By  on May 2, 2005

DALLAS — Natalie Chu invited 70 people to lunch at the Neiman Marcus flagship here, personally writing the invitations, planning the menu and helping to pick the fashions for a mini show.

Chu doesn’t work for Neiman’s and she’s not an event planner or fundraiser. Chu is a customer, and a good one.

The March event, paid for by the store, is part of a marketing strategy that is increasingly used by Neiman’s and a handful of other luxury retailers to lure shoppers, new and old.

Competition for high-spending customers is more intense than ever. Sales of luxury goods and services in the U.S. last year were valued at $525 billion, a 19 percent increase compared with 2003, according to a study by Boston Consulting Group. Apparel accounted for $30 billion, rising about 10 percent from the previous year.

“Neiman’s has really started asking people who have a variety of friends in the community to put their name on the top of the invitation and the return envelope,” said Ellie Francisco, a Houston socialite and event planner. “You get so many of these invitations from Neiman’s and Saks, and there is a tendency to toss them. But if there is a name over the Neiman Marcus, then you will look at the invitation.”

The idea of tapping into a customer’s sphere of influence dates back decades. Neiman’s has significantly increased the frequency of these events throughout the chain in the past 18 months to help keep it at the top of the luxury pack, store executives said.

Neiman Marcus Group posted double-digit gains in same-store sales for six consecutive quarters through January, though the trend slipped in February, with a 7.7 percent increase, followed by a 3.4 percent gain in March. Profit for the most recent quarter, ended Jan. 29, jumped 19.3 percent to $70.6 million, while revenues for the three months gained 7.7 percent to $1.13 billion.

At Neiman’s downtown Dallas flagship and headquarters, customer-hosted parties and other events targeting specific groups are held virtually on a daily basis during peak selling seasons.

“It’s constant,” said store manager Shelle Bagot, a Neiman’s vice president. “We’ve done them with anywhere from four people to 100 people, which is too many. The smaller ones work better.”

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