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Ginger Reeder once presented Neiman Marcus Group chairman Burt Tansky with a brochure for flamboyantly airbrushed caskets and told him, straight-faced, that they would be featured as the famed “His and Hers’’ gifts in the 2000 Christmas Book.
“What’s this?!” he asked, stunned.
It was, in fact, Reeder’s idea of a good joke.
After all, she has the challenging task of tracking down eight or nine unique and extravagant gifts to be featured in the catalog for the sole purpose of getting press. Along with a tacky Christmas tableau of plastic figures priced at $250,000, the caskets take their place in a legion of bizarre products that have been earnestly pitched — and rejected — for a coveted spot in the famous catalog.
You can’t blame the ambitious, if misguided, entrepreneurs who approach Reeder, who is director of public and media relations for NM Direct. After Neiman’s unveils its Christmas Book every September, the whimsical “His & Hers’’ gifts and other exotic highlights can be counted on to generate reams of publicity. In 2000, for instance, the catalog turned up in hundreds of newspapers, 20 national magazines, 10 regional magazines and 10 trade magazines.
Sometimes, the outlandish gifts even sell. It’s retail legend that Neiman’s catalog sold eight Chinese junks in 1962 and a camel in 1967. The camel made local television news when it was unloaded on Christmas Eve at Dallas’ Love Field Airport, prompting one woman in Fort Worth to turn to her daughter and ask, “I wonder what darn fool is getting that?’’ The next morning it was under her outdoor Christmas tree.
“It was spitting as they tried to put pom-poms on it,’’ Reeder said.
In the end, the camel’s now-vision-impaired owner became so attached to the beast that when it died, her daughter installed a llama in the backyard as a decoy.
The Christmas Book sold ruby, sapphire and emerald rings packed as prizes in Cracker Jack boxes in 1998, and last year eight people sprang for the opportunity to kick up their heels with the Rockettes at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. Chinese shar-pei puppies sold out in 1983, when the wrinkly breed was a new curiosity, and the highest-dollar sale ever was a 150-carat necklace of fancy-colored diamonds for $620,000 in 1997.
With a circulation of 1.8 million in more than 100 countries, the Christmas Book hits more households than any other Neiman’s catalog and is one of the top five producers, though officials declined to reveal sales, and financial analysts did not have estimates on volume. It’s the flagship catalog of NM Direct, the direct mail and e-tail division of Neiman Marcus Group.
“The [Neiman’s] stores have The Book, and our pride and joy that the stores don’t have is the Christmas Book,” Reeder pointed out. “That’s the crown jewel.”
“The Christmas Book is the keystone book for the company,’’ said Eric Beder, retail analyst at Ladenburg Thalmann. “It is the one catalog that actually is more deluxe than the store. It’s what Neiman Marcus is all about in terms of unique luxury items, and it’s a lot of fun.”
The idea started out, humbly enough, in 1915, when Neiman Marcus published a six-page booklet of “The Perfect Christmas Gifts,” — one of which was a pair of $2.58 silk stockings — to entice shoppers to explore its downtown Dallas store.
The concept resurfaced in 1926 as a passport-sized pamphlet of Christmas “Suggestions,’’ including a $695 reptilian cigarette case and a $125 robe trimmed with ostrich feathers. It was the same year that Stanley Marcus left Harvard Business School to join the firm founded by his father, Herbert Marcus Sr., and his uncle and aunt, Al and Carrie Marcus Neiman.
Neiman’s took another hiatus from its Christmas marketing ploy for 13 years, a rocky period for the store during which Stanley rose to become his father’s right-hand man. But when a 1936 Texas Centennial exposition drew crowds to Dallas and the store, the Marcus family realized they could sell to people as far as 1,500 miles away instead of the traditional 100-mile radius.
In 1939, Neiman’s printed its first magazine-sized holiday mailer showcasing gifts from toys to fur coats in hopes of building store traffic and, ultimately, a national clientele. Mail-order business was not new — it originated in the late 19th century with such firms as Lord & Taylor, Sears, John Wanamaker and Montgomery Ward. But Neiman’s 14-page Christmas catalog was unusually upscale, and it went on to become an annual tradition and a new business.
The Christmas and, later, other catalogs stretched Neiman’s customer base not only across the nation but also abroad. The Christmas mailer became a source of startlingly successful marketing ploys, like the “Treasure Chest,’’ a satin gift box that was free with the purchase of two or more gifts totaling at least $100. Introduced in 1939, the gift box swelled to the size of the average sale and prompted the Marcus family to come up with more unusual packaging and gift wraps, which became a company hallmark.
In the Forties, Neiman’s Christmas mailer emphasized gifts for servicemen and urged shoppers to buy war bonds as a patriotic duty — the company even set up a booth in the store. Neiman’s made it a tradition to offer opportunities for charitable giving through the Christmas catalog — in this year’s book, a percentage of sales from all items on pages 4 to 13 benefits St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., which focuses on children’s diseases.
The catalog was dubbed “The Christmas Book’’ in 1951, and the name stuck. Today Neiman’s also publishes a “Holiday’’ catalog that sells food and amenities for entertaining.
By the time Neiman’s first sold stock in the company in 1959, the store had earned a national reputation for its fine merchandise. The lead broker handling the offering urged the family to capitalize on its fame by expanding the catalog’s circulation. Under the direction of Edward Marcus, who headed the Christmas catalog and was Herbert Marcus’ second son, the mailing list doubled to 500,000.
Fame for the Christmas Book followed swiftly thanks to Stanley Marcus, who shrewdly launched a quest for publicity-worthy gifts. He got the idea from annual requests by famed newsman Edward R. Murrow for amusing reports of extravagant Christmas spending by rich Texans. Occasionally Marcus had a great story, like the man who had Neiman’s entire Christmas window reproduced in his family’s playroom. But when mundane accounts about strong sales of alligator purses or the like failed to please Murrow, Marcus invented wild tales, such as a man buying seven mink coats for his wife and daughters plus a sable for his mistress.
Marcus recognized that publicizing exotic gifts in the catalog could attract similar attention, and he pitched the idea to the staff. A merchandise manager proposed “His & Hers’’ airplanes, and Neiman’s lined up Beechcraft to sell two planes in the 1960 catalog. The company actually sold the smaller “Hers’’ plane to a west-Texas rancher, but more importantly, the stunt was hailed on television, radio and newspapers across the U.S. and in Europe, including the BBC.
Neiman’s has offered a pair of unusual “His & Hers’’ gifts in each Christmas Book since (the first, in 1951, was a pair of vicuna coats) and has added more fantasy gifts to the lineup, such as a $20 million submarine in 2000 and a working model train made of 14-karat gold and precious jewels in 1992.
“They are to add cachet and attract publicity,” said Reeder, “and if they sell, that’s great, but it’s not our goal to sell them.’’
The company has yet to scale back the fantasy gifts in response to rough economic periods, and doesn’t fear appearing out of step with the times.
“Part of the goal of this is a fantasy, and is it ever frivolous to have fantasies? I don’t think so,’’ Reeder said. “Our tongue is pretty firmly planted in our cheek.’’
But last year she did cancel the Christmas Book’s traditional press preview and party scheduled for Sept. 13 in reaction to the national trauma of Sept. 11.
“We did general press announcements and kits about three weeks later, and six weeks later we started getting the calls we normally get right after the party,’’ Reeder explained.
In the 2002 Christmas Book, the fantasy roster started with $7,500 His & Hers custom action figures and wrapped up with 11 more extravagances, including a $3 million set of 10 portraits of Seventies sports figures by Andy Warhol and a $258,000 Hinkley yacht. Within five days of the Sept. 30 launch, Neiman’s sold one of the headline items, a $58,900 London taxi upholstered in Burberry plaid and camel leather.
The 2002 book pays tribute to Stanley, who died in January, by re-creating a gift he devised in the Thirties for a man who was having trouble finding a Christmas gift for his wife. Marcus took cashmere sweaters and layered them into a giant brandy snifter to resemble a pousse-café, a drink of multilayered liqueurs, topped by a $25,000 10-carat ruby ring. This year’s version is $11,050 with five sweaters and an angora scarf, crowned by a ruby and diamond ball ring.
This season’s 158-page Christmas Book has new themed sections, including a 20-page snow-themed story of white and silver products and a 10-page “family tree’’ section of gift suggestions for relatives. If response is good, the editorial-type format will continue next year. Another first this year: the entire catalog can be viewed online.
Reeder starts her search for the headliner gifts the prior year in October, but come March she sometimes panics about her July deadline.
“When I’m lying awake at night saying, ‘I have no gifts!’ my husband says, ‘If it were easy, Kmart would do it,’’’ she recalled.
After Reeder comes up with several choices, a committee of NM Direct top brass makes the final selections.
Reeder conferred with Stanley on all the fantasy gifts and now misses his input. “He’d say, ‘Be careful not to be vulgar, and don’t be expensive just to be expensive,’’’ she recalled.
Reeder is especially fond of the Warhol paintings of sports figures offered in this year’s catalog, because it was the last fantasy gift approved by Stanley. But she anticipated negative feedback, because one of the featured athletes is O.J. Simpson.
Neiman’s is ready for those calls and letters with a special staff schooled in fielding inquiries about the fantasy gifts.
“When we did the submarine, we were inundated with sixth-grade boys who wanted the blueprints and asked, ‘How far will it go?’” Reeder recalled. “Or a morning disc jockey from L.A. calls and asks to have the submarine painted yellow.
“You get calls at 1 a.m. from people trying to impress their girlfriends and asking, ‘Can you get it to me tomorrow? What? You can’t? Forget it!’ And there are people who are lonely and want to visit.’’
For the past four years, Reeder has questioned whether it’s time to retire the fantasy gifts.
“Mr. Marcus would say, ‘Not yet,’’’ she said. “But finding something unusual that no one else has done is really hard.’’
Since the beginning, Christmas Book covers have always featured an original painting or drawing — a legacy of Stanley Marcus, an avid collector who hired contemporary artists to create the covers.
His friendship with children’s-book author Ludwig Bemelmans landed Madeline on the cover in 1955 and inspired the story “Madeline in America,’’ in which the plucky redhead accidentally gets locked inside “the world’s greatest store” in Dallas and inherits an oil-rich ranch in Texas. Saul Steinberg’s 1951 cover of an abstract Santa was reproduced on wrapping paper, leading the artist to complain to Stanley that he didn’t like people tearing up his art.
From the beginning, Neiman’s has experimented with a number of different formats, such as graduated page sizes, to highlight different categories in 1942, and folders containing loose sheets in 1947 and 1948. In 2000, Neiman’s produced an ensemble of three small Christmas Books in lieu of one large one, which wasn’t popular because customers preferred a keepsake collectible edition.
Reeder always ran such new ideas past Stanley and often got the same response: “That sounds wonderful,’’ he’d say. “We did that in the Fifties.’’