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A piano player, free gift wrap and coat check. In Chicago's suburbs, Von Maur is out to prove traditional department stores aren't dead.

Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

ORLAND PARK, Ill. -- The first thing Griselda Mata noticed about Orland Square Mall's newest store was that it felt like a bit of a throwback.

"It's like Nordstrom or Marshall Field's, or Carson's back in the day," said Mata, 49, of Burbank, Ill., strolling through the shoe department to the sound of live music from a pianist near the escalator.

It was Mata's first visit to the new Von Maur store in Orland Park, the Davenport, Iowa-based retailers' fifth location in the Chicago area. She'd come to the mall to make a return at another retailer before deciding to check out the store, which replaced a shuttered Carson's.

"I'm going to have to come back and shop," she said.

A new department store is an unusual find at today's malls. Times have been trying even for storied brands like Barneys New York, Sears and Carson's parent Bon-Ton Stores, which all sought bankruptcy protection within the past two years. Sears is a fraction of its former size, with just six remaining department stores in Illinois, one of which the company plans to close. Carson's shut down all stores last year and, with its brand under new ownership, now exists as an online store with a lone bricks-and-mortar location in Evergreen Park, Ill. Barneys announced closing sales at its remaining stores earlier this week.

Retailers have collectively closed hundreds of stores while trying to reinvent those that remain. Department stores are experimenting with everything from selling secondhand apparel to scaled-down city locations that stock no merchandise but offer services like online order pickup and stylist appointments.

 

In that context, Von Maur is an outlier. Nevertheless, Von Maur President Jim von Maur said the company is seeing growth with its more traditional approach.

Employees are trained to help customers find the right outfit and contact them after a purchase to make sure they're happy with it. There's a counter on the second floor where shoppers can have gifts wrapped, free of charge, and check coats and packages. Small signs on tables displaying apparel encourage shoppers to touch the merchandise, but the company avoids big signs promoting brands or last-chance deals, even when items are on sale, preferring a cleaner look. Women's shoes on clearance are stocked in a room next to the main shoe department.

"It's the way department stores used to be, but with a lot of updates," von Maur said.

The retailer aims to have the look and service of an upscale department store and merchandise not found at many other retailers, like U.K. apparel brands Joules, Fat Face and Mint Velvet, but with prices accessible to a wider range of customers, said Melody Wright, Von Maur's chief operating officer.

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