Business

Von Maur thriving as some other retailers falter

Iowa chain adds stores, grows boutique unit

Von Maur at Iowa River Landing in Coralville on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Von Maur at Iowa River Landing in Coralville on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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As other department store chains shutter stores or go out of the business, or both, an Iowa-based 146-year-old, family-owned department store chain continues to add stores and expand an eight-year-old subsidiary.

Von Maur, founded in 1872 in Davenport, is owned and operated by the von Maur family, with 32 stores in 15 states.

The company opened its first Dry Goods USA in 2010 in Aurora, Ill. The stores focus on junior contemporary women’s fashion at more than 30 stores in 10 states, with additional locations set to open later this year.

“While we have markdowns, we are not all about pumping up the volume and having big sales. We want to have what we call ‘wanted merchandise,’” Jim von Maur, president and CEO of Von Maur and the fourth generation of family management, said during a phone interview.

He said the company has succeeded in a challenging retail environment in part due to a “long and rich heritage.”

“A big part of that is making sure that when a customer comes into our store, she has a pleasant experience,” von Maur said. “The minute she walks in, she is greeted in a relaxing environment.

“I think a lot of retailers focus on price and try to get the customer to believe they are getting ‘a good deal.’ We focus on goods that are exciting and the latest fashions.”

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As a privately owned company, Von Maur does not report its financial data. That has been an advantage, according to von Maur.

“It allows us to think long term, rather than quarter by quarter,” he said. “There’s also a huge advantage in not having constant management turnover.

“Our leadership goes by generations, rather than having a new CEO every couple of years. You lose the continuity that’s very important for a retail business.”

Please touch the merchandise

Von Maur, with about 4,500 employees, is often dubbed the Nordstrom of the Midwest for its classy approach and customer service. Female sales associates wear skirts while male employees are attired in coats and ties.

“We believe retail is a people business, and we excel at hiring great people. That’s been a strength of our company,” von Maur said. “We can pay them a little more above market wages and get the better people.

“A lot of that is because we are a family business. We take maybe a little more pride in who is working with us.”

Unlike some retailers that prefer a hands-off approach to merchandise, small signs at Von Maur invite shoppers to “Please touch the merchandise. You’ll love it.”

“We have not changed the old-fashioned way of running a department store,” von Maur said.

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“Concepts come and go. First, we had catalog sales and then along came the internet and online shopping.

“Now the internet companies are building stores. We think people generally want to get out and see the merchandise, touch it, feel it and get professional advice on what to buy and how to wear it.

“We are going to continue to do what we do well, which is take care of the customer.”

Von Maur offers an interest-free credit card, gift-wrapping is free year-round, and shipping also is free to anywhere in the United States.

“I can shop for my daughter, who lives in St. Louis, and they will send it to her. That’s a feature I really like,” said Sharon Peters of Cedar Rapids, who has shopped at Von Maur for many years.

“The quality of what you buy there is the No. 1 reason I have shopped at Von Maur ... I’ve shopped for my husband, my parents, my children and my grandchildren.”

Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group in Summerville, S.C., said Von Maur has fiercely loyal shoppers with a higher degree of wealth.

“Their customers look at Von Maur like they did other retailers 30 years ago,” Beemer said. “It really is remarkable.”

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While Von Maur has three stores in the Atlanta metropolitan area, Beemer said the company has avoided oversaturation of a market.

It closed a store in Cedar Rapids’ Westdale Mall in January 2007.

“In retail, I think you want to avoid the mathematical formula of one plus one equals 1.4 or 1.6,” Beemer said. “When you open a second store in a market and that location only does 40 percent to 60 percent of the sales volume of the first store, you still have doubled your overhead.”

Other markets

Von Maur has come a long way from its roots with a single 20-by-50-foot store in downtown Davenport. In the company’s centennial year of 1972, Petersen Harned Von Maur (as it was known at that time) opened its first branch store at Duck Creek Mall in Bettendorf.

The retailer entered the Cedar Rapids market in 1981 when it acquired the former Killian’s department stores in Lindale and Westdale.

Petersen Harned Von Maur shortened its name to Von Maur in 1989 to reflect the von Maur family’s management of the company. A year later, the company moved its corporate headquarters and executive offices from the historic Redstone Building in downtown Davenport to a 200,000-square-foot former outlet mall building on Brady Street near the interchange with Interstate 80.

While the opening of its first branch store was a milestone, von Maur said a seminal moment in the company’s history was the decision to enter the Chicago market in 1994 with a 207,000-square-foot flagship store at Yorktown Center in Lombard, Ill.

“The question was whether a classic store would work in a much larger market,” he said. “Everybody told us, ‘No, because you guys don’t advertise and no one is going to understand an interest-free charge card. The costs are going to be higher for free delivery and you’re not going to be able to pay your associates as well because the wages will be higher.’

“It turned out that Chicago did respond well to our formula and we realized that we could take this concept anywhere.”

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Over the past five years, the chain has expanded out of its Midwestern home territory to open stores in Alabama, Georgia, New York and Oklahoma.

In March 2016, Von Maur announced that it would open a second store in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The two-story, 140,000-square foot store at Rosedale Center will open in the fall of this year.

In February 2017, the company announced that the long-standing Sears store at upscale Woodland Mall in the Grand Rapids, Mich., suburb of Kentwood would close and will reopen as Von Maur in 2019.

In February of this year, Von Maur said it would debut a store at the Jordan Creek Town Center in West Des Moines in 2022. The Valley West Mall store will close once the Jordan Creek store opens.

While von Maur expects to continue looking at additional retail opportunities, he said the company has avoided the pitfalls that have beset the industry in recent years.

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“We have been a tortoise,” von Maur said. “While a lot of companies have tried to merge and grow quickly by piling on the debt, we have been very steady Eddie.

“We typically open one or two stores a year. Some years, we don’t open any new stores, and that’s fine with us.”

The Dry Goods USA subsidiary offers the same free interest credit card, gift wrapping and shipping service as the Von Maur stores.

“Our merchandise assortment is perfect for young customers wanting to create a look inspired by the latest fashion trends,” von Maur said.

“We are going to keep growing. We’re just getting started.”

Von Maur by the numbers

  • Founded — 1872 by J.H.C. Petersen and his three sons. In 1916, J.H.C. Petersen’s son, William D. Petersen, sold the family store to a partnership of R.H. Harned, C.J. von Maur and Cable von Maur. The von Maur family assumed complete ownership of the store after R.H. Harned died in 1937.
  • Headquarters — Davenport
  • Ownership — Private
  • Locations — 32 stores in 15 states
  • Employment — 4,500
  • Management — Charles R. von Maur and Richard B. von Maur, co-chairmen; James D. von Maur, president
  • Merchandise: Clothing, footwear, jewelry, handbags, beauty products
  • Website: www.vonmaur.com

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