More than a century of experience and a willingness to implement unique, customer-centered features help this department store chain thrive. After 136 years of business, it will take more than the current economic slump to bring down Von Maur, an Iowa-based 22-location department store chain that prides itself on unique brands and services to pamper its customers.

Its strategy appears to be working, because although many other retailers are suffering from steadily decreasing profits, Jim von Maur, president, says everything for his family’s company is running smoothly.

“Our buyers are doing a wonderful job bringing in exciting products our customers want, and we’re benefiting from a reputation for excellent service. Whether times are up or down, people are always looking for quality service,” he said.

Founded in 1872, the family-owned and operated chain sells upscale clothing, shoes, cosmetics, and accessories. According to von Maur, the company hasn’t needed to adjust its growth plan to account for today’s slow economy. For the last five years, Von Maur has opened two new stores each year and this year is no different with a new store in both Dayton, Ohio and Overland Park, Kan. 

“We will continue to focus on the middle of the country, but we’re looking at expanding into larger markets and opening up stores further south, such as in Tennessee or Oklahoma,” von Maur explained. “But we’ll grow carefully so we don’t lose what makes us special.”

All the pieces

There is a lot that makes Von Maur more than an average department store. The company implemented several unique features under the direction of von Maur’s father and uncle about 20 years ago. At that time, local department stores were rapidly being replaced with national chains, so features like a zero interest store credit card, free delivery, free gift wrap, and a live pianist in all locations set Von Maur apart.

At the same time, Von Maur also implemented its two-day orientation program for the first time, during which new associates learn phone etiquette, how to build clientele, and the ins and outs of the store where he or she will be working. Associates, von Maur explained, have a great deal of latitude within a store. Any associate can help a customer shop for what she needs in any department. They keep in touch with their clients on a one-on-one level through clientele books, sending thank you notes or letting customers know when a product he or she admired is marked down.  The company also started emphasizing promoting from within under the previous generation, which von Maur says has given the company knowledgeable managers and helped foster an intimate, family feel for the shoppers.

Although Von Maur once used frequent promotions to attract customers, today, it takes deep markdowns only on merchandise that otherwise isn’t moving off the shelves. “We don’t like playing games with our customers; they know stores that hold big weekend sales, for example, are only cutting away the percentage they mark up their regular prices. Shopping with us is a refreshing change for our customers, who receive a fair price upfront every day from us,” von Maur said. 

The variety of inventory at Von Maur is another feature that sets it apart. Unlike the competition, the company will stock merchandise from smaller suppliers who don’t have the resources to cross-dock or ship the product themselves. Denying those smaller suppliers, von Maur said, limits the variety other department stores can offer. If the company’s buyers think shoppers will love a product, they have the flexibility to do what is necessary to get that product on the shelves. 

This flexibility, von Maur says, comes from being privately owned. “Public companies need to focus on the bottom line to satisfy shareholders. As a private company, we can focus on what makes shopping with us special and on what our shoppers want.”

Adapting again

The last two years have seen the addition of more features to keep Von Maur up with the times and delivering what its customers want. After speaking with customers, von Maur said the company developed a non-intrusive way to use e-mail blasts. “We only send them out when we legitimately have something to inform our shoppers about,” he explained. “Some retailers send customers up to three e-mails a day, but only annoy people until they delete your marketing efforts without looking at them.”

Two years ago, Von Maur launched an e-commerce site, which von Maur reported is still seeing triple-digit growth. He said he and his team expected the site to deal mostly in accessories and basic items, and is surprised how many high fashion products are sold every day.

Von Maur initially approached e-commerce with a degree of caution; von Maur explained he wasn’t certain his company’s fashion-oriented customer would embrace the idea. Furthermore, Von Maur doesn’t have a catalogue operation, which served as a natural apparatus for other stores to transition to using e-commerce sites. Keeping up with Internet sales is, however, what von Maur calls a pleasant challenge to have.

Besides the growth of the Internet as selling tool, another change in the retail industry is the growth of lifestyle centers, which are replacing the traditional enclosed mall in many cases. More than a century of experience encourages taking new developments with a grain of salt, but von Maur said mixed-use and lifestyle centers have helped the company grow.

“Before, if we couldn’t get into the traditional mall as an anchor, we were locked out of a whole market. Smaller, mixed-use centers give us easier access to new markets. Whether or not this is a trend and the industry will revert back to enclosed malls remains to be seen, but it’s likely the future will be some kind of hybrid, and that will ultimately benefit the company.”

Cautious but open-minded: that attitude has carried Von Maur so far, and it will carry it into the future.

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