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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.

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 11/7/2019 By Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune
a woman standing in front of a crowd of people: Teresa Carriere, right, shops for an evening gown at the Von Maur department store at Orland Square Mall in Orland Park on Oct. 29, 2019. © Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Teresa Carriere, right, shops for an evening gown at the Von Maur department store at Orland Square Mall in Orland Park on Oct. 29, 2019.

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, 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. Barneys announced closing sales at its remaining stores earlier this week.

a person standing in front of a shop: Sales associate Monica Cartwright, right, helps customer Diana Navarro at the Von Maur department store at Orland Square Mall in Orland Park on Oct. 29, 2019. © Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Sales associate Monica Cartwright, right, helps customer Diana Navarro at the Von Maur department store at Orland Square Mall in Orland Park on Oct. 29, 2019.

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.

a group of people standing in front of a store: The Von Maur department store at Orland Square Mall in Orland Park. © Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS The Von Maur department store at Orland Square Mall in Orland Park.

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.

“We are for everyone,” she said.

Compared with their larger counterparts, some regional chains like Von Maur have fared relatively well, retail analysts said. They benefit from strong customer loyalty thanks to the focus on service and stores that don’t have to be “one-size-fits-all across the country,” said Marshal Cohen, retail analyst at market research firm NPD Group.

Von Maur, with 35 stores in 15 states including seven in Illinois, has been "a little more measured with their growth, and they seem to be really in tune with creating a premier experience for customers,” said Gabriella Santaniello, president and founder of retail research firm A-Line Partners.

Bernice Wilkins, 70, of Dolton, said she is a longtime customer of Von Maur’s Lombard store but was happy to see one open closer to home.

“I like the layout, the people are great and the shoes are excellent,” she said while browsing a rack of winter coats.

The company also has benefited from rivals’ closures, which brought opportunities to expand. When Von Maur agreed to open in the 130,000-square-foot former Carson’s and invest $25 million in renovations, the village of Orland Park and other taxing bodies provided a package of tax incentives worth up to $8.5 million.

Von Maur says its approach is working.

The company is privately held and does not report earnings. Sales at existing Von Maur stores have been growing in the mid- to upper-single digits in recent years, growth that “has allowed us to remain confident in our approach," Wright said.

The company has opened one or two Von Maur department stores a year and also is adding shops under its Dry Goods brand, which sells women’s apparel and accessories.

Part of the reason Von Maur has been able to stick to the traditional department store approach is the fact that the company remains family-owned, Wright said.

“If you’re public, you’re forced to make decisions only for the short term. We can make decisions that cost more today, knowing there will be benefits in the long term,” she said.

At publicly held department store Nordstrom, members of the founding family who remain involved as company leaders and significant stakeholders tried to take the company private to pursue a turnaround with less scrutiny from public markets in 2017, but the family and a special board committee couldn’t reach a deal. Family members later presented another plan that would have boosted their stake in the company from 31% to a little more than 50% but decided not to move forward, the company said in a regulatory filing last month.

Von Maur isn’t the only privately held regional department store chain that appears to be growing while sticking with a traditional approach, said Candace Corlett, president of consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail. She pointed to companies like Boscov’s, with 49 East Coast stores, and Bealls, with more than 70 stores in Florida.

“Not having to report margins and profits gives you license to be the merchant you want to be, instead of the merchant you need to be,” she said.

It’s not all traditional. The Orland Park store has a fitting room with a videochat system that lets a bridal party, for instance, try on dresses with people who can’t attend in person.

Online sales have been growing by a percentage in the double digits, according to Wright. She declined to say how much of Von Maur’s business comes from online sales, but said it’s lower than some rivals. The company didn’t want online growth to come at the expense of its focus on stores, she said.

“It’s an important part of the business, but it’s a complement to the stores,” she said.

Corlett questioned whether the “genteel” approach would appeal to younger shoppers who don’t remember department stores’ heyday, but noted that the company’s long history suggested it had adapted to changing times before.

“There just might be something to say for the family’s passion for being a merchant in the community,” she said.

And even as online shopping has grown, there are still plenty of people who want to shop in stores, Cohen said.

“They are the old-fashioned guard, but you still have half the population that’s very comfortable doing it that way, and you might have a new generation discovering a new world of shopping,” he said.

lzumbach@chicagotribune.com

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©2019 the Chicago Tribune

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