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Von Maur Steps Out of the Box

CHICAGO — Von Maur, the 18-unit regional specialty chain, is revving its engines.<br><br>For 130 years and four generations, the $400 million family-run retailer has quietly and methodically built a thriving Midwest regional business with a mix...

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CHICAGO — Von Maur, the 18-unit regional specialty chain, is revving its engines.

For 130 years and four generations, the $400 million family-run retailer has quietly and methodically built a thriving Midwest regional business with a mix of better, traditional and contemporary family apparel and an intense devotion to customer service, including a no-interest charge card.

But now, privately held Von Maur is looking beyond its borders.

This year, it plans to open four new stores, including three in former Jacobson’s locales in Michigan and Illinois, and a new store in Kentucky. It also has tentative plans for national expansion within the next three to five years, according to James D. Von Maur, the company’s 33-year-old president and scion of founder C.J. Von Maur, a Bavarian immigrant.

The company’s first store opened in 1872 in Davenport, Iowa, where its headquarters and distribution center remain.

Retail sales are planned to hit $500 million this year, including projected comp-store gains of 2 to 3 percent, plus new-store revenues.

“For the short-term, we’re expanding in the Midwest, and from there we may take the chain national, depending on economic conditions,” said Von Maur, who became president two years ago. His father, Richard B., and uncle, Jim, are co-chairmen.

“Our philosophy is steady, but well-planned growth,” he said. “We open at least two new stores a year and usually only one or two stores per market. We take a micro-intensive approach to merchandising and buy based on a store’s unique local needs. Our plan is always to build trust and loyalty by focusing on customer service, literally from the ground up.”

He explained the company’s philosophy and vision while touring Von Maur’s 210,000-square-foot store in Yorktown Mall in Lombard, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

Von Maur stores, which average about 150,000 square feet and follow a modified racetrack layout, are designed with few inside walls to promote uncluttered sight lines. Each store exudes a classical residential ambience, with an extensive array of antique furnishings and plush seating areas. Aisles are extra wide and paved with white marble, and a grand piano anchors the main floor of each store. Sales average $225 per square foot.

Misses’, contemporary and juniors apparel leads the merchandise mix, with 38 percent of the floor space, followed by fashion accessories at 25 percent, men’s apparel and shoes with 14 percent each and children’s at 9 percent.

Top misses’ labels are Pendleton, Austin Reed, Cynthia Max, Sigrid Olsen, Misook and Eileen Fisher. Best-selling juniors brands are XOXO, Roxy, DKNY Jeans and Marilee Dresses.

Contemporary and edgier designs are grouped in Von Maur’s Expressions departments and leading brands are ABS, Cyrus, From The Hip, T & Co., Diesel Jeans and Fry Jeans.

“Juniors and Expressions are on fire. They’re our best categories now,” said Von Maur. “We pay really close attention to the trends, as well as keeping in touch with what our customers are asking for. Our stores communicate with the buyers on a constant basis to fine-tune the mix because our customer demographic spans age ranges and taste levels, and they buy on average about three pieces per transaction.”

More than 60 percent of Von Maur purchases are made with its in-house charge card, which is interest-free.

“We have the interest-free card for a simple reason: it helps us to sell more merchandise. And we can afford to do it because we aren’t promotional and don’t do much advertising, which allows us to save money and invest it back in the credit card,” explained Von Maur, who began his retailing career shortly after college with stints at Nordstrom and Marshall Field’s. He joined the family business in 1992, rising through a medley of positions until reaching president in 2001.

More than 90 percent of Von Maur’s spring merchandise already is in stores, part of the chain’s strategy to track purchasing trends early and replenish while a trend is still hot.

“We don’t play games with the customers,” he said. “We take a fair and methodical approach to merchandising and markdowns. We will match a competitor’s lowest price if the customer brings it to our attention. Our top priority has always been to give our customers the best service in the industry. We work very hard at it. We instill it in our associates with intense training and we also pamper our sales associates. It creates loyalty and they in turn pass the pampering on to the customers.”

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