Joy Place is on the hunt for new products.
As the vice president of merchandising at department store chain Von Maur, she wants to know what people are buying — and what they will likely purchase in the future. That means scouring through the internet and data sets, attending vendor meetings to scope out thousands of new products and brands, talking with her team of buyers to discuss what they’ve seen and even shopping at local boutiques on weekends. The end goal is to curate the best possible assortment for her stores.
“If you’re in the retail industry, especially on the buying side, you have to be all over social media and looking at what the competition is doing, and certainly we have a lot of our own internal reporting for us to monitor things on a daily, weekly basis of what’s selling, what’s not selling, what’s up trending, what’s down trending,” Place told WWD. “[Part of the job] is just being aware of, even, the people who you’re friends with and socialize with. What are they talking about? And what are they wearing? What are they asking about? Where’s everybody’s head right now? I think it’s about being open to all of that to figure out how do those [trends] apply to what we carry in our stores.
“There are so many neat products out there,” she continued. “Maybe they started out because of social media. Everyone is on their phones and that’s how they’re shopping right now. So there are so many brands that you can find on Instagram and social media outlets that are really intact. It’s just a unique thing that we can offer to our customers to make our mix different from everyone else.
“We’ve always had a bottom-up approach,” Place added. “It’s about expanding the assortment of the brands that are doing well for us. If we’re experimenting with a brand, it’s not uncommon for us to just roll it out to every location, if we can. We have that gut instinct sometimes and we go with it. If we feel like it’s something that’s going to be good for our business, we just do it and run with it.”
Place stepped into her current role 10 years ago, but has been with the Davenport, Iowa-based department store for her entire professional life.
“I just liked it so much that my career path has led me to stay at Von Maur,” she said. “We have this little gem here in the Midwest.”
But that doesn’t mean the job comes without challenges. The retail industry has been nothing short of a nonstop roller-coaster ride over the last few years. The pandemic, subsequent store closures, rapidly changing consumer preferences, inflation and macroeconomic headwinds are just a few of the headwinds retailers have had to face. Being on the smaller size of the industry, with fewer resources to draw upon, doesn’t help.
Von Maur’s differentiated customer proposition, however, has helped it stay in business since 1872. The privately held, family-owned company doesn’t have shops-in-shop in stores; host promotional sales or offer discounting, and it does not offer its own private label.
What the stores do offer is a variety of brands across men’s, women’s, children’s and home furnishing in 37 locations throughout the Midwest, South and New York State. (The first Pennsylvania store is coming in fall 2024.) It’s what Place described as “more of a specialty store” than a typical department store.
“We’re an independently held store where we’re bringing in our own mixture of goods based on the kind of merchandise that we would like to carry,” she explained. “That’s kind of what our store is about. We do carry the mainstream brands that [you] potentially would find in a Dillard’s or Macy’s. But we also carry a lot of other brands that you would find in the boutique specialty stores. And then surrounded by other brands that are in a boutique. We have a lot of other products that the customer likes to see and they can’t necessarily find anywhere else.”
Current favorites include lots of workwear and occasionwear, such as men’s suiting and dress shirts, women’s dresses and other ready-to-wear, and what Place described as “day to dinner.”
“Something that’s a little bit more polished, we’re really seeing a big reaction from our customer,” she said. “The giant [revenue] increases that we were seeing in 2021, because of all the pent-up [consumer] demand, that has slowed down. There’s just a little bit more thinking in terms of purchasing. It’s probably just the consumer putting a little bit more thought into, do I really need this right now? Can I wait a little bit longer? Or maybe they’re waiting for a special occasion, versus picking something up [right away].
“Holiday is going to be very interesting,” Place continued. “We’re all wishing we had that crystal ball to just determine where the customers’ headspace is going to be in that time. They’re still shopping of course. But it might be purchasing a couple less things this year. It’s really hard to tell.”
Changing shopping patterns aren’t the only obstacles facing retailers this season. There are also continued supply chain bottlenecks, factory delays, fewer available workers and simply less space in some cases to store goods. One benefit of not having its own private label, Place said, is that Von Maur is able to manage inventory levels — perhaps better than much of the competition — because it’s able to buy smaller batches.
“We’re also being a lot more mindful of having seasonal cut-off dates where we know the time it takes, based on point A to point B to get here, to get out to our stores, if it’s still going to be viable to the customer at that point,” Place said. “And vendors are doing their best to try to get ahead of being able to deliver product in the right season and on time. Because everyone at the end of the day wants to have good business. But there’s just so many [unknowns]. It’s a juggling game right now. That’s where the whole ever-evolving and juggling thing comes in. Because you just have to see what’s thrown at you each day.”
Von Maur has a few other tricks up its sleeve, too, such as stores with wide-open floor plans, splashes of color, antique decor and even a live pianist in each location.
“Our store environment is super open; it’s pretty. It’s luxurious. There’s live piano music. It definitely lends itself to more of that higher-end feel,” Place said. “We have a center court area in every store with couches and chairs and things like that. So it’s a good resting point too if you’re shopping with somebody and you want a little rest. You can hang out there with your bags and listen to the live music and be on your way whenever you feel like it.
“Because it’s a specialty department store, you tend to cater to more of that family,” she added. “We’re really trying to reach all consumers so we focus on making sure we have merchandise for everyone. We’re getting kids from the very beginning. They start shopping when they’re babies with their moms. And it turns into that family experience when you go to the mall and you hang out with your friends.”
Certainly, this has helped the company not just weather the pandemic, but last 150 years in a notoriously difficult industry. Jim von Maur, president and chief executive officer of Von Maur, told WWD in 2021 that the company generates about $1 billion in annual volume.
“The biggest part about being in retail, you just have to be flexible,” Place said. “It’s being open to evolving. You never know what’s coming at you, or what’s happening in the world. And that has certainly been a huge learning curve and experience for anybody in the industry in the last few years. Our strategy has always been that we slowly and steadily adjust. We don’t do any huge, major, big swings in our business. We really listen to the customer and stay realistic to who we believe is shopping in our stores and who we know is shopping in our stores. And make the minor adjustments and tweaks that are needed to go after the businesses that a customer is responding to. It’s about adapting to what’s happening in the times and being a support system to my team to provide as clear direction as I can on what they need to do or focus on. It’s ever-evolving and ever changing. So I think it’s just being open minded to all of it.
“I’ve had so many great challenges based on the fact that retail is ever changing,” she continued. “[But] I love coming to work every day. I love what I do. Every day is a different day and no day is a dull moment. There’s always something happening and I’m learning all the time. And I think that’s what keeps me interested all the time.”