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Then and Now

Von Maur’s infant buyers—one from 1917 and one from 2016—reveal the secret to the century-old company’s astounding longevity.

A postcard depicting the Von Maur department store, circa 1914.

A postcard depicting the Von Maur department store, circa 1914.

The year was 1917. President Woodrow Wilson had declared war on Germany, and the U.S. entered WWI. The first commercial jazz recording, “Livery Stable Blues” was released. For retailers, the telephone was a nifty new device for taking orders, and wool goods—needed for the troops abroad—were hard to find.

But that didn’t stop the era’s intrepid department store buyers from doing their best to boost their store’s business. One example? Ady L. Collins, the infants’ wear buyer for Harned & Von Maur in Davenport, IA. In December of that year, she published an article in Earnshaw’s (then, The Infants’ Department) on “Making the Infants’ Department Attractive to the Children,” filled with plum pieces of advice that still resonate today.

Most importantly, Collins noted that the rule for every department store should be to make shopping “as easy and pleasant as possible,” especially for mothers. “The woman who shops hurriedly buys little, but if you make her comfortable and relieve her of the care of the little one who so often accompanies her she not only appreciates the courtesy but, having purchased the two or three little articles she came for, will examine other goods you bring to her attention and will often buy several times the amount she would have purchased if she had been obliged to divide her attention between the goods and her child,” she explained. In sum? Shopping should be fun for mom, too.

It’s a philosophy that still rings true today at Von Maur. The company dates back to 1872, and though the ownership has changed throughout its century-plus history (thus the Harned in its name in 1917), one thing has remained the same: A member of the von Maur family has always been at the helm. Now in its fourth generation of family ownership, and with 31 stores scattered across 14 states, the company retains the same commitment to customer service that Collins and her colleagues exemplified at that first Davenport department store.

Don’t take our word for it. Read on to learn how Collins’ current counterpart, Amanda DeGrave, Von Maur’s divisional merchandise manager of boys’ and infants’, pays homage to the company’s pioneers by continuing the customer-focused service that made the department store chain a nationwide success.

Are there any children’s categories that Von Maur has offered since the beginning?

It’s funny because what popped into my head was clearly our dress assortment. It’s something that really sets us apart from a lot of other retailers. But Jim reminded me that back when we first opened our doors, a lot of people made their own clothing, so our early childrenswear department just sold bolts of fabric.

That’s so true! It’s been really fun researching this issue because I learned so much about the history of department stores. For example, I never knew that early department stores had a “notions” department that sold pins, cotton, ribbon and other sewing necessities.

Exactly. Of course, as the ready-to-wear industry came along, we began offering a lot of baby essentials, like blankets and bibs, which we still carry today.

What’s the most long-standing children’s brand Von Maur has carried?

Probably Carter’s. It’s a label that’s truly stood the test of time. Almost every retailer out there carries some portion of the line. But the children’s industry is very cyclical. We had a great vendor on our floor for many years, Hartstrings, and it went out of business this past year. I was sad to see that one go, because we had a lot of customers who appreciated those looks.

What are some of the bestselling brands for boys today?

Definitely Under Armour, thanks to that whole active wear craze happening out there. In dresswear, Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors.

How about for girls?

Bonnie Jean, Amy Byer and Lily Bleu.

How has children’s fashion changed in your 14 years with the company?

In the children’s world, fashion has definitely gone toward a more casual vein. Our dress assortment has really been tweaked in recent years. We still carry little suits and bow ties and dress shirts for boys, but each year that gets scaled back a little more because it’s just more acceptable now to wear casual looks. Kids used to wear dress-up clothes to go to a wedding, but now they may just wear a polo shirt with a khaki pant. What’s considered dressy has definitely changed over the years.

Historically, what have been Von Maur’s bestselling styles for kids?

For many years it was our dress assortment because there was really no other place to go and get looks for first communions and bar mitzvahs. But in recent decades, we’ve seen a ton of business generated around a trend in television or pop culture. We’ve seen the height of selling when properties like Hannah Montana or High School Musical were a craze. We’ve really tried to capitalize over the years on the things that kids are really into.

Collins recommended providing a playroom for the little ones, filled with “wooden or rubber animals, building blocks and paper dolls.” Do you still provide a playroom?

Oh yeah. We still have a children’s activity area in every store. It’s usually located really close to the children’s department or next to children’s shoes. There’s always a table with Thomas the Tank Engine toys. There’s usually a TV playing a current movie that’s really big or new episodes of TV shows. Kids can stay active and playing while mom is nearby shopping for clothing and checking back in. We’ve recently started adding  large, interactive items in our stores. We have these large trees, where kids can go up and press buttons and they make different sounds. The eyes open up on the tree and it comes to life. At our Alpharetta, GA, location, we have a custom floor-to-ceiling peach tree that plays music. Kids feed coins into the machine, and a peach starts at the very top, is dropped off a limb, travels all the way down this tree and gets dropped into baskets. They go crazy watching it.

Another thing we offer is a family room in the restroom, so it makes it easy for mom to take all the kids in at once without having to shuffle them in and out of each stall. And we have a mother’s room for diaper changing, feeding and quiet time for the baby.

That’s rare to find in department stores today.

The last thing you want to do is take your brand new baby into a dirty restroom. Our mother’s room is very spacious. You’ll see couches and chairs and usually a lot of other moms in there.

Has that mindset always been part of the company culture?

Yes, I think it’s just about making it easier for your customer to come and enjoy the experience of shopping. When people come into our stores, it’s not a quick trip. They’re coming for the experience of shopping multiple departments. We provide a full family offering in our stores. We cover infants all the way up to every size you can think of for adults, from petite to plus-size. We have extended sizes in the men’s department, too. We really try to make it easy for people to come in and shop for whoever or whatever they’re looking for. And if you’re going to be there for a long time, you’re more than likely going to need to use the restroom, so we really take pride in keeping our restrooms clean. I have friends who tell me they won’t use the restroom anywhere but Von Maur [laughs].

She also suggests hosting events, like a “Jack Horner Pie Party” at Thanksgiving or Christmas time. Does Von Maur still offer events for kids?

We do! We always do large grand opening events whenever we are opening a location. And we really try and go all out when it comes to the kids department. We always bring in a balloon artist, a magician and a face painter. Recently we started incorporating more characters. We hire people who come in dressed up like superheroes or princesses. For our last couple of grand openings, we had the entire cast of Frozen. They sing the songs from the movie, and the kids can get their picture taken. They love it. It’s almost like a whole Disney experience at out grand openings [laughs]. It brings mom in and lets her know who we are and what we can offer her, and keeps her coming back.

Collins notes that the parties can be used to gather information on attendees and “mail announcements of special sales to the mothers, or, in some instances, to notify them by telephone of the receipt of new goods suitable for children.” What’s the modern equivalent?

We actually still have a customer program in our store. Every associate that works for us after a certain period of time is expected to keep up a customer book, and keep in touch with specific customers. They keep track of their sizes, the particular things that they like and the brands they buy. They keep in touch with those customers, whether it’s following up about items they recently purchased, inviting them back to the store if a holiday is coming up or simply wishing them a happy birthday.

Our founder George F. Earnshaw always said the infants’ department was so important because moms who come into shop for baby will also shop for the entire family.

And you gain a lifelong customer. We hear so many people say, “My mom use to take me shopping at Von Maur, and now I take my kids shopping there.” They remember coming shopping for their first communion dress or getting fitted for their first communion suit or getting their prom dress. For all those milestones throughout a child’s life, we’re there. And grandma knows she can get a special and unique take-me-home outfit for a new baby. We want to help create those special memories for our customers, and allow them to be passed along to the next generation and their families.

It seems like Von Maur, despite its size, still operates like a small, local retailer.

That’s one of our founding philosophies: Great customer service on merchandise at fair prices. We make sure we’re getting the customer what they want when they want it. Everyone here in merchandising has a plaque on their desk that says: “There are two rules in our company: No. 1: The customer is always right. No. 2: If you think the customer is wrong, refer back to Rule No. 1.”

What were some of the most challenging times for the company?

I think some of the toughest decades were the years in which there were wars and recessions. As for some of the biggest challenges today, as everything keeps changing, we want to make sure we’re offering products to all different types of customers. We don’t ever want to appear that we only offer certain types of looks or appeal to one type of customer base. We’re trying to appeal to traditional grandmothers, brand-driven shoppers, gift-givers on a budget, conservative moms and the new Millennial moms. And kids today are just bigger than they used to be, so we want to make sure that we offer appropriate looks for every child, including the ones who are younger but big for their age. We try to spread the budget as wisely as we can to make we’re covering everything, so people keep shopping with us.

Conversely, what were some of the times of greatest growth?

I would definitely say within the last decade. With activewear really ramping up, it has brought such huge growth within the boys’ area. Moms don’t have to fight their son to put on a pair of jeans in the morning; he’ll put on a pair of Under Armour pants or an Under Armour T-shirt. It’s easy for mom. She doesn’t care about the price point so long as he gets dressed in the morning without any protests. We really pride ourselves on our boys’ selection.

How do you plan to grow the children’s department going forward?

We continually want to keep looking for the next big thing and special products that set our assortment apart from everyone else. Even though we have brands like Under Armour and Nike that you can find other places, we have the assortment that looks the best. When the customer comes in, she feels like we look new and fresh. And we make sure we stay on top of the trends, like the move towards casual. Everything is cyclical. We continually shop the marketplace for new, exciting casual vendors. We might not be ready to purchase and bring them into the store now, but we want to know our options when that time comes.

What are some of those exciting brands?

Some of the brands we’ve had in the store for a while, like Pumpkin Patch, have started to look really new and fresh these days. All of the casual vendors are really stepping it up in their designs.

So, what’s the secret to Von Maur’s longevity?

Hands down it’s our customer service. We offer an experience that makes our customers want to come back and shop again with us. We do a lot of things to make that happen. We treat our customers fairly by offering great products at fair prices. We take pride in the fact that we’re putting out quality merchandise. We talk to our vendors all the time. If we get  something in and the quality just isn’t up to our standards, we send it back. We’re pretty particular on our end because we want to make sure again we’re offering the customer the best of the best. We offer an interest-free charge card. We offer free gift wrap. We offer free shipping. I know a lot of people offer free shipping when you shop online, but we were offering free shipping before online was even popular. If you pick out a baby shower gift at Von Maur for your niece who lives across the country, we will ship it for you, wrapped and everything, for free.

That personal touch is so rare to find in today’s era of mega-chain retailers.

We believe in slow and steady growth. That’s one reason we’ve remained a privately held company. Our company leaders only believe in opening one to two stores a year. The reason for that is because, in the end, the merchandising team can’t really focus on putting the best assortment in every store if we’re trying to buy assortments for 12 new stores a year. We also can’t find the best of the best associates if we’re trying to find enough people to work in 12 different stores a year. We don’t want to take on more than we can handle because we want to be held to the standards we’ve always been held to, and we don’t want to fall below those standards. ·

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