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Retail Realities: Toms in New York City

In the almost 10 years since founder Blake Mycoskie had the idea to help children without shoes, Toms has rocketed from one man’s passion project into an internationally recognized brand. As a part of its ‘One for One’ business model, Toms has donated more than 35 million pairs of shoes to children in need, all while providing consumers with stylish footwear for men, women, and children, including its signature slip-ons.

As part of the company’s plans to expand its retail presence, this year Toms opened its first flagship location in New York City on Elizabeth Street—a Nolita street that is quickly making a name for itself as a go-to hangout spot for cool footwear and interesting people. Toms’ neighbors include Tory Burch, Bucketfeet and Wolverine Company Store, a store that has hone the art of mixing retail with recreation. The store has hosted a number of events from vintage denim exhibits to free shaves and haircuts by Blind Barber since it opened in 2013. Toms is taking that same community-driven approach to retail, most notably by not filling its storefront with canvas Classics, but with a cozy coffee shop instead.

The store marked its first holiday shopping season with special in-store events, including hosting craft nights, a month-long clothing drive and a Kiehl’s pop-up shop. It has also diversified its assortment with unique collections, including hand-painted Alpargatas made by artists in Haiti as part of the brand’s Haiti Artist Collective, and a collaboration with L.A. artist Tyler Ramsey. The Ramsey line offered one-of-a-kind shoes that evoke the brand’s California roots but translated for the store’s New York consumer.

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Vamp caught up with the store’s manager Louis Centeri to find out how Toms is adapting to its eclectic neighborhood of homegrown New Yorkers and fashion-seeking tourists, and how the Elizabeth Street location will inspire future Toms outposts.

Vamp: When did the store open?
Centeri: We opened at the end of February this year and like to think of ourselves as a community outpost where people can come to hangout, create and engage. Due to the community feel of the neighborhood, Elizabeth Street is a perfect place for us. It has a unique charm with a special appeal to both shoppers and businesses.

Vamp: What makes Elizabeth Street special?
Centeri: Elizabeth Street is a quaint block full of history and one-of-a-kind shops. The neighborhood is home to both lifelong residents and first time New Yorkers that makes for a great mix of people. Our [customers] range from college students to millennial parents. We always see a nice variety of singles, families and groups of friends throughout the day.

Vamp: What are some of the unique characteristics of your store?
Centeri: We invite our supporters to not just shop, but really utilize our space. We have a heated patio, where anyone can sit and enjoy their coffee, chat with friends, do work, or enjoy a quiet moment. The front of our store is actually a café, so we function as a coffee shop for the early morning commuters, or something to warm you up when you’re shopping on cold fall days. Something that we’ve recently incorporated into our stores is our Virtual Giving Trip, which is like a mini-docu style virtual reality experience that shows you where the other pair of shoes goes after making a purchase.

Vamp: How is the store’s foot traffic?
Centeri: Since our café opens early in the morning, we are a welcome addition to those who need coffee to start their day. We’re seeing that our supporters who previously only shopped us through our website are thrilled they can try our shoes on before purchasing, and because of our new location we’re seeing more and more supporters every day.

Vamp: You share the street with several other footwear brands. Are you supportive of one another, or is it a game of competition?
Centeri: We have great relationships with our neighbors. We share ideas or just chat to get to know each and some visit us daily for coffee and hangout to do work in our café or patio.

Vamp: How did the idea for the café come about?
Centeri: We launched Toms Roasting Co. in 2013 with the intention of helping people make a difference in an everyday purchase. For every bag that’s purchased, we give a week’s worth of clean water to a person in need, and for every cup purchased we match for a day. Hence our slogan is “coffee for you, water for all.” We have some delicious roasts of coffee sourced from the countries we give back to, all served in our café. Our café has become a regular stop for our neighbors who love having a daily coffee routine, but we’re also a welcome surprise to those just shopping the block.

Vamp: What have been some of the most successful events held at the store?
Centeri: We have a Community & Events organizer that puts together a monthly calendar of events that we host in the store. They range from crafts, movies nights, wine or whiskey tastings, to talks given by our Giving Partners. Our Back-to-School art supply drive was a huge success. We collaborated with Material for the Arts and drew in a great group of supporters. We have also hosted pop-up shops with Moleskine and Kiehl’s. [Shoppers] can check out our events calendar in-store or on our Instagram, tomsnewyork.

Vamp: As a brand store, is there more pressure to offer customers a compelling and complete experience?
Centeri: Offering the complete brand experience is the way we do business! We created these flagship locations so that we could fully immerse our customers in our brand and educate them on our One for One model. Each Toms Outpost is consistent with our brand ethos, but with its own unique flavor to match the city. Our intent with our stores is to share our brand story, and that’s how future locations will be built.