opinion & response

Apr 01, 2002 10:30 PM  By

A Tribute to ‘Mr. Stanley’

The catalog industry lost a merchandising visionary with the death of Stanley Marcus. The former head of upscale cataloger/retailer Neiman Marcus died on Jan. 22 at age 96. Steve Leveen, president/cofounder of Delray Beach, FL-based reading tools cataloger Levenger, recalls his memories of “Mr. Stanley”:

The soaring I.M. Pei-designed Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas was the setting for Stanley Marcus’s memorial service on Jan. 28. With a seating capacity of 2,069, it was one of the few places big enough to hold Mr. Stanley’s friends and family members — and it nearly wasn’t. The service included the full Dallas Symphony Orchestra (who we later discovered donated their time) and Bobby Short, one of Mr. Stanley’s favorite performers, who flew in to sing three old tunes at the piano. His last was “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” So is our memory of Mr. Stanley.

When my wife and I began Levenger 15 years ago, an experienced manufacturer’s representative asked me if I had any retail background. “No,” I admitted. “Well, if you’re even thinking of going into retail, go out and buy a book called Minding the Store by Stanley Marcus and read it.” I did, and it changed my life.

The book is a memoir and a history of Neiman Marcus, but for me it was far more. It demonstrated that being a merchant could be a noble profession — something well beyond buying and selling merchandise. Mr. Stanley (as his admirers called him, to distinguish him from his father) took retailing to a new level — a level of extravaganza and sensational “his and her” gifts. He created a canny salmagundi of luxurious products mixed with true affection for customers, suppliers, and staff. After reading the book, I knew I had found my calling. I aspired to follow in Mr. Stanley’s footsteps by giving customers more than they expected.

When I wrote him a fan letter, Mr. Stanley instantly wrote back with words of praise and encouragement for our fledgling enterprise. This led to friendship and mentorship beyond my greatest hopes. I soon learned that our good fortune was not unique. It seemed that everywhere I went and talked to people in retail, Mr. Stanley had helped in some way. Nearly everyone knew him, had heard him speak, or had somehow been touched by the merchant prince of retailing.

The thousands of alumni who have attended Mr. Stanley’s informal school of retailing can share such Mr. Stanley-isms as “It’s not a good sale unless it’s a good value for the customer” and “The quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten.” And a more subtle lesson: High sales numbers are not the most important thing. If a product doesn’t fit in your store or isn’t at the appropriate taste level for your brand, the more you sell of it, the worse it is. We learned this firsthand. In the early years at Levenger, we made what I considered to be very nice T-shirts for serious readers. The shirts were selling well. Mr. Stanley called me to say, “Steve, I don’t care how many T-shirts you can sell, they don’t belong in your catalog.” We never carried another.

Early in our relationship, he invited my wife, Lori, and me to his home in Sante Fe. Lori and I were nervous about meeting this legend. But he and his wife, Linda, immediately made us feel comfortable — especially after he literally broke the ice by spilling it all over the floor while attempting to make drinks. That evening over dinner we talked not about business but about primitive art and the local museum he had helped to found, about the history of the Anasazi Indians, about anthropology and politics.

I once introduced Mr. Stanley for a speech saying, “To give you some perspective, Mr. Marcus was vice president of marketing at Neiman Marcus in 1926.” How rare it was to be able to learn from a man who had been too old to serve in World War II.

I can see Mr. Stanley now, rising not far above the lectern, filling his immaculate suit well, his eyes twinkling, advising us workaday merchants to “create an inspirational selling environment for your customers.” Yet how can we inspire as he has? How can we hope to fill his shoes — this man with a Rolodex as big around as a California redwood and whose volume of correspondence rivals the Department of State’s?

Was Mr. Stanley larger than life? It seemed so. But maybe Mr. Stanley just showed us how large life can be.

Better Luck Next Year, Studs

The image-conscious Academy Awards organization has no sense of humor when it comes to its Oscar statue. In early February, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sued Pipedream Products for trademark and copyright infringement, because the gifts cataloger/Web marketer sold anatomically exaggerated Stud of the Year Oscar replicas.

According to the suit, the stud statuettes closely resemble the real Oscar, with both featuring a muscular man holding a sword. The obscene knockoffs, however, depict Oscar in the full monty, if you catch our drift. Shortly after the academy filed the suit, its attorney David Quinto said the Los Angeles-based Pipedream agreed to halt all sales of the ribald Oscar replicas and to hand over its remaining inventory of the items for destruction.

Pipedream isn’t the first marketer accused of trying to tarnish Oscar’s golden image, and it likely won’t be the last: The uptight academy typically files six to eight lawsuits a year to enforce the Oscar copyright and trademark. “We’re succeeding in getting the word out that the Oscar is not a national symbol that’s available for all to use,” Quinto said in a statement. “It’s the academy’s registered trademark and copyright.” If only the academy were so vigilant about policing those long, boring acceptance speeches.

USPS Stamps Out New Jersey

The state of New Jersey gets no respect — not even from the U.S. Postal Service. In the spring 2002 edition of its USA Philatelic stamp catalog, the USPS left New Jersey out of its Greetings from America page. A New Jersey stamp is included in the collection, which consists of stamps resembling vintage souvenir postcards for all 50 states, but the New Jersey stamp does not appear in the picture of the collection. Adding insult to injury, an additional image of the New York stamp appears where the Jersey stamp should be. According to Philatelic editor William Gicker, the error likely occurred during last-minute color corrections, and by the time the USPS was made aware of the error in January, the 2.1 million catalogs were already printed and mailed. Rather than reprint the catalog run, Philatelic in February mailed a flier explaining the error. New York, New York — a stamp so nice they ran it twice?

Plus-Size Consumers Living Large

Maybe it’s a growing trend in women’s apparel: Recent editions of L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer promote the fact that every size is the same price. In other words, plus-size consumers do not have to pay more for larger-size appparel. “Every size, from Petite XS to Women’s 3X, is one price,” reads a cover line on a spring Eddie Bauer book, while L.L. Bean’s Clothes for Women cover proclaims: “Misses’, Women’s Petite and Tall now at the same price.” While it may cost a bit more in fabric to create plus-size garments, jacking up the price on such items is probably not worth the ill will it generates among larger customers. Besides, do petite customers ever get a break for using less material?

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