The legendary Stanley Marcus joked in 1957 that Neiman Marcus was “founded on bad business judgment,” referring to the choice the founders made 50 years earlier to use their hard-earned dollars to launch a retail store rather than invest in the then-fledgling Coca-Cola Co.
The two companies share more than a near miss in ownership. Like Coca-Cola, Neiman Marcus has stood the test of time for more than a century. Both have maintained their headquarters in the cities in which they began, and both have grown and evolved through economic highs and lows.
Today they face an economic low the likes of which most of retail has never before experienced. Neiman’s hasn’t buckled, although the luxury sector has been particularly hard hit. The company is, however, taking precautionary measures to battle sharply declining sales. In January, Neiman Marcus announced it had cut 375 jobs, equal to about 3% of its work force.
Yet, even when doing battle against a dismal economy, the company continues to design great stores. Neiman’s store in Lenox Square Mall, Atlanta, was selected as “Retail Store of the Year” in Chain Store Age’s 27th annual design competition (see page 68 in the magazine or click here), and Neiman Marcus in Canoga Park, Calif., won first place for best exterior.
The man spearheading the design efforts is Wayne Hussey, senior VP of properties and store development, and a long-time department store design guru. Prior to joining Neiman Marcus in 1999, Hussey spent five years at Saks Fifth Avenue as senior VP of real estate and store design, and he held similar positions with Marshalls, Maison Blanche and Dayton’s.
When designing new stores, what is your process?
The first step we take is obviously to select a design firm. We work with three or four firms, including Charles Sparks + Co. in Oak-brook, Ill., whose team has done a number of our new stores and renovations including the Atlanta Lenox Square Mall store. We also work with Burdifilek Interior Design in Toronto; Robert Young and Associates (RYA) of Dallas, who did the interior of our Neiman Marcus Topanga store in Canoga Park, Calif.; and we also work with New York City-based Gensler.
How do you decide which firm to use on a project?
It’s largely dependent on the workload of each firm and on our internal desires. After we make the selection, we tour the market with the firm, spending two or three days there to understand the market itself and the architectural elements within it, and then we come back and discuss the overall design inspiration for the project.
What tools do you give the design firm?
The store development group has developed design kits that we go through with each of our design firms. The kit involves the design inspiration that we intend for that store. We discuss what Neiman Marcus is, and then we delve into past projects to give them some idea of what our desire is for the end product, whether that involves visual merchandising elements, color and materials, fixtures, graphics, furniture, rugs or the art collection.
Tell me more about the art.
We are one of the very few retailers in the country, or the world for that matter, that is committed to having an element of art within each of our stores. We have an art curator on staff who works with our store development and visual teams to select the art for each one of our stores, whether it be for renovations or new stores.
Are different artists represented?
When we enter a market or region, we select artists from that region. The art curator and our VP of store development [Ignaz Gorischek] will go out into each market very early on and start interviewing artists who are indigenous to that particular area. The vast majority of the art that you will see within our new stores or major renovations is from artists who reside within that region.
Do you have a preferred list of suppliers?
With regard to material suppliers, we are always open to looking at different suppliers. Our store development and visual teams at Neiman Marcus along with our design firms are on a constant quest to discover new resources and unique and innovative materials that will lead to making dramatic statements within our stores.
How do you approach maintaining such a high-end store design without it being off-putting?
Neiman Marcus is known for its quality and fashion-forwardness in merchandise as well as its quality of service. But it is also important that when we have a design inspiration for a store it has a residential sensibility. We want our customers to feel as welcome and as comfortable in our stores as they would be within their own homes. It is important that we select quality materials, whether it be marble, rich woods, distinctive fabrics or the art we strategically place throughout the store. When our customers enter our stores, we want them to feel welcome and comfortable in the shopping environment.
What other stores, both here and abroad, do you feel most effectively deliver the store experience?
As I tour the country, and I don’t get abroad as often as I would like, I am always impressed with the Louis Vuitton shops, whether inline or freestanding. The environment is high quality while still cutting edge in design, and the functionality of the shops continues to amaze me. There are a number of retail concepts that have great design, but when you look at the total package, I think what Louis Vuitton has delivered is something to be emulated by all.