Industry News

Retail Talk – Back to the 80’s.

April 19, 2017 | 0 Comments

Back to the 80’s.

In 1983, Dallas was the number one show on CBS; Risky Business hit it big at the box office and a gallon of milk cost $1.25. For a nostalgic look at how retail used to be, look no further than Frederick Wiseman’s 1983 documentary The Store.

The Store follows the daily operations over the four-week period between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 1983 at the Dallas Neiman Marcus department store that also served as their corporate headquarters.

For nearly two hours, Wiseman’s crew has full access to various departments and it’s employees and management during filming. We get a peak inside the Neiman Marcus culture that was indoctrinated by employees on every level. This allows us a bird’s eye view into what, as one senior VP stated, Neiman Marcus is about. “Neiman Marcus is an institution created to make sales.” Boom.

We are granted intimate access into buyers meetings and saleswomen tending to a regular customer as she tries on different evening gowns. We witness smoke filled marketing strategy sessions (yes- everyone smoked in these meetings!), as well as glimpses of switchboard operators, the guy who changes the light bulbs and hopeful applicants interviewing for a coveted position with NM.

We watch buyers meet with their department staff and share what new products will be arriving. An exercise teacher is brought in to instruct salespeople how to keep cash register fingers nimble by doing hand exercises during the holiday rush as well as perfecting their smiles with smiling clinics. Yes, smiling clinics. How would that go over with your staff in 2017?


Left: A Neiman Marcus salesperson helps a regular customer shop for party dresses. (Photos courtesy Zipporah Films) Right: Texas was reaching a new height of prosperity in the 1980’s. Conspicuous consumption was all the rage.

It’s a look back to a time when store managers, in an attempt to drum up new business, would have their staff call their top three customers within the past 6 months who haven’t been shopping in a while and personally invite them to come visit the store and check out new arrivals. (Sometimes with the lure of free parking on Saturday’s.)

With no Internet nor ecommerce to compete with, the only threat to your business back then was the store down the street. In an effort to retain customers, Neiman’s goal was to become the one stop-shopping destination for its shoppers. Where else could you purchase a $47,000 Russian Sable mink coat (by today’s dollars over $115,000), and pick up a loaf of French bread from the specialty bakery department? Where else could you have your purchases altered on site and purchase a custom made piece of jewelry?

Another interesting segment in the film shows a senior manager discussing ideas for a Washington’s Birthday promotion. In the past he reminds his department heads how old inventory was brought out and marked down further. What if, he proposed, the store brought in new merchandise, “wear now” styles, he explained, for the four-day promotional period and only took a 35% markup? Is this a time this strategy would make sense, he asked his colleagues? He explained that shoppers get brand new styles at a great value, reinforcing the illusion that NM has the best offerings. “We turn the product quickly and then go back to our regular selling model of full price, “ he goes on to state, and our shoppers don’t go to the competition across the street. For an institution built on the foundation of selling, this could be viewed as a radical idea to take a hit on margins, but in the long term would be worth it to build brand equity and loyalty with their customer base.

What lessons can be learned from The Store?

  1. The human touch counts. Retail is about connecting people with product.
  1. Empower your team. Hold an informal get together with employees. Allow them to be involved with new products and the selection process.
  1. Illusion is everything. If you build it, they will come. Shoppers are looking for an experience and it can be taught and it can be sold.

A big thanks to SIA and my readers! Have a wonderful spring and summer! Wishing you the best of outdoor adventures!

To watch the entire film, click on the link below.

To gain more insight into today’s ever evolving retail landscape, click on the link below:

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