LOMBARD, Ill.--Von Maur, a 122-year-old fashion specialty-store chain based in Davenport, Iowa, is breaking into the Chicago market, bringing with it traditional Midwestern values emphasizing customer service.
The family-owned chain, which has eight stores in Iowa and three in central Illinois, opened its first Chicago area store in Yorktown Center on July 18, with a grand opening set for Aug. 20.
"We're always listening to our customers, and we take what we learn and apply it," said Rick Von Maur, manager and great-grandson of the chain's founder.
The result: a store with special customer services such as free UPS delivery throughout the U.S. and a free gift-wrapping service year-round.
Another part of the strategy to build customer loyalty is an interest-free, fee-free charge card. According to Von Maur, more than 70 percent of the chain's business is charged to the card, compared with an industry average of 40 percent.
Since the soft opening, results have "exceeded all expectations," Von Maur said. He declined to disclose figures, but industry sources estimated the 200,000-square-foot store would generate first-year revenues of $55 million.
According to Bob Long, president of Pehrson Long, the mall managing agents, the store generated four to five times its projected volume in the first 10 days.
The store, a former Wieboldt's Department Store which had lain empty for five years, has undergone a $20 million, one-and-a-half-year renovation to make it a flagship in the Von Maur chain, sources said.
Its design incorporates plenty of antique fixtures and fittings to create a residential feeling. "We want it to feel like a home instead of a store," said Jack Arth, president. There are no mannequins, because they look commercial and fake, Arth said. Seating areas are plentiful, with furniture that looks like it came from somebody's home.
The store does have displays, of course, tasteful arrangements that incorporate antique findings and often feature fresh flowers. Many are peppered with signs inviting customers to "Please Touch Our Merchandise... You'll Love It."
Other lessons Von Maur is applying in Yorktown: The store has installed private cosmetics consultation rooms because some customers feel uncomfortable being made-over in the middle of a busy store. It also offers a no-questions-asked returns policy, which doesn't even require a receipt.
The store's style fits perfectly with the demographics of the Yorktown market, Long said, which draws customers from affluent suburbs such as Hinsdale, Oakbrook and Schaumburg and has an average household income of $47,000. "The type of store had to fit a medium-to-better quality fashion image," he said.
The chain is targeting a mainstream customer and sees itself occupying a niche between moderate department store Carson Pirie Scott, a co-anchor at the mall, and upscale specialty store Nordstrom, a few miles away in Oakbrook mall, Von Maur noted.
In women's apparel, it carries moderate-to-bridge lines ranging from Alfred Dunner to DKNY. Other key resources are Peter Nygard, Tahari, Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein II. The chain also sticks with American companies--it has no import program--and carries only branded apparel.
"Customers trust branded names more, and they tend to be a little higher quality," said Von Maur.
Preteens, large sizes and shoes are among the categories that get a lot of space in the store.
Fitting its traditional image, Von Maur also takes a low-key approach to promotions: The chain doesn't advertise on a day-to-day basis, nor does it hold seasonal sales. Markdowns are, however, taken regularly in the store. Von Maur explained that slow sellers can be identified within two weeks and are offered first at 33 percent, then half off, then 75 percent off.
"Customers find out very quickly we have plenty of sale merchandise in the store," Von Maur said. "We take the money we save in advertising and apply it to our customer services like interest-free credit and free delivery."
A thirteenth store is slated to open in Omaha, Neb., in July 1995, and the chain is actively seeking other sites in the Chicago area. Said Von Maur, "[Chicago is] a new beginning for us."

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