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How to Feel Good About Paying $600 for Shoes

$200. $400. $600.  I know some people are crazy for shoes. And they pay insane prices for shoes that scratch the right itch.

I can’t pretend to understand this phenomenon. But a pop-up store called Palessi took advantage of it during the 2018 holiday shopping season. 

Sold! $600 at Palessi

People paid hundreds of dollars for shoes in the Palessi pop-up. Except it was a prank. In actuality, the shoes were from Payless ShoeSource. And the real retail prices were all $19.99 to $39.99.

Since 1956, Payless ShoeSource has been an American discount footwear retailer.  With the ambitious goal of showing the public that their footwear collection is stylish, fashionable, and affordable, they moved forward with an elaborate social experiment.

They introduced Palessi, a fake high-end shoe store filled with avant-garde sculptures and displays. The only catch? All the shoes on display were Payless shoes disguised under the Palessi brand and priced 10 to 30x the typical retail price.

The Payless Experiment (Video: 0:30) 

They invited Los Angeles-based fashion influencers to attend the Palessi pop-up at Santa Monica Place. When interviewed, they described the shoes as European, upscale, elegant, and classy. Many were willing to pay top dollar for these shoes—from $200 to $600.

However, before they left, they were let in on the secret. Many influencers were shocked at how they had been duped into spending so much money on Payless shoes. They were given a full refund and gifted the shoes they had chosen.

This high-end hoax successfully set out to change perceptions of luxury. It resulted in a cultural statement about the way in which  perception influences consumer buying choices and budgets.

But I have to wonder if Payless inadvertently proved a point. Its experiment proved that there was a segment of consumers who would pay more—much more—for shoes in their existing product line if they were given the perception of a high-end shopping experience.

In February 2019, just two months after Payless received a ton of social media chatter for this experiment, the company filed for bankruptcy and announced that it would close all of its 2,300 stores.

I wonder if they would still be around if they had experimented with capturing more of the value that consumers clearly assigned to their shoes.

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