Matt Rubel, president and CEO of Payless ShoeSource, says there’s one unique bonus to his job: when he tells people his title, he’s often rewarded with hugs from happy customers. This kind of emotional response is precisely what Rubel is trying to instill in each of the 600 million shoppers that visit one of his stores each year. “Some people want to teach the world to sing. We’d like to teach the world to love shoes,” said the energetic shoe visionary. “We want to inspire people to have fun with footwear.”

Rubel speaking to students
Matt Rubel joined Payless ShoeSource in 2005.

Rubel spoke to students during a recent visit to the Texas A&M campus about his mission to “democratize fashion” through reasonably priced footwear. He was the guest of Mays Business School’s Center for Retailing Studies, which recognized Rubel with the 2008 M.B. Zale Visionary Merchant Award for his efforts to reinvent the Payless brand.

In 2005, Rubel jumped from the top management spot at luxury brand Cole Haan to the same position at the opposite end of the shoe spectrum, economy chain Payless. In the three years that followed, he has given the company an extreme makeover, changing its structure, its strategy, and its image.

A major shift for the company in the last few years has been the addition of nationally recognized brands such as Dexter, Airwalk, American Eagle, and Champion. They have also nabbed up-and-coming designers such as Lela Rose, Abaeté, and Alice + Olivia right off the runway. Where once Payless specialized in private label, they now are a “house of great brands,” says Rubel.

“We’ve taken Payless and turned it into a much bigger idea. A bigger idea, not just for Payless stores, but we’ve turned it into a new company,” Rubel said, talking about creation in 2007 of Collective Brands, Inc., the holding company for Payless. Under this umbrella, Rubel has worked to reposition not just the Payless image, but also each individual brand sold in its stores.

Payless used to be focused solely on retail, but with the recent reorganization, Rubel says they are now looking at the global market through multiple channels: retail, wholesale, e-commerce, and licensing. Today, Payless has a presence in 15 countries.

Rubel on stage with shoes
“Some people want to teach the world to sing. We’d like to teach the world to love shoes,” Rubel told students.

More noticeable to consumers is the new look of Payless. Where the store once was defined by economy, sometimes to the detriment of style, Rubel’s Payless is, in a word, sexy. In the commercials Rubel showed his student audience, tanned and fit twenty-somethings danced, flirted, surfed, skated, and shopped to energetic music while displaying their designer shoes.

Rubel says the idea is to forge an emotional connection between consumers and their footwear, hence the store’s new tag line: “I love shoes,” the word love replaced with a funky, orange heart. On the Payless website, shoe-philes can be a part of a web community, posting their own conclusion to the statement, “I (heart) shoes because…” Rubel must be pleased to see the customers’ emotional responses to this prompt, such as, “they are an expression of my style and personality—and sometimes even my mood!” (Katy, Tampa); “the right pair can make you feel good,” (Angelica, Canyon Lake); and “they make me feel cute,” (Lexi, Shreveport).

Rubel’s presentation was the highlight of the Center for Retailing Study’s annual M.B. Zale Visionary Merchant Lecture Series, which this year was part of the center’s 25th anniversary celebration. The event brought senior executives from more than 20 sponsoring companies into the classroom to address business students over a two-day period.