When Neiman Marcus landed in Atlanta in August 1972, competitors were few, but powerful.

Rich’s, the legendary hometown favorite, had a fiercely loyal following, and Saks Fifth Avenue, another newcomer that opened in 1971, boasted in advertisements of "bringing New York to Atlanta."

But Neiman Marcus opted for a different approach, instead ingratiating the store into the community.

"Stanley Marcus was smart," said Sally White, the Atlanta store’s original public relations and special events coordinator for more than 20 years. "He was intent on becoming part of the community, rather than an outsider."

The grand opening, which drew 3,000 people and benefited the Atlanta History Center, was one of the first department store charity events in Atlanta. In the parking lot outside the store, an oil rig spouted Coca-Cola, symbolizing the uniting of Texas and Atlanta. John Groth, who illustrated the 1968 limited-edition version of "Gone With the Wind," donated books to patrons and art to the History Center.

The freestanding 120,000-square-foot store opened in Lenox Square, an open- air mall that was enclosed the same year. Today, the store has a mall entrance on the first floor only. Lenox Square is now operated by shopping mall giant Simon, and is one of the Southeast’s largest and most prestigious shopping centers. The store was the retailer’s second unit outside of Texas; a unit opened during the mid-Sixties at Miami’s Bal Harbour Shoppes.

With an exterior of Italian travertine marble and a large atrium in the middle, the luxurious space was advertised as an "emporium, palace and museum." The store was designed by New York’s John Carl Warnecke & Associates, the firm that later designed the Neiman Marcus store in White Plains, N.Y.

Originally, more than 100 works of art from Stanley Marcus’ travels were displayed in the store. Most have been sold, but one, a sculpture by Charles Hinman called "Air," was reinstalled this year for the store’s 30th anniversary. A contemporary sculpture called "Lemuria," by Stanley Landsman, that stood at Neiman’s mall entrance was donated in 1994 to MARTA’s Art Council, which was searching for something appropriate to enhance the mass rapid transit agency’s seven-story atrium at its Piedmont Road headquarters. The sculpture represents a lost mountain range in the ocean between India and the Philippines.The Lenox Square store underwent three major renovations. In 1978, the lower level, originally used for distribution and storage, as well as a restaurant, was converted to selling space, doubling the store’s volume. Renovations in 1983, 1986 and 2001 added up to three floors and a total square footage of 153,000.

From the beginning, with the introduction of Hanae Mori and Pauline Trigère, designer lines have been the stores’ focus, along with the tradition of personal appearances by designers.

Designer Dana Buchman said that her line has performed well at Neiman Marcus in Atlanta, helped by several in-store personal appearances each year.

"It’s a great way to reach real customers, rather than through lavish fashion events in New York," she said at an in-store luncheon and personal appearance Sept. 4. "We see our regular customers, and we can reach out to customers who may perceive Neiman’s as too expensive."

Atlanta specialty designer boutique Rexer-Parkes carries many of the same lines as Neiman Marcus.

"We often refer customers to Neiman Marcus, as they have a larger stock," said buyer and manager Micki Price-Havard. "They have a great reputation for customer service. We have two salespeople that formerly worked at Neiman’s, and they have helped us set up some new procedures, such as calling customers to notify them of new merchandise, etc."

Over the years, the Atlanta store has also sponsored charity events with organizations such as the Atlanta Ballet that included fashion shows and appearances by Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Isaac Mizrahi.

"Our directive, company-wide, is fine apparel," said Lynn Vining, vice president and general manager of the Atlanta store.

The 2001 renovation created in-store shops for designers, including Escada, Armani Collezioni, Chanel and Calvin Klein, all in signature design elements. Handbags also have signature shops, such as Chanel and Prada. Contemporary and bridge lines, such as Dana Buchman and St. John, are also strong components, she added. Cosmetics, the top performing category in percentage of total sales, is undergoing an expansion that will add more space and vendors over the next three months.

Neiman Marcus would not release sales figures, but industry sources said the 150,000-square-foot store exceeded $100 million in 2001, and has consistently been a top performer in the Neiman’s chain.Neiman Marcus’ Lenox Square unit does not rely on Atlanta customers alone, but draws 50 percent of its sales from outside a 50-mile radius of Atlanta, from areas including Nashville, and Birmingham, Ala.

Beyond designers and community, customer service is the linchpin of success, said Vining. Sales associates get two to three months of training in a corporate "art of selling" program and product training in meetings each morning. Every salesperson is considered a personal shopper, and can sell anything throughout the store.

"If a customer comes who’s going on a cruise, one associate can serve her needs, from capri pants and T-shirts to sunscreen and sandals," Vining said.

Loyal Neiman Marcus customers rely heavily on one-on-one salespeople, which is a rarity in Atlanta department stores now. Cheryl Kramer, a woman in her early 50s, is a Dana Buchman devotee, who also buys Oscar de la Renta and Chanel at Neiman Marcus. Kramer usually buys full price, rushing to Neiman’s the moment a collection hits the floor, after a call from a salesperson.

"I buy things at the beginning of the season, and often don’t even wear it ’til it’s already on sale," said Kramer. "My husband gets mad sometimes, but I justify it by telling myself I might not have gotten the exact thing I wanted in my size if I had waited."

Neiman Marcus is slated to open a second Atlanta location within the next three years, north of Atlanta, in an undetermined location. A clearance store opened in November 2001 in Discover Mills, a shopping center approximately 30 miles north of Atlanta.

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