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What’s Haute In Beverly Hills

When you work in the glove department at Neiman’s you are selling things that nobody buys anymore."<br><br>So begins Steve Martin’s "Shop Girl," a novella about a Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills sales associate who’s tucked away in an...

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Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills is one of the jewels in the crown, notching some $150 million in sales per year.

DONATO SARDELLA

When you work in the glove department at Neiman’s you are selling things that nobody buys anymore.”

So begins Steve Martin’s “Shop Girl,” a novella about a Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills sales associate who’s tucked away in an irrelevant department.

“Everyone is silent at Neiman’s,” the book continues, “as though it were a religious site….”

But that’s not really how it goes there at all.

Inspired by the book, author Judith Krantz, a longtime patron of the store, checked out the glove department just for fun one day.

“The glove department was thriving,” she said. “There were three sales people who couldn’t have been busier. Obviously, [Martin] didn’t do his research,” she quipped.

Boasting three restaurants, crisscrossing escalators that climb alongside a large movable sculpture, expansive glass facades and skylights, Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills is among the jewels in the corporate crown, though a relative 23-year-old youngster in the 95-year-old retail empire.

To Fred Hayman, founder of Giorgio Beverly Hills and Fred Hayman Beverly Hills, the store “should be a prototype. It’s a highly personalized operation,” he said. “It’s the best of Beverly Hills.”

Financial sources estimate the store does roughly $150 million in sales per year, or, at 180,000 square feet, about $800 to $900 per foot. If the experts are correct, those revenues are among the highest in Neiman Marcus Group’s fleet of 34 stores, and beat out the Beverly Hills units of Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys New York by a fair margin. Officials at the retailer’s Dallas corporate office declined to confirm sales figures.

No small measure of the store’s success is due to the city’s “carriage trade” clients, as Krantz would have it. Whether they are Hollywood stars, Ladies Who Lunch or wives of studio heads, well-heeled clients have parked their luxury cars at the four-level monolith steadily since 1979, when the unit first bowed.

It’s got a great reputation among the typical customer — a Jet-Set crowd, mostly women in their mid-to-late 40s who prefer to dress casually by day and just a hair spiffier by night. The shoe department is one of the best in town. The fashion mix has the right offering of more conservative labels sprinkled with the avant-garde. It strikes a sort of middle ground between the more conservative Saks and edgier Barneys.

John Martens, the meticulously well-groomed vice president and general manager who’s presided over the store for two decades, has no bit part in the allure.

The soft-spoken South African native runs Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills — as he has since 1980 — like a hotelier. The silver-tressed gentleman, in a uniform of dark suits with crisp white shirts, spends most of his time on the selling floor, interacting with customers and keeping a watchful eye on every conceivable detail of the store. It’s no surprise Martens started his career in the hotel business in London, later turning to retail at the posh Stuttaford Co. & Ltd. store in Johannesburg before moving to the U.S.

“I’m a busybody,” he said. “I’m very critical of visuals. I’m very critical of the way we treat our stock. I think I’m pretty astute in keeping the store clean and tidy. Maybe I neglect my office work at the expense of being on the floor.”

Walk into the store and the first floor gleams with shiny white marble floors interspersed with taupe and light green carpeting. Most of the foot traffic is here. There’s a year-old Chanel accessories in-store shop, a Gucci shop that opened this July, and accessories boutiques from Prada and Tod’s scheduled to bow this month. Jewelry, cosmetics and yes, the glove departments are here as well. And shoes….

The ladies shoe department is so hot at times, efficient sales associates achieve not only prominent placement in Palm organizers but celebrity status among clients. Here, “totally impractical but totally gorgeous” Manolo Blahniks festooned with feathers routinely sell, while crocodile pumps, at $2,400 a pair, are considered basics, Martens said.

As departments go, most of the big sales are on the second floor, the designer sportswear department. Here, Giorgio Armani and Gucci have collection in-store shops, Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche has a smaller boutique while Loro Piana, Dolce & Gabbana, Eskandar and Ralph Lauren Purple Label are popular choices. The Couture Salon keeps pace. “A $65,000 jeweled coat from Dolce & Gabbana has sold here,” Martens said, “although I don’t know to whom or why.”

The third floor, the darkest and most merchandise-packed one, is less of a big deal but still a must-stop. A comprehensive assortment of Theory is a big customer draw. A strong selection of Catherine Malandrino, Anna Sui, Marc by Marc Jacobs and 7 for All Mankind jeans are also magnets.

The fourth floor is devoted to men’s wear and has a circular bar boasting small televisions, a draw for both sexes. A Gucci men’s store opened Sept. 18.

The buying is done almost completely from the Dallas corporate office, but Beverly Hills plays an invaluable role in the process. Some senior Beverly Hills staffers travel to New York and European markets on a regular basis to buy directly from designer collections for their customers. Other Neiman’s buyers take the cue. The ratio of local buying to corporate buying varies each season, based solely on the needs and wants of the store’s clients. Local buyers can pick up anything from makeup to European couture for their customers.

“Buyers look to us to see what the trends are going to be for some of the other stores,” Martens said. “I think we’re a pleasure to buy for in terms of fashion because we like the special pieces. It differentiates us from some of the big department stores.”

Part of the game is keeping a close watch on what the competition is up to. Representatives frequent Saks and Barneys as well as boutiques in the greater Los Angeles area, including those situated along Robertson Boulevard in West Hollywood and Montana Avenue in Santa Monica.

Aside from a tidy appearance and merchandise that pushes the envelope, a major focus for Martens is customer service, a subject that takes precedence at staff meetings held every 10 days. He counsels the store’s more-than-450 employees on how to first engage customers in conversation, then gently nudge them toward a sale.

“Stanley Marcus once said, ‘There’s no good sale for Neiman’s unless it’s a good buy for the customer,’” Martens said. “And we try and practice that. It’s very difficult always to give good service.”

“Some really don’t know they’re giving inadequate service,” he continued. “Their body language is bad, they don’t make eye contact, they’re not enthusiastic or they don’t know enough about the merchandise.”

One thing in particular rankles the veteran manager: “I have a problem with employees asking, ‘Can I help you?’ [Customers] may be put-off and veer off somewhere else. Greet the customer. Make the customer feel warm and welcome. We’ve invited them in. Don’t say, ‘Can I help you?’ That’s not what you’d say to someone in your home.”

There is a service story here that rivals the Nordstrom tire tale, when the retailer reportedly accepted a return for the rubber item even though it doesn’t carry tires. Some years back, a teddy bear was bought to be delivered to a mother’s house at a certain time for her son’s birthday. “It rained as we delivered it from the car to the house,” Martens recalled. “We had a hair salon at the time and we sent out a stylist with a huge hair dryer to re-comb this huge teddy bear.” By the time the boy saw it, the bear was perfect.

Martens deftly handles the most spoiled Beverly Hills types, recalling some who’ve tried returning items they’ve mangled in car doors or worn for more than five years. Sometimes customers get haughty. “I’m here to listen to the customer and I’ll do my utmost to help them — they pay my salary — but I will not be abused,” Martens said. “I’m dead firm on

that one.”

In 2004, the store, which from Wilshire Boulevard looks like a giant marble jewel box, is slated to undergo another remodel. Plans are in the works to update the dark and cramped third floor, which houses the contemporary department. The structure, originally built on rollers (as is customary in earthquake-prone areas) and over a running stream has undergone two “multimillion dollar” renovations to date, mostly interior changes inside, floor by floor. The structure and facade have never been altered.

Martens conceded the store’s performance was “flat” in August — Kuwaitis and Saudis who usually come during the month opted out this year. As of press time, September sales had improved. “We’ve got a good name overall in this town,” Martens said. “And I’m very proud of that.”

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