Positioned a few blocks south of Bloomingdale’s and Marshall Field’s, and roughly across the street from Saks Fifth Avenue on Michigan Avenue, Chicago’s Neiman Marcus counts on its extensive fine apparel department, its large selection of Manolo Blahnik shoes, and its hefty Armani Collezioni to get a leg up on the competition.

However, outside of merchandise, many repeat customers say it’s long-standing relationships and customer service that brings them back to 737 North Michigan Avenue.

Senya Kalpake, 62, of Northbrook, Ill., will drive into the city knowing she’ll receive expert treatment and an honest opinion. "I don’t need someone to tell me I look beautiful all the time," she said. "As you get older, you get heavier. The minute I come in they’ll tell me if something will work for me or not."

Kalpake has worked with the same sales associate and fitter for years. "I live in the suburbs and when you work, you only have X amount of time. I just found it convenient."

Occasionally, she travels along Michigan Avenue from Neiman’s to Saks Fifth Avenue. "The stores carry about the same things — St. John, Dana Buchman, Oscar de la Renta — but it’s the personal service that makes a difference."

Dana Hokin, 36, of Chicago, agreed. She came to Neiman’s looking for a simple, black gown to wear to a black-tie event, when a sales associate convinced her to try on what appeared to be a nondescript dress on the hanger.

As it turned out, the black silk Richard Tyler dress was fabulous. She bought again and again from the same sales associate who has introduced Hokin to designer clothing she never imagined wearing.

This emphasis on relationships helps Neiman’s distinguish itself among other competing upscale retailers such as Saks, Prada, Chanel and Armani, said Robert Armenta, vice president and general manager for the Chicago Neiman’s.

"Our associates can do so much more for them," he said, citing Neiman’s extensive designer jewelry and footwear departments. "We can serve our customer from top to bottom, selling items from the store or from the whole company."Kalpake, for one, appreciates the group effort. "At Neiman’s, your sales person can go everywhere, into different departments. They work together," she added. "It doesn’t seem like they’re fighting each other [for commission]."

Keven Wilder, a Chicago retail consultant, said Neiman’s also bonds with its customers through its loyalty program, InCircle. Customers join the "circle" once they have accumulated 3,000 points, which equates to $3,000 in purchases. Once they hit 5,000 points, customers may choose between a complementary $125 gift card or merchandise. Prizes increase in value as customers spend more.

"The customer is clearly driven by the points," Armenta said.

Wilder agrees the program is a hit among customers, who she said may be weighing Saks versus Neiman’s.

"It’s neck and neck with Saks. I think a lot of high-end customers go to both," she said, adding that she doesn’t view Bloomingdale’s, Marshall Field’s or Nordstrom as strong competitors because those department stores don’t carry the same price point orextensive collections.

Neiman’s also tries to tip the scales with a constant stream of trunk shows and designer appearances, offering more than 50 special events this season.

"Regardless of the department, we’re very event driven," Armenta said. "Every weekend we have someone coming in or something happening. The calendar this season is chock-full. That’s what is driving business."

When Neiman’s presented the entire Ellen Tracy fall collection last spring, the store booked more than 100 appointments and surpassed its own sales goals.

Powered by special events, "fine apparel is definitely the engine that drives this train," Armenta said, reporting growth in both core resources, such as Giorgio Armani, Escada and Prada, as well as in newer resources such as Dolce & Gabbana and Roberto Cavalli.

The latter designers attract a younger, more contemporary, fashion-forward shopper, complementing the more ladylike tailored Armani buyer, Armenta said.

"We have one of the best fine apparel assortments in the country," he said, noting that the variety of designers and the depths of collections is one of the strongest links in the Neiman Marcus chain.Shoppers will find Neiman’s second-largest offering of Armani Collezioni and strong selections from Prada and Chanel, along with Narciso Rodriguez.

Overwhelming response to Eskandar, for example, may cause the collection to be reclassified as a Chicago Neiman’s core or main resource. Currently, the store houses the largest Eskandar selection in the 33-store Neiman chain, which also includes Chicago area stores in Oak Brook, Ill., and Northbrook, Ill.

Overall, the 180,000-square-foot Michigan Avenue space is one of the largest Neiman Marcus stores and is in the top 10 in sales, Armenta said.

The 19-year-old Chicago location, for example, offers the city’s largest collection of Blahnik shoes, in addition to an expanding group of Yves Saint Laurent leather accessories.

Future plans for the store include possible renovation slated for about 80 percent of a store in 2004.

"We’ve talked about it," Armenta said. "It’s still on the drawing boards."

In the meantime, Neiman’s is looking to streamline its current categories.

Rather than expand categories, Neiman Marcus is looking to "fine-tune our assortment," Armenta said. "Sometimes less is more, and during these challenging economic times we’re really looking carefully at what we already carry."

Beyond apparel, Neiman’s also has built a strong clientele in designer jewelry, carrying David Yurman, John Hardy, Michael Dawkins and Stephen Dweck, among others.

Customers also are attracted to one-of-a-kind items in home decor — a department that offers a traditional bridal registry; an art gallery featuring work by some local artists, and a variety of home collectibles. Top draws include limited-edition Baccarat and jeweled picture frames, and boxes and clocks by Jay Strongwater.

"The customer comes to us for those unique pieces," Armenta said.

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