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Minding the Store
By Stanley Marcus
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 1997 Facsimile Edition
All rights reserved.
THERE IS NEVER a good sale for Neiman-Marcus unless it's a good buy for the customer."
That was one of the first declarations of business philosophy I heard my father, Herbert Marcus, make soon after I came to work at Neiman-Marcus in 1926. It was reiterated so many times that it became established as an article of faith in my mind, and on numerous occasions he demonstrated his enforcement of this principle even when it meant lost sales and profits. He explained that there was a right customer for every piece of merchandise, and that part of a merchant's job was not only to bring the two together, but also to prevent the customer from making the wrong choice.
Some may regard this as sheer idealism, but having worked with my father for twenty-four years, I consider it a doctrine of idealistic pragmatism. First of all, he enjoyed doing business that way, and second, he recognized that there was no advertisement as potent as a satisfied customer. This was his way of practicing the Golden Rule, and now, almost seventy years since the founding of Neiman-Marcus, the same policy prevails.
Although every new employee goes through an orientation class, I have made it a custom, now carried on by my son, to meet with groups of them at a morning coffee to explain some of the background and ideals of the founders. I start by telling them that Neiman-Marcus was established as a result of the bad judgment of its founders, my father, Herbert Marcus, his younger sister, Carrie Marcus Neiman, and her husband, Al Neiman. This statement usually distracts my listeners from their coffee cups. I go on to explain that my father, who at twenty-five was a buyer of boys' clothing at Sanger Brothers, the leading store of the Southwest, and his sister Carrie, who at the tender age of twenty-one was the blouse buyer and top saleswoman at A. Harris & Company, another local store, were persuaded by her husband Al to leave their jobs and go with him to Atlanta, Georgia, to establish a sales promotion business. I was then six months old and, since my recall doesn't extend back that far, I am forced to rely on hearsay for what happened during the first half-dozen years of my life, and some of that may be apocryphal.
The partnership they set up was directed towards helping country merchants in Georgia raise cash by staging special sales, with flamboyant signs, banners strung up across the streets, and band music to lure the crowds. They were so successful that at the end of two years they had had two offers to sell out, and here is where the bad judgment came in. One offer was for $25,000 in cash, and the other was the franchise for the state of Missouri or Kansas for a relatively new product called "Coca-Cola." They apparently were too smart to be taken in by this unknown soft drink, so they took the $25,000 in cash instead, returning to Dallas to start a business of their own, to be run in a manner they had dreamed about when they were employees of Sanger Brothers and A. Harris & Company. In retrospect, if their judgment had been better, they would have taken the Coca-Cola franchise and Neiman-Marcus would have become a famous name in Missouri or Kansas as bottlers of Coca-Cola, with a fraction of the effort required to build a fashion institution of world renown.
They came back to Dallas with their $25,000, which, combined with their savings and with funds from the sale of some minority shares to other members of their family, provided them with barely sufficient capital to pay for the fixtures, carpets and merchandise for their new fifty-foot storefront in a building in the heart of the retail district. At that time, Sanger Brothers dominated Texas retail distribution, much as Marshall Field & Company did in the Midwest. Alex Sanger, the president of the Sanger business, had offered my father a raise of $1.87-1/2 a month to keep him from going to Atlanta, and when he heard of the proposed new venture, he urged my father to give up his foolish dream and return to the Sanger fold, where a bright and secure future could be assured.
Nonetheless, the three young hopefuls were determined to go into business for themselves and to run it in the way they felt a fashion store should be operated. It was not unusual for three young people to leave secure positions to go into business for themselves. Young people have been, and still are, venturesome enough to want to try it on their own. Of course, it took courage to come into the same town dominated by Sanger Brothers. But courage they didn't lack, nor were they bashful or overly modest in their evaluation of their own standards of good taste and fashion. On Sunday, September 8, 1907, a full-page advertisement appeared in the Dallas Morning News announcing "the opening of the New and Exclusive Shopping Place for Fashionable Women, devoted to the selling of Ready-to-Wear Apparel" and labeling Neiman-Marcus as "The Outer-Garment Shop." It went on to state that "Tuesday, September tenth, marks the advent of a new shopping place in Dallas—a store of Quality, a Specialty store—the only store in the City whose stocks are strictly confined to Ladies' Outer-Garments and Millinery, and presenting wider varieties and more exclusive lines than any other store in the South." It editorialized,
Our decision to conduct a store in Dallas was not reached on impulse. We studied the field thoroughly and saw there was a real necessity for such a shopping place as ours. Our preparations have not been hasty. We have spent months in planning the interior, which is without equal in the South.
We Will Improve Ready-to-Wear Merchandising. A store can be bettered by specialized attention. Knowledge applied to one thing insures best results. We began our intended innovation at the very foundation; that is to say, with the builders of Women's Garments. We have secured exclusive lines which have never been shown in Texas before, garments that stand in a class alone as to character and fit.
Our Styles. All the pages of all the fashion journals, American and Foreign, can suggest no more than the open book of realism now here, composed of Suits, Dresses and Wraps of every favored style. The selection will meet every taste, every occasion and every price.
Our Qualities and Values. As well as the Store of Fashions we will be known as the Store of Quality and Superior Values. We shall be hypercritical in our selections. Only the finest productions of the best garment makers are good enough for us. Every article of apparel shown will bear evidence, in its touches of exclusiveness, in its chic and grace and splendid finish, to the most skillful and thorough workmanship.
The advertisement concluded with the offer of a gift: "As a memento of the occasion we will present a handsome Souvenir to visitors on opening day. These Souvenirs will be worthy of the offerings of the new store." The gift was a chromo-lithographed tin plate decorated with a classical figure in a style which, in subsequent years, they recognized as pure kitsch, causing them no end of embarrassment.
The customers attending the opening were greeted by Mr. Neiman alone, for Carrie had undergone surgery several weeks prior to the opening, and my father was seriously ill with typhoid fever. As an economic sidelight, within a month of the opening the economy of the country was jarred by the money panic of 1907, which created a cyclical dip in the business of the nation and the region. Nevertheless, the new store met with instantaneous acceptance, and Mr. Neiman and the buyer, a bright-eyed Irish girl in her early twenties, Moira Cullen from Worcester, Massachusetts, were forced to return to New York to replenish the stock. The gentlewomen of Dallas and its environs were impressed indeed by the taste displayed in the selection of gowns and suits offered them, and they were charmed by the quality of the service rendered by the sales staff.
It might be well at this point to take a glimpse into the background and qualifications of these three partners who proclaimed the virtues of their new enterprise with such self-assurance. None of them had gone through high school. Abraham Lincoln Neiman, always known as Al, was born in Chicago in 1880 and brought up in a Cleveland orphanage. He had been in the merchandise brokerage and sales promotion businesses. He was an aggressive business-getter, but at the beginning he relied on his wife's and brother-in-law's taste in merchandise selection, the fitting qualities of garments, and in all matters of an aesthetic nature. His wife, Carrie, a tall, slim brunette with a somewhat mystical look in her eyes, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1883, and was twenty-four years of age on the opening day. She was the essence of kindness and gentleness, with a reserved manner which caused many of her friends to wonder how she could have been attracted to the flamboyant and egotistical Al Neiman. She and my father and their brother, Theo, and their sisters, Minnie and Celia, were born of immigrant parents, who had come from Europe and had met in Louisville, where they were married. My grandmother Marcus was born in Hanau, Germany, and my grandfather, Jacob Marcus, in Wronke, a town on the shifting German-Polish border.
My father, Herbert Marcus, born in Louisville in 1878, was twenty-nine years old when the store that he had planned and envisioned was opened on September the tenth. It was three months before he was well enough to make his first inspection tour. He hadn't finished high school, for financial reasons, so he proceeded to educate himself by exposure to those who did have learning and by voracious reading. Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Plutarch's Lives were two of his favorite works which he reread constantly, finding parallels and solutions to contemporary problems. He had come to Hillsboro, Texas, to join his older brother, Theo, who had preceded him there. My father, who was then fifteen, found a job in a country store where he swept the floors, wrapped packages, and sold when everyone else was busy. I suspect he proved to be a better seller than a sweeper, for physical exertion was never his predilection.
Hillsboro was just sixty-three miles from Dallas, and it didn't take long for my father to decide that city life had more to offer than a country town, even though Dallas was hardly a cosmopolitan center. He started to work there by selling life insurance, and it is fairly easy to understand why a nineteen-year-old newcomer would find the going pretty rough. He switched from insurance to the wholesale selling of men's pants without achieving the financial rewards he had anticipated. While he was on the road, he met a kindly older man, I. C. Biesenthal, who was so impressed with his ability that he offered him a job selling "Buster Brown" boys' clothes, named after a then-popular comic strip character. One of his accounts was Sanger Brothers, to whom he made such a good sales presentation that he was offered a position as a women's shoe salesman. He accepted the job with alacrity, for by this time he had met Minnie Lichtenstein, a native of Dallas, and one of the most popular young Jewish girls in town. He felt he could protect and promote his interests better by being on the scene rather than on the road.
For a young man from a poor family, with limited formal education and a restricted exposure to the way wealthy people lived, he had nonetheless developed very expensive tastes, investing almost all his earnings in his personal wardrobe. He was tall, handsome, and clean-cut, a good dancer, an interesting conversationalist, and even though he hadn't held on to any money, he was welcomed into Jewish society by the mothers of all of the unmarried daughters. True, some regarded him as a big talker who was always telling about what he was going to do; others perhaps regarded him as too much of a dreamer to ever accomplish much. Parties were fun and fine, but he wanted to get married and the one he wanted to marry was Minnie Lichtenstein, whose family, while by no means affluent, was well established in the community and had more material assets than the newly arrived Marcuses.
My maternal grandmother, Hattie Mittenthal, born in Russia, came to Peoria, Illinois, when she was four years old. In 1878, the Mittenthal clan, a large one, moved to Dallas. It was in Dallas she met and married Meyer Lichtenstein, an immigrant from the Russian-German border town of Koenigsberg. The Lichtensteins weren't too excited by the prospect of this "dreamer" as a husband for their younger daughter. Besides, Minnie was having much too good a time in the social whirl to want to get married and settle down at the age of nineteen.
On the other side, the Marcus family did not take too warmly to the idea of their young son and brother marrying a girl, nice enough as she was, but from a family of Russian origin. But determination was one of Herbert Marcus's strongest characteristics, and since he had made up his mind to marry Minnie Lichtenstein, he wouldn't permit his family's reservations, her family's misgivings, my mother's reluctance, or the fact that he had to borrow money to go on their honeymoon deter him from insisting on marriage. That was in 1902.
Herbert Marcus fortunately caught the eye of Philip Sanger, one of the Sanger brothers, who was impressed by his selling ability, ambitions, and appearance, and promoted him to the post of buyer for the boys' department. Mr. Sanger, a keen judge of talent, believed he had discovered a "comer." One observer commented that if Philip Sanger had only lived longer, there never would have been a Neiman-Marcus. He wouldn't have let Herbert Marcus get away.
Armed with a new job and an increased income, he pressed his courtship and overwhelmed Minnie with his self-confidence. She consented to marry him on the condition that he promise to save $500 the first year they were married. He did, and that was the first money he ever saved, but only after borrowing $200 to go on their honeymoon. When mother was pregnant with me, he applied for an increase in salary. He was dissatisfied with the $1.87-1/2 per month offered him and it was then that he yielded to the persuasions of his brother-in-law to join him in the sales-promotion effort in Atlanta. It was APs idea that he and Aunt Carrie would set up a branch office in New York, while my father would manage the head office in Atlanta. Dad did extremely well in his operation, but apparently New York wasn't ready for Al Neiman at that point, so he closed the New York office and moved to Atlanta and joined forces. The Neimans had no children, and they lavished love and affection on me as virtually their own son.
Aunt Carrie was an extraordinary woman. She was not only kind and gracious, as I have described her, but she possessed a queenly quality which she carried as if to the manner born. She was devoted to her family, each and every member. She had elegance, but she never asked a maid to do something she wouldn't do herself. She was modest, but not self-deprecating. She and my father were born with an appreciation for beauty and fine quality that their home environment and education didn't provide. They were both perfectionists early in their lives, and concurred with Oscar Wilde's declaration, "I have the simplest tastes. I am easily satisfied with the best."
So this is a capsuled background of the trio, whose ages averaged twenty-six and a half years, whose credo was described so well in the opening newspaper announcement, whose self-assurance encouraged them to use advertising hyperbole to proclaim the virtues of their wares and buying skills. No one ever reported the Sanger reaction to that opening ad, but I suspect that one of the Sangers must have fallen back on that most expressive Yiddish word and commented, "Some chutzpah!"
That opening advertisement has always intrigued me, and I've read and quoted from it innumerable times. It was a declaration of principles in which they believed, and to the enactment of which they were willing to dedicate their careers. Actually, in their youthful unsophistication they did what every business school preaches today as the predicate for starting a new business: they set forth their ideals and objectives clearly on paper, they predetermined the market to which they would appeal, they proceeded to follow their principles through good times and bad. They succeeded. And what's more, they left an invaluable blueprint for those of us who followed them.
To fully understand the significance of their concepts, I should like to analyze a few of them. First and probably most important of all, they recognized the significance of "ready-to-wear," which in 1907 was an idea as new as the horseless buggy operated by a storage battery. Prior to the turn of the century, fine clothes for women were all made to order. If a woman had enough money, she went to Europe to have her clothes made; if she didn't have that much, she had them made in New York; if she didn't have that much, she went to the local dressmaker. They foresaw that fine ready-to-wear was here to stay and that it would eventually replace custom-made apparel. There was no fine-quality garment industry; there were a handful of custom apparel makers who had risen from the ranks of tailors and dressmakers who wanted to make good clothes, but they had not mastered the techniques of accurate size gradations, which would make possible the production of garments that would fit properly without extensive alterations. They lacked an understanding of what the American woman wanted, and there were few store buyers who knew enough to give them guidance. Aunt Carrie and Moira Cullen thought they knew, and had the courage to express their opinions and help the manufacturers to become more proficient producers. The customers liked the results, for they bought the clothes, expressing their appreciation for "the best ready-made clothes we've ever found in any store."
Excerpted from Minding the Store by Stanley Marcus. Copyright © 1997 Facsimile Edition. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents
4. Weathering the Depression,
5. Over the Hump,
6. The War Years,
7. Waiting for the War to End,
8. Taking Over the Reins,
9. Running a Store with a Split Personality,
10. Europe and the Fortnights,
11. The Christmas Catalogue,
12. Texas under Three Economies,
13. The Growing of a Family,
15. Deep in the Heart of Fashion,
16. Strictly Personal,
17. Critical Decisions,
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