees.

"I look in the store but I never see a pair that looks like they'll last a long time," she said, preferring to shop at stores that offer comparable deals to Payless but higher-quality shoes. "I'm in the field where I'll run into important people that will look you up from head to toe, and if I'm going to have shoes that'll look run-down in a week or so I may miss out on opportunities."

Some may ask why anyone would pay for a low-quality shoe, knowing it will inevitably fall apart faster than that of its original designer? Yet what Payless is offering in terms of shoes, the side street vendors in Georgetown offer in bags - a lower make of a higher priced original that will not last as long, but offer the same look without the pressure of the item going out of style.

"I think a lot of people spend way too much on shoes," remarked Henderson. "I'm guilty of that too. [Designers] may not like Payless copying their designs, but I think it's a good way to stop people from spending money they don't have, especially college students. They're just shoes in the end anyway."

Laura Laver, a freshman in SOC, agrees.

"I think it's smart of Payless to copy designs," she said. "Not everyone can afford a pair of $500 Gucci boots, so they go to Payless."

However, Caicedo doesn't like the idea of Payless copying brand ideas and styles.

"I'm mad that Payless copies designs," she said. "I think [shoe designs] should be original. I'm sure they can come up with a design that'll be just as flashy as other designers and last just as long. Just changing a symbol or a [pattern] isn't creative."

Though Payless may not be on the top of the list for many shoe connoisseurs, the option is out there. Footwear should be a reflection of the wearer. Though the wallet may be the driving force behind the final choice made, be sure that your sole is happy with your ultimate decision.

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