‘They had us fooled’: Inside Pay­less’ elab­o­rate prank to dupe peo­ple into pay­ing $600 for shoes

The Island Packet (Sunday) - - News - BY KRIS­TINE PHILLIPS

A mini-run­way, lined with stiletto heels, glis­tens in bright flu­o­res­cent light­ing. Shoes of var­i­ous types sit neatly in in­di­vid­ual glass shelves. A statue of an an­gel car­ry­ing sev­eral shop­ping bags stands in the mid­dle as Los An­ge­les fash­ion­istas mill about, try­ing on shoes, pos­ing on the red car­pet, drink­ing cham­pagne served in tall, slen­der glasses.

It was a pri­vate launch party of a new lux­ury brand of shoes called Pa­lessi, de­signed by Ital­ian de­signer Bruno Pa­lessi.

“I would pay $400, $500. Peo­ple are go­ing to be like, ‘Where did you get those? Those are amaz­ing,’ “a woman said as she tried on a pair of bright-gold sneak­ers with leop­ard prints.

The woman was not ac­tu­ally buy­ing a Pa­lessi be­cause there’s no such brand, and there’s no Bruno Pa­lessi.

There is, how­ever, Pay­less ShoeSource - a dis­count shoe re­tailer hop­ing to shake things up through an elab­o­rate - and ex­pen­sive - ad­ver­tis­ing prank to at­tract new cus­tomers and change the per­cep­tion that the com­pany just sells cheap, un­fash­ion­able shoes.

“We felt like this cam­paign would be a great way to get a lot of peo­ple to con­sider Pay­less again, and to re­al­ize it’s more than just a shoe store in the mall,” said Sarah Couch, Pay­less’s chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer.

But the prank also points to a re­al­ity about the hu­man mind: Con­sumers are not ca­pa­ble of dis­cern­ing the qual­ity and value of the things they buy, said Philip Graves, a con­sumer be­hav­ior con­sul­tant from Bri­tain. Slap a fancy-sound­ing Eu­ro­pean la­bel on a $30 shoes, and you have an il­lu­sion of sta­tus that peo­ple will pay an ex­or­bi­tant amount of money for.

“The way that we eval­u­ate things is through as­so­ci­a­tions. If you put wine in a nice bot­tle, peo­ple like it more. If you pack­age things up to look more pre­mium, peo­ple will like it more,” Graves said. “If ad­ver­tis­ing has high pro­duc­tion qual­i­ties, peo­ple will think it’s bet­ter.”

The cam­paign is the brain­child of a 10-per­son ad­ver­tis­ing com­pany in Brook­lyn. DCX Growth Ac­cel­er­a­tor spe­cial­izes on big me­dia pranks, or what the com­pany calls “cul­ture hack­ing.” A few weeks ago, the com­pany pitched its idea to Pay­less, which had been look­ing into an out-of-the-box ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign ahead of the hol­i­day season. DCX ex­am­ined Pay­less’s early suc­cesses, why its mo­men­tum had stalled, and what it can do to help turn the brand around, said Doug Cameron, who founded DCX in 2015.

Pay­less shut­tered hun­dreds of stores and laid off thou­sands of em­ploy­ees last year.

“We wanted to do some­thing provoca­tive. We wanted to get Pay­less back into the cul­tural dis­course,” Cameron said.

First, the team needed a lo­ca­tion for the fake launch party, and found what they thought was the per­fect one: a for­mer Gior­gio Ar­mani store at Santa Mon­ica Place, an up­scale shop­ping mall that houses stores such as Louis Vuit­ton, Bar­neys, Michael Kors and Tif­fany & Co. The team rented the space for six weeks.

Sec­ond, they needed a name, and they wanted some­thing that sounded like Pay­less. Among the first ideas was an up­scale, hip­ster Brook­lyn-based bou­tique they’d call Eli Pass. But the team even­tu­ally set­tled on an Ital­ian theme. They re­ar­ranged the letters in Eli Pass and came up with Pa­lessi.

“I think Bruno came later,” Cameron said of the fic­ti­tious de­signer’s name.

They hired an in­te­rior de­signer to help them cre­ate an au­then­tic, lux­u­ri­ous look for the launch party, as well as peo­ple who would pose as sales em­ploy­ees. They brought in gold man­nequins, hung white pa­per shop­ping bags and in­stalled the big­winged an­gel statue in the mid­dle. To push things a bit fur­ther with­out re­veal­ing the joke, Cameron said they wheeled in gold­painted stat­ues of lions and a gi­raffe.

The team said they kept most of what’s al­ready in the store, such as the glass shelves, on which they neatly ar­ranged va­ri­eties of stilet­tos, pumps, sneak­ers, boots and leather shoes. They cov­ered the orig­i­nal brand la­bels with stick­ers that say “PA­LESSI” in clean, black font, slap­ping on price tags as high as $1,800.

The team also cre­ated an In­sta­gram ac­count and be­gan crowd­ing it with cap­tion­less and ran­dom pic­tures of mod­els and stilet­tos. They bought and cre­ated a web­site, which is mostly empty ex­cept for the images of two stilet­tos on man­nequin hands.

Then, fi­nally, they need- ed po­ten­tial con­sumers. Cameron calls it “real per­son cast­ing.” They scouted the streets and the In­ter­net for so­cial me­dia in­flu­encers, fash­ion­able peo­ple who look like they’re likely to at­tend this type of event.

“The way we framed it is it’s a new store, a new brand and the owner is look­ing for some feed­back,” Cameron said.

On the day of the launch, Oct. 27, un­sus­pect­ing at­ten­dees lined up out­side. The DCX and Pay­less team used the back of the store as a con­trol room of sorts, equipped with mon­i­tors at­tached to video cam­eras. As peo­ple ar­rived, paid in­ter­view­ers and cam­era­men asked them what they thought of the shoes and how much they would pay for them. Cameron and his team were in the back, dic­tat­ing the ques­tions through mi­cro­phones.

“Pa­lessi is just such high qual­ity, high fash­ion, tak­ing your shoe game up to the next level,” said one man wear­ing spiked neck­laces, hold­ing a high-heeled, knee-high boot. “It looks re­ally well made.”

“It’s just stun­ning. El­e­gant, so­phis­ti­cated and ver­sa­tile,” said a woman, as she holds a pair of flo­ral stiletto heels.

“For me to ex­pe­ri­ence this as an Ital­ian de­signer is amaz­ing,” said an­other man with an ac­cent.

Af­ter at­ten­dees pur­chased over­priced shoes — some for $200, $400 and $600 — they were taken to­ward the back­room, where the prank was re­vealed.

“You’ve got to be kid­ding me,” said the woman who had gushed about the pair of flo­ral stiletto heels, her eyes wide as she stared down at the over­priced shoes in her hands.

The team said those who bought the shoes were al­lowed to keep them for free.

Cat Chang, a Los An­ge­les di­a­mond de­signer, was among the un­sus­pect­ing fash­ion­istas. She said she didn’t buy shoes be­cause she had al­ready bought a bunch of pairs a few days ear­lier. But she would have, had she found a pair her size.

“We wouldn’t have ever known. We were re­ally con­vinced,” said Chang, who said she was paid to at­tend the event. “They had us fooled, like com­pletely.”

Chang said the ex­pe­ri­ence made her re­think Pay­less, and she plans to visit a store soon.

Graves, the con­sumer be­hav­ior con­sul­tant from Bri­tain, said the ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign will have some short-term ben­e­fits for Pay­less, but he doesn’t think it will hurt es­tab­lished lux­ury brands.

“Con­sumers have been pay­ing hugely in­flated prices,” he said. “Some of the plea­sures that we get from things that we buy come from the money we spent on them.”

He also doesn’t think the elab­o­rate prank, which Pay­less de­scribed as a “mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar in­te­grated mar­ket­ing cam­paign,” will have a last­ing im­pact on the re­tailer’s brand.

“The next time some­one goes into a Pay­less store, they’d be go­ing into the or­di­nary Pay­less en­vi­ron­ment, see­ing the or­di­nary Pay­less pric­ing,” he said — not the chic, glam­orous, red-car­peted store in Los An­ge­les.

Couch, Pay­less’s chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer, hopes Graves is wrong. She said there’s more to Pay­less than phys­i­cal stores.

“The shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence on pay­less.com is dif­fer­ent from the store ... It’s the fastest-growing piece of the busi­ness,” she said. “The stores are an in­cred­i­bly valu­able part of the busi­ness, but the dig­i­tal side is the fo­cus of the cam­paign.”

Courtesy Pay­less Shoesource via Wash­ing­ton Post

Pay­less set up a pri­vate launch party for a new brand of lux­ury shoes, Pa­lessi. No such brand ex­ists, and Pay­less sur­prised guests af­ter in­form­ing them that the shoes came from Pay­less.

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