January 7, 2014 | Tops for Shoes

Asheville Citizen-Times highlights 60 years serving the region’s love of shoes…and service!

At 60, Tops for Shoes, the high-end shoe retailer on South Lexington Avenue, is a downtown elder.  

But the 35,000-square-foot city center anchor is anything but antiquated.

“The great thing about the shoe business is that it changes every season,” said Alex Carr, the third-generation owner of this longtime family-owned store. “It’s always exciting to see the new product come through. The product is exciting; we get excited about it; our customers get excited about it.”

But just as the shoes on the massive, constantly crowded showroom floor are always changing, the soul of the business has not changed in six decades.

The store’s focus on selection and service has never wavered, even as trends come and go.

“We made the decision that the most important thing was sizes, width and selection and above everything else, service,” said Dean Peterson, a store manager who has worked at the shop for 27 years.

Dedicated customers acknowledge these efforts. Peterson said he receives compliments daily from customers, some that come in the form of hugs and smiles. Just last week, a young woman greeted him with a hug, noting that he helped her find the perfect pair as a child. Now, she was shopping for her own children.

“We get generations,” he said. “It’s very cool and unique. I love it.”

Carr’s grandfather on his mother’s side was the first Asheville business-owning generation. As a Polish immigrant living in New York City, his grandfather, Louis Resnikoff, first learned of this burgeoning mountain town through a friend and Asheville business owner.

He was in traveling sales, and was looking to leave the city and put down roots in a new place, Carr said. He moved his family south in the early ’50s; and by 1953, he opened Bargain Center in the current Downtown Books and News location on Lexington.

“He put in kind of like a general store,” Carr said, noting he bought the building, as well. “He did a lot of clothing, shoes, belts, socks and underwear. … He did well for himself.”

In the early 1960s, he decided to expand the business. “He bought the building that is now the men’s department, and rented out the spot down the street,” Carr said. He shifted the business toward shoes and still some uniforms and leather goods.

“Shoes was one of the more profitable (aspects of the shop),” Carr noted. “He thought it would be a good niche.”
In the 1970s, his health started to decline, and he called on his daughter and her husband — Carr’s parents, Ellen and Bob Carr — to move from Atlanta to help run what was now called Tops for Shoes.
Carr’s grandfather died in 1980, and in the early 1980s, the business was ready to expand again to its current footprint.
“The business was doing well,” Carr said. “We combined these two buildings; there was an alley where the children’s department is now.”
The square footage surged from around 3,000 to more than 30,000. And this expansion came at a time when most of Tops for Shoes’ neighbors were rats living in boarded-up storefronts.
“Downtown had left,” Peterson said. “The department stores had gone to Innsbruck, Westgate and the Asheville Mall in the 1970s. (The Carrs) had the foresight to buy these buildings. A lot of people were questioning their judgment at that point, yet it boomed.”
Peterson credits the Carrs’ “amazing sense of business feel and instinct,” he said.
When Peterson joined the staff in 1986, the duo was “desperate for staff to handle the flow,” he said. “We were the draw (to downtown). There was nothing else here.”
Peterson is one of the senior staff members at Tops for Shoes, a company with 42 employees in addition to the Carr family.
“We take care of our employees,” Carr said. “We are committed to our employees as much as we are to making money. That’s why I don’t even like to hire part-timers; I am not interested in part-timers to save money.”
The Carrs have offered health-care plans for employees since “day one” of Peterson’s job; they have offered 401(k) retirement plans for about a decade.
Alex Carr joined the family business about seven years ago. He was living in California when his father asked him to try running the shoe shop.
“After the first year, I knew it was for me,” Carr said. “I am a small business-minded person and the camaraderie, the family dynamic (appealed to me). We have people who have been here for 25-30 years. There is not much turnover here.”
He also appreciates that the produce and service “is nonhomogenous.”
“Alex has done a great job buying for us,” Peterson has noted. “He’s diversified us, made us younger.”
Carr will soon head to markets in Atlanta, New York City and Las Vegas to buy for the season. In the shoe industry, buyers purchase about six months in advance.
At peak inventory, Tops for Shoes will house 100,000 units (that includes accessories like purses, polish and shoelaces).
“I want to be unique,” Carr said of his buying approach.”We have a huge selection. I want to appeal to a lot of different walks of life. I have to appeal to locals and tourists, young and old.”
It’s a formula that’s working. “Most of the people who walk through the door buy something,” he said. Tops is the largest Southeast retailer for the high-end Frye’s brand, and one of the largest for Clarks.
Although the store does feature “a certain amount of trendy stuff,” Carr said, “we built our business on sizes and widths.
“(Customers) depend on us to get shoes that that can’t find anywhere else,” he said. “We have a serious commitment to those people. That’s why we get a commitment from those people.”
One pair of shoe on the floor may be available in 45 sizes — in just one color, Carr noted.
Investing in a large inventory at one time is risky — and has sunk other shoe stores. “One bad season can put you out of business,” Carr said. This risk is minimal for Tops for Shoes because if “one line goes bad, we are well-balanced in our inventory.”
It is also an informed inventory. Unlike similarly-sized stores, such as department shoe stores, Tops for Shoes buyers, including Carr, help customers on the showroom floor. “For me, that’s really important,” Carr said. “You see what’s selling; you are seeing what people are asking for.”
In 2012, people asked for wide-calf boots, and in 2013, that item flew off the shelves, Carr said.
He noted it helps that Tops is the only business like this in the area, specializing in large selections of high-end brands.
There is, however, a competitor for Tops for Shoes: Internet-based stores. Carr said that these online shops have not significantly damaged sales.
“It really hasn’t had a lot of effect on this business,” he said. “People want to feel (shoes). Put it on their foot and walk around.”

 

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