Von Maur stores rarely advertise, dont have sales and keep the aisles free of promotional clutter. On top of that, shoppers can pay for goods with an interest-free store credit card.
The small, family-owned company could be considered the anti-department store and is thriving when many peers are struggling to survive.
The Davenport, Iowa company will open its sixth Illinois store in October at the Glen Town Center in Glenview. This year it also plans to open two stores in Michigan and one in Kentucky, bringing its total to 22.
“Were very profitable,” said President Jim von Maur. “Even this year is off to a good start.”
That’s a stark contrast to the department store dynasties of Saks Inc., Federated Department Stores, Dillard’s and Sears, Roebuck and Co. where sales have dropped for two consecutive years.
These days, retail industry watchers and consumers are wondering if the once mighty department store has become a dinosaur.
The only things approaching aged status at Von Maur are the antiques that furnish the stores. At the Von Maur in Lombard’s Yorktown Center, a copper cash register is displayed on a small wooden table along with shoes, a purse and a sign that invites shoppers to “Please touch the merchandise. Youll love it.”
The fourth-generation managed Von Maur is often dubbed the Nordstrom of the Midwest for its classy approach and unfaltering customer service. Female sales associates wear skirts while male employees don coats and ties. Gift-wrapping is free, as is shipping to anywhere in the United States.
“We havent changed the old-fashioned way of running a department store,” von Maur said. “We believe in our formula, it’s been successful. As long as it continues to work, were going to grow.”
The retailer prefers a deliberate expansion rate of opening two new stores a year. After all, it took roughly 100 years for a company that started in 1872 to open its second store.
This year is an anomaly given the four store openings, von Maur said. But that is because the company is taking over store leases sold by Jacobson Stores Inc., a Michigan-based store chain that went out of business last year.
Retail consultants blame consumer disenchantment with many department stores on the inability to distinguish one from the other.
“In an effort to keep lower cost structures, department stores are keeping their inventory very lean and there is less product assortment,” said Jason Asaeda, retail analyst for Standard & Poor’s in New York. “You can find at any department store Tommy Hilfiger or Jones New York.”
What also separates Von Maur from many of its peers is its independent status and doesnt report financial data.
“If we were public today, I dont believe we would be as successful as we are,” von Maur said. “Our free delivery, free gift wrap and free interest credit card — some analyst on Wall Street would want us to get rid of that.”
Walk into a Von Maur store and the impression is neither vanilla, nor an assault of flashy lights and contemporary colors. Instead the stores are understated and classic, and accented by jewel tones and live piano music. It’s a combination that has attracted a fiercely loyal following.
“I come here at least once a week,” said Rosalie Rampelberg of Glen Ellyn, who picked up a gift at the Lombard location this week.
Shell rave about the store’s apparel selection, its free shipping, free gift-wrapping and the credit card program.
“It makes you do more impulsive purchases,” she said of the interest-free card. Von Maur cardholders are required to make a minimum monthly payment based on a percentage of their outstanding balance.
Von Maur avoids sales but discounts merchandise when it isnt selling well. The first markdown is at 33 percent, then 50 percent and finally 75 percent.
Janis Hill of Oak Park regularly stops in on Wednesday mornings to check out the latest markdowns.
She has her routine. First stop, purses; then accessories.
Next it’s off to the shoe department where shell peek in the famed back room where the marked-down pairs have been placed. Then there’s a trip to the junior department and then up to check out the candles and picture frames.
“I love it,” she said of the store where she recently bought three pairs of shoes for $80 and 10 pairs of socks for $1 each. “I always buy my shoes here.”
“We dont play games with pricing,” said von Maur. “We believe people are too busy to play games to have something marked 20 percent off then raised, then marked down again.”