There are very few retailers that have experienced the success and longevity of Von Maur. Back in the 1980s, the Davenport-based department store took a chance and reinvented its business and updated its image. It was a risky move but it proved successful and Von Maur has outlived many of its fiercest rivals and some of the biggest names in retailing.
Von Maur categorizes itself as a “fashion department store.” Its stores can be found throughout the Midwest and the South, and anchor some of the region’s strongest malls and centers. Von Maur devotees are drawn to its specialized customer service, name-brand apparel lines, and its interest-free charge card.
A private company still operated by the founding family, Von Maur doesn’t have the pressure of shareholders who breathe down executives’ necks and demand greater investment returns. That lack of pressure has allowed Von Maur to follow a path of calculated and measured growth.
Von Maur appears to have weathered Covid remarkably unscathed. The company realizes that there is a certain percentage of people who are not ready for the traditional in-store shopping experience although customer traffic is consistently improving. The retailer is optimistic about this week’s Easter sales figures. Von Maur feels that customers are starved to make purchases and are ready to spend.
Like other large retailers, Von Maur experienced the same frustrating inventory distribution issues created by Covid regulations. The company waited patiently as ships were prevented from unloading their cargo, especially at the Port of Los Angeles. Von Maur says that the situation has greatly improved.
Until April 1989, the retailer operated under the name Petersen Harned Von Maur, or simply “Petersen’s.” Its downtown Davenport flagship typified the classic American department store – an aging multi-floored emporium that offered a vast assortment of clothing and home goods, along with a basement Tea Room and budget store.
But as downtown Davenport faded as a shopping destination, Petersen’s, founded in 1872, decided to take on the retail industry’s changing trends. It closed its downtown Davenport flagship store, eliminated its home department, and shortened its name. It marked a beginning for the firm, now simply renamed Von Maur.
Jim von Maur is the company’s president and CEO, the fourth-generation leader of the family- owned retailer. He acknowledges that his family took a big risk when the company abandoned the department store format but he knows that it allowed the firm to have a future.
Von Maur believes that the continuation of a traditional department store would have positioned the company precariously, possibly repeating the failure of other stores who have sought new owners or closed their doors.
“What they did took a lot of courage,” says von Maur. “[Our family] knew that we were not going to be able to keep competing in price with a sale every week.”
It’s no coincidence that Von Maur stores often resemble Nordstrom
But its design team initially scoffed at the idea. They felt that the absence of walls would make Von Maur resemble a discount department store but the family persisted. They saw what worked at Nordstrom and knew it could work at Von Maur.
Von Maur was also taken by the live piano music offered at all Nordstrom stores. Even though Nordstrom has removed pianos from its stores, Von Maur still offers live piano performances.
But unlike Nordstrom, Von Maur stores do not offer food and beverage service. “For us, we feel that it’s best to be good at one thing,” says von Maur. “We’ll leave that to the people who sell food.”
Von Maur boldly entered the crowded Chicago market in 1994. “I don’t know where [my family] got the courage to go to Chicago,” says von Maur. “They must’ve believed in what they were doing.” The Yorktown Shopping Center store ended up becoming one of the company’s strongest performers and paved the way for further growth around the Windy City.
Yorktown’s success proved that Von Maur could compete head-to-head with some of retail’s biggest names. “It gave them the confidence that their formula could work anywhere.” Von Maur stores can now be found in markets such as Atlanta, Birmingham, Indianapolis, and Rochester. The company is frequently courted by shopping center operators and civic leaders.
The retailer has also been cited and praised for the high number of women in leadership positions. Approximately 85% of its executive workforce, and 60% of its senior management positions are held by women.
Unfortunately, Von Maur is no stranger to senseless tragic events. On December 5, 2007, a gunman entered the company’s Omaha location at the Westroads Mall and opened fire, killing eight employees and shoppers, before turning the gun on himself.
As a former manager of the Omaha store, Jim von Maur felt an “extra sense of pain” upon initially hearing the news. He knew many of the victims personally. Von Maur recalls the level of pain and grief “beyond comprehension” for himself and the family business. But he remains proud of the steps his company took to help the families, his employees and the local community heal, recover, and rebuild.
The nature of the retail industry demands constant attention to maintain success and Von Maur is not immune. The next generation of shoppers will always need to be courted and the retailer’s e-commerce platform will require continuous upgrades and investments. Traditional Von Maur customers will need assurances of safety and comfort during the age of Covid. These are concerns that all retailers face, especially those who have a substantial brick-and-mortar footprint.
The biggest story at Von Maur is the simple fact that it is still here, open for business, and poised for future growth. That is no small accomplishment. “[Our company] defied all of the odds,” says von Maur.
Jim von Maur says “never in a million years” would he have expected that his family’s business would have outlasted Younkers, the Des Moines-based retailer that once dominated the region’s department store market. But Von Maur has also outlived other iconic names, such as Marshall Field’s and Carson Pirie Scott. As von Maur states, “What were the chances of a family owned business doing that?”