Stanley Marcus saw the future with unerring clarity.
Forty years ago, Marcus, the late chairman emeritus of Neiman Marcus Stores, predicted in a speech that someday shoppers would use "phonovision" to purchase goods, whether from stores located 2 or 2,000 miles away.
"The mass use of color phonovision will introduce a completely new dimension to remote buying and selling," Marcus said in 1966. "In addition to mail-order shopping, customers will be able to call their favorite local or out-of-town stores over the phone and see the articles over the monitor that will interest them right in the comfort of their own living rooms. After the decision is made, the customer will put the plastic card in the special telephone slot and her account will be charged."
Fast-forward to 2006, when Marcus' idea of phonovision has morphed into the fast-growing universe of Internet shopping.
Brendan Hoffman, president and chief executive officer of Neiman Marcus Direct, said the "imaginative and innovative" Marcus proved to have "incredible clarity of what would come in the future. The worldwide Web has introduced a new dimension to buying and selling outside of the four-wall store environment, and this is something that we at Neiman Marcus have been trying to exploit."
Many in the industry were skeptical about whether luxury goods could be sold online when the Internet was in its initial phases, Hoffman said. Not anymore.
Neiman Marcus Direct, which includes the catalogues and online operations of Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Horchow, recorded annual sales of $650 million and accounts for about 20 percent of the company's overall earnings.
"As neimanmarcus.com celebrates its seventh anniversary," he said, "customers are comfortable buying everything from a $2,000 Gucci handbag to a $7,000 David Yurman bracelet, and, of course, their Manolo Blahniks, whether they are in one of our stores or thousands of miles away from one."
Although some luxury brands are still reluctant to have their goods sold online, particularly a few European players, "I really do think we'll see them all come online very shortly," he said.
Others, however, are so keen on the Internet that they are working with Neiman's on "sitelets," where the retailer handles warehouse fulfillment for the online stores of brands such as David Yurman and Salvatore Ferragamo. This program has been "gaining a momentum of its own as people understand what we're doing and recognize that it's really important for their brand to participate online," he said.
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