Exchange-Growing Retailer

 Jim Von Maur, CEO of Von Maur department stores, talks about keeping true to the company's core values as a leading reason the business experiences success while other department stores are closing.

DES MOINES, Iowa — During a recent stroll through his company's store at Valley West Mall here, Von Maur President Jim von Maur lamented the fall of former retail giants like Younkers.

"When we see people go out of business, it's not really the internet," he told The Des Moines Register. "It's because there wasn't an exciting reason to go to the store."

As brick-and-mortar stores across the country try to stay afloat, Von Maur has doubled down on the company's core belief: Americans want to go out and shop.

Founded in Davenport, Iowa, in 1872, the family-owned company now has 33 stores in 15 states stretching from Kansas to New York, and Minnesota to Alabama.

A new store will open this fall in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with another planned for Orland Park, Illinois.

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"It's never good to see your industry in a huge flux of change, but at the same time it validates what we're doing the whole time, which is run the store the way it's always been done and not change so much," von Maur said.

It also operates a location at Hickory Point Mall in Forsyth, which previously had a Bergner's store. The chain was owned by Younkers owner Bon-Ton Holdings Inc.

While headlines point the finger at online shopping for the decline of traditional retail stores, Anne Brouwer, a senior partner at McMillan Doolittle, a retail consulting firm out of Chicago, said it's a misconception that Amazon and other web-based retailers are killing brick-and-mortar shopping.

Her evidence: Online retailers are rapidly expanding the number of real-world storefronts they're opening across the country.

Warby Parker, the online eyeglasses company, has opened close to 100 physical stores. Casper, an online mattress company, plans to open 200 stores in the next few years. And Glossier, the online make-up provider, is opening stores in major U.S. cities.

"This talk about how Amazon is killing them off is really at best misleading and often just plain wrong," Brouwer said.

Consumers still want to go out and touch and see the merchandise, she said.

What has changed is shoppers' interests and increased competition for consumers' dollars from entertainment venues and restaurant.

Extreme value and low-cost companies like the Dollar Store, T.J. Maxx, Five Below and Marshall's are growing in the market, Brouwer said. At the other end of the spectrum, luxury stores like Von Maur continue to attract customers willing to spend money on high-end products.

Mid-range department stores like Younkers that priced their products low in an attempt to compete with Wal-Mart and Amazon, trained consumers not to buy full-priced apparel, and suffered as a result, she said.

As stores tack on more sales racks and coupons to bring back consumers, they are not able to increase profitability without adding new services, Brouwer noted.

"What are you doing to be different? Why do you think customers want to come to you?" she asked. "If you're not the first choice, you might not be in the game."

The company sets itself apart from competitors with interest-free credit cards, free gift wrapping, superior customer service and clean, open stores, von Maur said.

"We're trying to keep our standards high and for some reason everyone else is going the other way and then they wonder why business is bad," von Maur said. "They want to blame the weather, they want to blame the economy, politics, the internet. To me, those things are excuses for not offering something the customer wants."

Gay Lea Wilson, 61, of Pleasant Hill, Iowa, said shopping at Von Maur still brings excitement. She likes the products the company offers and store's high standards.

"It's more fun than other retailers," Wilson said.

Annual sales increased last year during what analysts called a "retail apocalypse," von Maur said.

The company is privately owned, which means it doesn't face the pressure of Wall Street investors, he said. It hasn't jumped on every internet fad or felt pressure when online retail boomed.

The company's online business — bolstered by free shipping and in-store returns — rival its in-store sales, but von Maur said the company has avoided one pitfall that caught other traditional retailers: overspending in an effort to grow online shoppers.

"They got crazy with their websites and lost sight of their brick and mortar," he said.

The company's philosophy of putting customer service first has helped it grow while competitors fall to the wayside, he said.

No employees at Von Maur should have to wear a name tag because customers should instantly recognize an employee by how they're dressed, von Maur said. Suits, skirts and tights are still required uniforms.

As live piano music recently wafted through the Valley West store, von Maur knelt down next to a young man trying on a pair of Nike sneakers and asked him how they felt.

"Millennials get a bad rap that they're not social and it's all through social media, but they still want to go out and be with their friends," von Maur said. "That's what we offer. But you have to have a reason people want to come here."

As customers grow older, finding the products and services the next generation is looking for will be key to the survival of retailers like Von Maur, Brouwer said.

"Even if it looks bleak if you have something different consumers value, you have a chance of being successful," Brouwer said.

Correction: Hickory Point Mall previously had a Bergner's location. This story has been updated to correct the mistake. 

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