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Fascinating Interview with Half of Neiman-Marcus

Digging through old files I found a magazine article my dad had buried a few decades ago. It was a gem of an interview with Stanley Marcus of Neiman-Marcus fame. I had to keep checking the date on the article because I swear it could have been written today (other than the fact Stanley Marcus died in 2002 and the age of 96). Here is just one excerpt from the interview…

INC.: Other [retailing] myths?

MARCUS: That stores “own” their customers. Nobody owns anybody anymore. This is show business, folks, and you’re only as good as your last performance. And if it was lousy, shoppers could probably find identical merchandise three doors down in the same mall.

Yeah, Marcus said that in the June 1987 issue of Inc. Magazine. Nineteen frickin’ eighty-seven, thirty years ago, long before eCommerce, back when anyone could make money in retail.

I was in a large mall last Saturday. An incredibly busy mall. The Cheesecake Factory was quoting a four-hour wait for service! There were shoppers everywhere in the hallways, but not so much inside the stores. It was easy to tell why.

I visited nine different stores and only one store greeted me. Four stores asked if they could help me and four stores ignored me completely. Yet many had the exact same merchandise, or at least close enough. The trip almost became comical when an untrained salesman in an over-staffed store with too few customers had me fighting back laughter at his expense because of his poor approach to selling me. I felt bad for him afterwards, knowing that it likely wasn’t his fault. No one had ever trained him the right way to sell his products (or, as in his case, to even know his products).

At least this mall was getting to keep its Macy’s and Nordstrom’s stores (we’ll see how long Sears holds up their anchor position) for what that may be worth.

Mr. Marcus, you see, also predicted the demise of the department store in that interview, pointing out how the discount stores were in a race to the bottom, other retailers were maximizing service and maximizing selection, but in-between were the department stores giving neither the best service nor the best price.

That was true in 1987 and is even more true today. The businesses succeeding today are either the best in service or the best in price (or in some cases, like Costco and Amazon, best at both). Even this busy mall had stores that obviously weren’t reaping the benefits of all the traffic.

Stanley Marcus was quite prescient. If I were you, I’d take his advice. Choose to be the best at service or the best at price and then go about figuring out how to do that.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Being best at price is the easier of the two, but you won’t be in business long. Being best at service is incredibly hard, and also incredibly rewarding, as long as you’re committed to staying the best. You can start by poking around the Customer Service articles on my Free Resources page for some ideas.

One comment

  1. Jennifer Eisenberg says:

    An insightful article. Very interesting to read the views from the original article written almost 30 years ago and how they remain true today. Thank you Phil!

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