The Rise and Fall of Payless: The Major Moments Over the Years

It’s the end of an era for Payless: The company announced yesterday that it would shutter all of its remaining U.S. stores and e-commerce operations.

Payless began in 1956 in Topeka, Kan., founded by cousins Louis and Shaol Pozez as “Pay-less National.” The Pozez cousins had an idea that at the time was unheard of: to sell shoes at a low price in a self-select environment. This model remained central to Payless operations over several decades.

The company went public in 1961 and was renamed as Volume Shoe Corp. Later that decade, it launched a massive expansion plan, acquiring 25 Hill Brothers Shoe Co. stores and rebranding the Kansas City-based chain locations under the Payless name.

A second version of the Hills Brothers Shoe Store Chain, based in St. Louis, was scooped up by Volume Shoe Corp. in 1971 — with more than 100 new locations going to the expanding retailer.

Volume Shoe Corp. was acquired by May Department Stores Co. in 1979.

Amid the fitness and sneaker crazes of the 1980s, Payless found success with its Pro Wings sneakers. Selling for just $15 to $20, the sneakers featured Velcro straps instead of laces — and with their price and practicality became a popular choice among schoolchildren.

Pro Wings sneaker, ebay, payless shoe source
A pair of Pro Wings sneakers from the ’80s.

Payless ShoeSource Inc. got its current name in 1991, regaining its independence in 1996 when it was spun off by May to shareholders.

The late ’90s marked a new period of expansion for Payless, with the retailer venturing into e-commerce for the first time with the launch of Payless.com in 1999. Two years prior, Payless had expanded into Canada for the first time after acquiring the Parade of Shoes chain. The Parade chain was shuttered in 2004 — alongside 100 Payless shops — amid major restructuring.

Payless Shoe Source store, Mount Laurel, New Jersey, USAVarious, America
A Payless ShoeSource store in Mount Laurel, N.J.
CREDIT: John Greim/Shutterstock

Part of that restructuring included rebranding with a new logo in 2006, in an aim to appeal to a more trend-focused consumer. Then-CEO Matthew Rubel focused on adding new styles and freshness with boots, children’s and athletic footwear in a strategy he said was designed to “democratize fashion.”

Payless Shoe Source Inc. became Collective Brands Inc. in 2007 with the purchase of Stride Rite. Rubel — who won the 2007 FN Achievement Award for Person of the Year — focused on global expansion in addition to trends, pushing the company into new markets in the Middle East and Latin America.

Collective Brands was bought by Wolverine Worldwide, Blum Capital and Golden Gate Capital in 2012 for $2 billion.

The last few years have brought great difficulty for the retailer, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2017. Despite ongoing financial woes, Payless excited consumers with a 2018 commercial wherein it tricked consumers into thinking Payless products were designer items. Guests eagerly scooped up shoes for as much as $600 — several times more than the typical $20 to $50 price tag of its wares.

While Payless emerged from its 2017 bankruptcy after several months, a second round of bankruptcy proceedings meant the shuttering of 2,300 brick-and-mortar U.S.locations and the e-com site. Payless’ franchise operations and Latin American stores will remain open for business as usual for now.

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