Payless plans a U.S. comeback, and Lawrence hopes it will result in more jobs locally

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

The discount shoe brand Payless has one of its two major corporate offices in North America located inside the Lawrence Corporate Centre on Wakarusa Drive. The office employs 60 to 80 people, a company executive said.

There’s a shoe deal that Lawrence leaders may want to keep an eye on, and for once it doesn’t involve what the latest athlete at Allen Fieldhouse is wearing.

Instead, it involves Payless. You remember the discount shoe brand that for decades had its corporate headquarters in Topeka. You also likely remember the bankruptcy and the complete closing of all U.S. Payless stores in 2019.

Well, now the company is launching an American comeback to go along with the international stores that had remained open. This week, Payless announced it plans to open 300 to 500 stores in North America over the next five years. It is a project Lawrence should pay attention to because, as we reported earlier this year, Payless moved much of what was left of its Topeka corporate office to west Lawrence.

We reported on that move in February, but the company had little to say about it then. But I did get in touch with a top executive at Payless this week, who confirmed about 60 to 80 employees are based at the Lawrence Corporate Centre near 18th Street and Wakarusa Drive.

He stopped short of calling the location the company’s corporate headquarters, but said it is one of two major corporate offices for the company. The other is in Miami, where the company’s CEO is based.

The plan for Payless to open up several hundred stores in the U.S. could lead to more growth in Payless employees in Lawrence, said David Camhi, head of legal and administrative services for the company. But he didn’t guarantee Lawrence job growth. Instead, much remains to be seen about how Payless’ comeback plan unfolds because the company is committed to being very measured in its new plans, Camhi said.

“We want people to know that we are back, and we are being very deliberate in what we do,” Camhi said. “We want to avoid the situations of the past, plus it is a very rapidly changing retail environment.”

But Camhi said he certainly could envision the need for Payless’ corporate workforce to expand as part of the North American project. How much so probably will depend on factors such as what number of the new stores are operated under franchise agreements versus how many are owned and operated by the company. He said various scenarios are still being explored.

“It is difficult to pinpoint what that is going to look like right now,” Camhi said. “Even if it is franchises, you will need to have additional hires to manage that function. Whether that would be in Lawrence or Miami, we don’t know yet.”

As for the stores themselves, no word on whether Lawrence may get one of them. Camhi said the company is going through reams of data from its past store locations to identify the top-performing locations. The company has announced its first store will be in Miami.

It also has said the new stores will be more high-tech than the old versions and will do more integrate with the company’s e-commerce business. For instance, the company is developing new technology that will allow parents to scan their children’s feet to help them order the correct size of shoe online, according to an article on the company’s expansion in The Wall Street Journal.

New stores also will have high-tech “smart mirrors that will show customers how a shoe looks in a different color. (And here I thought as smart mirror was one that lied, or at least demurred, when asked “who is the fairest of them all.”)

The company — which is owned by hedge fund investors — has new leadership since the store closings occurred earlier this year. CEO Jared Margolis — who formerly was the president of a brand management group that used pop culture insights to create commercial strategies for companies — told The Wall Street Journal that Payless continues to have strong brand name recognition but needs to improve its experience for consumers.

“Everyone I talk to remembers shopping at Payless when they were a kid,” he told the newspaper. “But Payless never did a great job of educating consumers about its products. These are inexpensive shoes, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create a cool, fun experience.”

Part of the philosophy seemingly is why the company has located some of its offices in Lawrence. Camhi said the company wanted to maintain a Kansas presence because it wanted to keep employees and not ask them to relocate to another part of the country. He said the company landed on the Wakarusa Drive location because it had a stronger corporate presence feel than many of the other locations it looked at in the area.

“We wanted to have something nice and fresh for our employees,” he said. “We want to be at the forefront of fashion. You can’t do that if your building isn’t very nice.”

The company, though, hasn’t made a big splash about its new Lawrence location. As near as I could tell, there are not any large exterior signs at the Wakarusa Drive location letting people know that Payless has a corporate office in the city.

If the new expansion plan goes well, though, Payless may naturally become a bigger name in the community. During its heyday in Topeka, it was one of the largest private employers in that city.


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