Tom Ott - The Original Retail Czar
Award-winning merchant Tom Ott is the poster child for retailing savvy and merchandising smarts. For a quarter century, he held senior roles at iconic New York department store group Saks Fifth Avenue, including Senior Vice President and General Merchandise Manager of men’s, gifts, home and concession in full-line stores, followed by Chief Merchant at Saks’ Off 5th, the company’s 130-store strong off-price division.
Since leaving Saks in 2019, he has started his own consulting firm, Retail and Fashion Solutions, and founded Retail Czar, the new ecommerce site devoted to emerging designers and innovative brands in the fashion, beauty, wellness, gift, home and tech categories – all from a distinctly New York POV.
In an exclusive interview with Retailczar.com, Tom reveals some of the secrets and stories behind his success and why he’s excited about the new e-tail start-up.
Tom caught the retail bug early thanks to helping his parents at their local church bazaar when he was a teenager. “Our church would collect the jumble and my Mom and Dad would run the bazaar on a Saturday four times a year. All the money raised went to charity.” One incident became a teachable moment in quick thinking retail salesmanship. “I remember once when we were clearing up at the end of the day, there was a box with a china dinner service that did not sell. My Dad asked me to take it out and put it by the trash. Just before closing, a lady came in and asked if we had any china. Without missing a beat, my Dad asked me to bring in the dinner service from ‘the back.’ I retrieved the box and we made the sale.”
Timing is Everything
In college, Tom set his sights on a Wall Street career, graduating with a business degree in 1988. “My desire was to become a broker and one day start my own business, but because of the Black Monday stock market crash in October 1987, there were no investment banks on campus trying to recruit the 1988 graduates. A friend of mine suggested I interview with a prominent retailer instead, so I joined their executive training program which is where I met my future wife, Michelle, and we were married by the time we were 25!” The couple now have four wonderful daughters, one of whom has joined her Dad at Retail Czar.
The Value of Teamwork
“I grew up in New Hyde Park on Long Island, New York – a really wonderful place to grow up. We had a storied football team in high school and our coaches really motivated us. That gave me the opportunity to motivate other players through teamwork which was a lesson I brought to my retail career. The ultimate goal is to see your team succeed.
“It’s important to work with a diverse group that you share a common vision with. Cast a wider net by bringing in people with experience in different businesses and who have different taste levels than yours. I also really enjoy working with young people and seeing them grow in their careers. Retail is a really fantastic trade. And most importantly, you gotta have fun!” Although Tom has won multiple awards for his retail prowess, his award as ‘Class Clown’ in high school is the one that brings the biggest smile to his face.
Inspiration Behind Retail Czar
“I felt there was a gap in the market for a specialty store site with an authentic New York POV as seen through the eyes of New York City merchants. That’s our DNA. That’s what differentiates us. I’m really proud of the talented team we have on board. We have a collective 250 years’ experience at the top levels of New York City retail. Most of us are expats from Saks who worked together for many years. Now we have the opportunity to work together again which is really rewarding. We range in age from 19 to 70 plus. It’s a really great mix of youth and experience.”
What’s in a name?
“We chose ‘Retail Czar’ because it’s a mash-up of ‘Retail’ and ‘Bazaar’. ‘Czar’ also means expert. Our aim is to empower customers - through the expertly curated vendors and products on our site, through our social media platforms, our editorial content, and our values - to become part of the Retail Czar community. Shopping should be fun and we want our customers to enjoy the Retail Czar experience. It’s important now more than ever for customers to shop the best of New York specialty store retail from the safety of home, socially distanced yet socially connected through Retail Czar. I honestly believe that if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, we would not have been able to bring the talent together to create this business.”
Tom is well known for his sayings. Here are some of his go-to’s:
“They don’t know what they don’t know.”
“Men are the new women” (when it comes to shopping).
“You can’t snow the snowman.”
“Don’t get too close to the donkey, you might get kicked.”
“Small is the new big.”
Tom is a marathon runner, with five NYC marathons and 10 triathlons under his belt, raising more than $100K for The American Cancer Society in the process. Philanthropy will likewise be an important part of the culture at Retail Czar, according to Tom: “We want to be helping the community we are part of and feel it is our responsibility to help others.”