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WNC Business

Tourist foot traffic supports a destination retailer

Nov 09, 2023 11:57AM ● By Randee Brown

Third-generation Tops For Shoes Owner Alexander Carr has seen a resurgence of what is offered among Downtown Asheville’s businesses over the years.

Originally incorporated by his grandfather in 1963, the original retail business offered all kinds of apparel before realizing shoes were really where the money was being made. Carr’s father significantly expanded the business in the 1980s, and was also a big part of reshaping the run-down look of Asheville’s downtown by serving on boards and commissions, improving the appeal of the city as a tourist destination.

“Tourism is huge here,” Carr said. “It’s the main driver of the service industry and we continue to benefit from that. We have always gotten a lot of walk-in traffic from visitors, and people tend to spend more money and be less frugal when they’re on vacation.”

Tops For Shoes is a “sit and fit” operation that focuses on customer service and a personal touch. Carr has heard many of his vendors say his store is pretty unique in these times of the internet and fast shopping, but he feels people are becoming jaded by those things.

“We’re old school and that’s the way we like it,” Carr said. “We are bringing back face-to-face interactions with our customers, really taking the time to get to know people and find out what they really want and need. People miss that.”

With 23,000 square feet of floor and stock space, Carr and his staff of 38 full-time employees work hard to find new products to fill the store. He said his is a very inventory-heavy business, and though it’s challenging for an independent business to be able to maintain so much merchandise and have the foot traffic to make it work, Tops stocks tens of thousands of pairs of shoes in the store at a time.

The retail space is so large that Carr said some people come in one entrance and never make it out of just one department because they don’t realize the store keeps on going. The space comprises multiple buildings that have been mixed together, creating a neat and quirky space that people find interesting.

Carr said he stocks a lot of hard-to-find sizes and widths, and they maintain a huge selection of those. People often travel a long way to his store because they know they will be able to find shoes that fit. He and his buyers stay in tune with trends in fashion and shoe technology to keep up with the latest and greatest in the marketplace.

“There’s a lot of bells and whistles that go into shoes,” Carr said. “A lot of research and technology goes into things like shock absorption and arch support, and our team knows our shoes inside and out. They can tell you where they’re made, which shoes are for what foot problem, and how they are going to fit. We are experts in the language of shoes.”

While locals with hard-to-fit feet visit because of the wide selection of inventory, the business remains largely dependent on tourist traffic. A recent major challenge Carr is experiencing is getting locals to return downtown. He said many locals feel like downtown is a tourist zone, and the homeless population influences people’s decision to come downtown as well.

“The media tends to blow things out of proportion, but it’s definitely a problem, and that could hurt my business,” Carr said. “It already hurts local traffic, and I think it will also hurt tourist traffic as more people see that. That’s my biggest fear, but hopefully that will get better.”

Promotions letting locals know about sales is one way Carr helps to drive traffic to his store. He said another big benefit for his business is the five new hotels slated to open in the next year.

“That’s a lot of rooms and that’s a lot more foot traffic,” Carr said. “We try to keep our name out there with television ads during big sales and through different publications in hotels, but we’ve relied on word of mouth for years and that’s honestly the best advertising. Our location — smack in the middle of downtown Asheville — is the best place for foot traffic, and we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else with the kind of store that we have.”