A legendary New York retailer is celebrating a doubleheader.
This year, Tip Top Shoes celebrates both the 75th anniversary of its founding and the 50th anniversary of Wasserman family ownership, after acquiring the store from original owner Ruth Pfiferling. An Upper West Side institution, Tip Top Shoes has served generations of customers, many of whom now also shop at offshoot Tip Top Kids to outfit their children.
In the four decades since owner and President Danny Wasserman joined his late father, Max Wasserman, in the business, he has always kept a step ahead of the next hot trend, helping to build Tip Top’s reputation as an influential independent retailer. “We were one of the first to have Ugg Australia and one of the first in the Northeast to carry Birkenstock,” recalled the 69-year-old Wasserman. “I also recognized MBT, Kork-Ease, Sbicca huaraches and Jacques Cohen espadrilles.”
The store offers just the right balance of comfort and fashion, with high-end labels — including Arche, BeautiFeel and Thierry Rabotin — as well Birkenstock and Hunter, which attract a younger, fashion-driven consumer. “Comfort is our No. 1 priority and the core of our business,” Wasserman said. “But comfort isn’t enough today, just as fashion isn’t enough.”
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Over the years, Wasserman has become a go-to resource for many brands that tap his expertise when building their collections. He credits his father, who managed a shoe store in Germany before emigrating to the former Palestine and opening a shop there, for teaching him the tricks of the trade.
Now, the next generation of Wassermans has joined the family business. Danny’s son Lester, Tip Top’s GM, divides his time between the flagship and West NYC, an athletic specialty store he operates independently, while daughter Margot is GM and buyer for Tip Top Kids. In addition, the family operates both Tiptopshoes.com and Workshoes.com.
Even as retail has become increasingly challenging, Danny Wasserman hasn’t lost his passion for the product. “At the end of the day, it’s all about finding something people like,” he said. FN sat down with
Wasserman to explore Tip Top’s historic success.
After decades in business, how does Tip Top Shoes stay relevant to New York City’s discerning customers?
DW: We [constantly] look at our customers, as well as people on the street and at airports, to see what they’re wearing. It’s also about being a member of the National Shoe Retailers Association and talking to other retailers. It’s about what Lester and Margot bring to the table in terms of fashion [input].
How do you define Tip Top’s product point of view?
DW: It’s all about [comfort], even for fashion [brands]. But we also have what most [independents] don’t: athletics. It’s a growing part of our business. Most stores are [focused on] brown shoes. [But] somebody can come into our store and be fitted for running shoes or cross-trainers. Our top brand is Nike, [followed by] New Balance and Asics.
Why did you decide to add the kids’ store in 1998?
DW: We were getting many calls [asking us to] open one, so we eventually did. It’s much harder than [the adult business]. The variety is [challenging]. When you buy one shoe, you [have to] buy three [size] ranges. It took me almost two years to learn. I told Margot, [then an associate buyer for kids’ clothing and shoes at Polo.com], that if she ever wanted to work here, the doors were open. She did and loves it.
More recently, Tip Top expanded into work shoes with Workshoes.com. What prompted that move?
DW: One night I was playing around on the Internet and searched names involving the word “shoes.” Workshoes.com was available, so I decided to grab it. We do a lot of work-shoe business with drop-ships. We have customers such as Verizon and hospitals that have reached out to us after finding the site.
There is stiff competition in the athletic arena. Why risk opening West NYC?
DW: Lester was interested in it, and the [Upper West Side] needed a cool sneaker place. Our sneaker business at Tip Top is tremendous. Years ago, we had one New Balance style, and now the whole back of the store is athletic [looks] from Nike to New Balance to Asics. [But] the West NYC customer doesn’t want to come here.
What are the biggest challenges facing today’s independent retailers?
DW: The economy hasn’t been stellar. The recession knocked out a lot of people. It’s not an easy deal anymore. Years ago, the business was [more] glamorous. Today, it’s all about brands — having exclusives and the very high-end [labels]. In New York, [many brands] don’t want to open accounts. They have their own stores or shop-in-shops in department stores. Rent is another issue. Ten years ago, [leases] were a lot less expensive. Then, all of a sudden, [landlords] wanted 30 percent more in rent. [Business] owners had to ask themselves how they could justify [those increases]. Then there’s the weather. Over the last few years, we haven’t had a spring. There used to be a four-season buy, but now you’re just buying for summer and winter. [And trend-wise], there’s nothing really compelling right now other than athletic-inspired footwear.
How do your on-the-floor sales associates contribute to the success of Tip Top?
DW: About 60 percent of our business is word of mouth. We tell our staff that everything we have is available somewhere else. The only thing [that separates] us is our service. All of our employees are professional shoe fitters, three of them pedorthists. There are always people available [for retail jobs], but I don’t think anyone is looking at it as a career opportunity. Yet we keep our staff and pay them well. Our longest [serving] employee has been here almost 20 years.
What marketing initiatives have been the most effective for you?
DW: We’ve done ads in The New York Times and on [the city’s] subways. But now, it’s all about social media, which we are [developing]. We have a designated person [managing our] social media. Still, it’s difficult to gauge [platforms] other than Instagram. [From] there, you have people coming into [the store] for a particular shoe.
Tip Top is an integral part of the Upper West Side. How important is your local customer base?
DW: People like to support local retailers, but we also get a large trade from outside New York [as well as] hotels that send us clients, internationally and from other parts of the U.S.
You’re very involved in the NSRA. How is the organization helping the industry ?
DW: There are a lot of younger people going into the business, especially in areas such as the Midwest and California. They find it exciting, and for them there is NSRA’s NextGen Leadership Program. [And businesses] are being passed down to the second and third generations.
What were the most valuable lessons you learned from your father?
DW: First, always ask for a discount from a vendor. Then, make sure the shoes come in at the appropriate time. [Lastly], a piece of paper without a date is meaningless.
Is there a brand or designer you check in with each season for style direction?
DW: Tory Burch is commercial, though we don’t sell [the brand]. At the very high end, Ferragamo and Gucci.
What sparks a trend today?
DW: If something is unique, it will have legs. [Early on], MBT shot to the top with a small [plug] on the news. FitFlop was [featured] on “The Today Show.” We were their first customer in the U.S. I tried to locate the brand [online], but the website only listed U.K. retailers. Then one day I got a call from their sales manager in London asking if we would be interested in carrying the line. We received 36 pairs of sandals in October. The duty and transport cost more than the shoes, but I put them in the window and they were gone by November. I [later] became friendly with founder Marcia Kilgore, who bought her Ugg boots at Tip Top.