Where Christian Dior mingles with Nine West

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Her husband calls her America's Imelda Marcos. The owner of 200-plus pairs of shoes, Barbara Harris is adding yet another-a pair of gold-tinted Sesto Meucci slides. Price tag: $116.89.

"These would retail for $170 or more in a department store," says Mrs. Harris, 60, during a recent shopping trip to DSW, or Designer Shoe Warehouse. "And the tag is purple, that's another 60% off. Oh, it's a deal."

Brands don't get to be snobs at DSW. Christian Dior must share space with Mootsie Tootsies, Keds with Michael Kors and Bruno Magli, Prada and Coach with Nine West. Sure, that pair of suede, gravity-defying Givenchy heels in romance-me red might be found at Neiman Marcus, but at DSW they can be had for $519.89, with an additional 40% slashed off at the register.

This upstream, downstream, high-end discount-or better put, indefinable-merchandise mix has propelled DSW from one store in 1991 to a superstore chain with 175 outlets in 32 states, including two that opened last year in Manhattan.

The Columbus, Ohio-based retailer plans to add 23 more before the end of the year. Despite the recent theft of customer-credit-card information from 1.4 million transactions at 108 stores, the chain has not indicated these recent PR woes will stall plans for an initial public offering this year, expected to raise $165 million and fuel more growth. The spinoff is being orchestrated by the chain's parent company, Retail Ventures.

Citing a Securities and Exchange Commission-mandated quiet period before an IPO, Mike Levinson, VP-marketing at DSW, declined to comment for this story.

Retail Ventures operates 116 off-price department stores under the banner Value City Department Stores. In March 2000, Retail Ventures acquired Filene's Basement Corp. and now operates 26 stores, primarily in major metropolitan areas such as Boston, New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington. DSW, moreover, operates leased shoe departments in most Filene's Basement stores.

According to industry-watchers, DSW is stealing share in a flat category from upscale department-store shoe departments, as well as other regional and national shoe chains, such as Famous Footwear, Payless and Shoe Carnival. Its president, Debbie Ferree has "really taken DSW from the shadows," said Peter Regan, general manager at DSW's agency, Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York.

ON THE `HUNT'

At DSW, the merchandise mainly caters to women, although there is a substantial offering of casual and athletic shoes for men. From an advertising standpoint, though, the target is and will remain women.

In a shift toward more brand-building TV advertising, the agency created the "Hunt" campaign, a series of six spots running since early 2003, all with a distinct voice-over resembling that of a nature-show narrator. In "Springtime," the camera zeroes in on a woman as the voice-over describes her emergence from her winter hibernation. She takes off a pair of bulky boots and her toe peeks through a hole in her sock.

DSW's strategy of mixing luxury with bargain pricing is a surefire strategy, according to Pam Danzinger, author of "Let Them Eat Cake: Marketing to the Masses as Well as the Classes."

"Luxury consumers like bargains," she said. "When you are affluent and have lots of money, you might think, I can spend $500 on one pair of shoes at Neiman, but I can got to DSW and get four pairs, spend $1,000 and still feel you've got a bargain."

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