Stanley Marcus Saw the Future

Do you know the story of Neiman Marcus?

Herbert and Carrie Marcus were brother and sister, and they sold ready-to-wear and made-to-order clothes at different shops in Dallas in the early 1900s.  They were both very good at what they did (21 year-old Carrie’s commissions were $100 a week when the average professional made about $40 a week), but they grew increasingly unhappy with their respective employers, who were sacrificing quality and service to cut costs.  A few years later, after Carrie married one of Herbert’s co-workers, a man by the name of Al Neiman, Carrie, Al, and Herbert decided to open a luxury department store that catered to the nouveau riche oil boom barons in eastern Texas.  They pooled all their money, borrowed more from friends and family, and while Herbert and Al oversaw construction in Dallas, Carrie took a train to New York to buy inventory.

In September 1907, Neiman Marcus opened.

Neiman Marcus Weekly Fashion Show 1945

Neiman Marcus Weekly Fashion Show                                       1945

It was an instant success.  The initial inventory that Carrie brought back sold out in 48 hours and they had to wait nearly six weeks for more to be shipped from New York.  They started with women’s fine ready-to-wear apparel, and eventually added menswear, children’s wear, and home goods.  Their attention to details and service kept the “who’s who” of Dallas society enthralled, and as the department store became more and more famous, they started attracting people from all over, including Houston, New Orleans, Denver, Hollywood — and even New York.

Carrie Neiman held weekly fashion shows to show her customers how to wear the latest styles.  In 1938, Herbert’s marketing-savvy son, Stanley, created the Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion, which is awarded annually to fashion designers (like Coco Chanel) and women of style (like Grace Kelly), who have greatly influenced fashion.  In 1960, inspired by journalists searching for holiday feature stories, Stanley and his brother Edward created the “His and Hers” gifts that have become a staple in the legendary Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog.

But Stanley’s innovations didn’t end there.  According to a recent article in WWD.com, Stanley predicted that one day customers would use “phonovision” to see and order Neiman Marcus goods via a video-like phone — way back in 1966.  His contemporaries laughed.

But Stanley wasn’t that far off the mark:  when the Internet became a viable medium, Neiman Marcus was among the first luxury retailers to put up a website. NeimanMarcus.com went live in 1999, and today, internet and mail order sales account for nearly 20% of Neiman’s annual sales.

So do people really order $500 pairs of shoes and $7,000 worth of jewelry online?  Absolutely — every day.  The Internet has become the shopping venue of choice for busy professionals and for those who like to shop for famous brands without leaving their home.  As always, Neiman Marcus anticipated their customers’ needs.  While many luxury brands are still debating whether doing business online would “cheapen” their brand name, Neiman Marcus is doing $650 million worth of business online every year.

So what would Herbert, Al, Carrie, and Stanley think of Neiman Marcus these days?  No doubt they’d be trying to think of new and innovative ways to keep their customers coming back for more…

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