Payless, in an effort to hold on to its slim lead over the retail behemoth, will break its first major back-to-school effort focusing on children's shoes, which comprise about 25% of the store's sales, according to John Haugh, chief marketing officer and senior VP-business development.
"Our belief is that when moms are looking to put kids in the best-made shoes, we are the clear choice," Mr. Haugh said. "If they are looking only for cheap covering, they can find lots of spots."
According to a new BIGResearch study, in July 2002, Payless was the nation's No. 1 preferred shoe retailer, with a 19.5% of consumers listing Payless over any other retailer, while Wal-Mart had a 15.5% share. In figures about to be released for July 2003, Payless dropped to 16.4%, barely surpassing Wal-Mart's 16.3% share. According to BIGResearch, consumer preferences usually correspond closely to market share.
"We are neck-and-neck overall," Mr. Haugh said. "It's certainly something we pay attention to. We are a specialty retailer. We can provide more selection, quality and value," he said. He also believes Payless as well as Wal-Mart will be able to garner market share from other shoe sellers, including department stores, boutiques and independents.
Payless last year began a repositioning focused on fashion featuring talk-show host and shoe diva Star Jones, who shows up at the end of the TV spot noting that a child who is fashion conscious is being properly reared. Payless also has trained its sales personnel to offer parents the opportunity to use a fitting device to ascertain a child's correct fit. Barkeley Evergreen & Partners, Kansas City, is the agency.
Gary Drenik, president, BIGResearch, said Wal-Mart's biggest problem is the image of its customer as representative of a lower-income demographic, an image he said is outdated.
Wal-Mart, usually publicity shy, also is starting to make over its fashion image, with a public relations effort forecasting fall fashion trends. Wal-Mart public relations executives recently released information about back-to-school trends. For shoes, it predicted this fall's most popular shoe style as the Euro-sport look with leather slip-ons, contrasting colors and chunky soles.
Wal-Mart shoes will be featured in its circulars and will be shown as part of outfits presented in its fall TV campaign, a company spokeswoman said. Wal-Mart last October rolled out Footstar's Thom McAn brand, and is expanding its trendy apparel brand, George, into footwear.
Wal-Mart has outperformed the retail category, according to NPD Fashionworld data. In 2001, the overall dollar sales of footwear declined by 8%, while Wal-Mart sales dropped only 4%, according to Footwear News.
"These two are battling it out and Wal-Mart will eventually win," said Mr. Drenik.
Payless' Mr. Haugh said he nevertheless will focus not on the competition, but on his customer, rolling out a men's effort next. "In the end, Wal-Mart doesn't buy any shoes from us," he said.