Retailing genius Stanley Marcus (born 1905) expanded his father's specialty shop into a full-service department store. Under his management, the Neiman-Marcus Department Store became one of the most renowned retail chains in the world, and developed a reputation for both the highest quality merchandise and unflagging customer service.
Stanley Marcus was born in Dallas, Texas on April 20, 1905. He was one of four sons born to Herbert Marcus and his wife, the former Minnie Lichtenstein. Marcus's paternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Germany. His maternal grandparents, also immigrants, were Russian Jews. Herbert Marcus, along with his sister Carrie Neiman and her husband Al Neiman, founded the clothing store of Neiman-Marcus in 1907. It was a new innovation for customers to walk into a store and buy clothing, because most apparel was still sewn by dressmakers and tailors. Young Stanley spent a great deal of time at the family store, where his mother brought him frequently and left him to play. He was a bright and innovative boy who made toys from empty thread boxes and spools that he found in the alteration department of the store. At home, in the Marcus family, education was of primary importance. Marcus's parents supervised his homework, and his mother sent him to private elocution lessons where he became adept at public speaking. He had few friends as a child, and experienced bouts of anti-Semitism. The first such incident happened when he was still quite young. A gang of boys chased him home from school, and called him derisively "little Jew-boy."
Although Marcus failed the college entrance examination, his father sought an eastern prep school for him to attend. Many of the schools refused to accept the 16-year-old Marcus because of his Jewish heritage, a fact that shocked and stunned Marcus. When a friend offered to arrange for Marcus's admittance to Amherst, a small college in New England, Marcus accepted. However, his year at Amherst proved disappointing. The fraternities refused to admit him, again because of his religion, and he became alienated. He left for Harvard and joined an all-Jewish fraternity. At Harvard, Marcus enjoyed his English classes in particular. He was especially intrigued by the world of rare books when he enrolled in a class called, "The History of the Printed Book." At that time, Marcus decided to go into the book business, as a printer, publisher, or dealer. He even started his own mail order book service and acquired customers through letters of solicitation. As he explained in his memoir, "My moderate success through selling by letter proved to me that a letter was a very potent selling tool, if written interestingly and with a psychological understanding of its potential readers. Later, in my retail career, I used letters to sell millions of dollars of furs, jewels, books, golf balls, and antiquities through the mail." During summer vacations, Marcus worked at the family store, selling ladies' shoes.
As college graduation approached, Marcus discussed his publishing plans with his father. Although Herbert Marcus had no doubt that his son would follow him in the family business, Stanley Marcus feared that a career in retail sales would restrict his political self-expression. His father, a political conservative, assured his son that he would be free to express his liberal views and reminded him that the retail business would prove more lucrative than the book business. The extra income could be used to acquire a personal book collection. At his father's suggestion, Marcus went on to Harvard Business School to prepare for a career in retail. There he studied accounting, statistics, advertising, and finance.
Learned the Ropes
In the summer of 1928, Herbert and Minnie Marcus went to Europe; they left their son in Texas to work at the store with his uncle, Al Neiman. Upon their return Neiman sold his interest in the family business back to his brother-in-law. Only Stanley Marcus and his father remained to manage the store. Marcus assumed control of merchandising and had financial control over two buyers, Carrie Neiman and Moira Cullen. Marcus' brother Edward joined the store in 1928, after leaving Harvard. That same year, the store introduced its personalized gift-wrapping service, which became a hallmark of the Neiman-Marcus retail chain. Marcus also introduced weekly in-store fashion shows, bridal fashion shows, and Man's Night. The two brothers came up with the idea of promoting the store through national advertising in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. In one of his earliest promotions Marcus coordinated his effort with the State Fair of Texas. He developed a line of clothes and accessories based on the colors and motifs of the southwest. The store introduced the clothes at the first ever Neiman-Marcus evening fashion show, to which Marcus invited Edna Woolman Chase, editor of Vogue. Chase accepted the invitation and was very impressed.
In 1937, the store received major publicity in an article published in Fortune. Articles in Collier's, Life, and other magazines followed. Soon Marcus hired the store's first public relations director, Marihelen McDuff. In 1938, the store established the Neiman-Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion, a totally new sales promotion device. The following year, Marcus published his first article in Fortune. After the article appeared, he received solicitation for a number of speaking engagements and interviews. During World War II he worked for the federal government in Washington on a project to develop fabric conservation programs.
By 1944, all four Marcus brothers worked at the store. To distinguish the four siblings they were called Mr. Stanley, Mr. Herbert, Mr. Edward, and Mr. Lawrence. After the death of Herbert Marcus, Sr., the store board of directors elected Carrie Neiman to be chairman of the board. Stanley Marcus was named president and CEO, and his brother, Edward, was named executive vice-president. Marcus carried on the business philosophy he learned from his father. He encouraged his sales staff to be honest with customers and let them know if merchandise was not appropriate for their requirements.
"Junk for Christmas"
Marcus was ever on the lookout for publicity opportunities for the store. He knew that if he listed unusual and exotic gifts in the Christmas catalogue, then radio, television, newspapers, and magazines would report the catalogue as news. With this in mind he devised such gifts as "his and her" airplanes, miniature submarines, parasols, camels, Chinese junks, and authentic Egyptian mummy cases. These "stunt" pages attracted significant publicity and generated increases in the store's mail order sales. Not every exotic item was a success. One memorable failure was an inventory of custom-designed watches with Chinese characters on the faces instead of numerals. As ordered, the Chinese characters on the watches would have referenced an ancient Chinese legend. Instead the characters on the watch read, "We shall take over America by force."
Marcus liked to be recognized for his progressive political viewpoints. In 1966, he defended three teenage boys who were expelled from a Dallas high school for wearing their hair too long. Marcus believed that the boys' constitutional rights were violated and offered them financial aid to fight the decision in court. Also in the 1960s, Marcus conscientiously retrained his staff to insure that African American customers would receive equal treatment alongside white customers.
Life Outside the Store
Marcus and his wife, Mary "Billie" Cantrell had two daughters and a son. The couple entertained many celebrities, including the late Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, Prince Rainier and the late Princess Grace of Monaco, Christian Dior, Lord Mountbatten, and the late Coco Chanel, in their 12,000-square-foot-home filled with their collections of art, books, masks, pre-Columbian pottery, Middle Eastern ceramics, and architect-designed furniture.
In 1968, the 27 Neiman-Marcus stores were bought by a conglomerate called Carter Hawley Hale. Marcus remained actively involved in the business for another ten years, retiring at the age of 72. He kept active by consulting with local business and international clients, such as Harrod's Department Store in London-charging $200,000 for 24-hour access to his wisdom. He also kept occupied in speechmaking, and writing. He wrote several books and, for over a decade, contributed a weekly column for the Dallas Morning News. In celebration of his 80th birthday, Marcus fulfilled a lifelong dream-to perform in the circus as a clown. He celebrated his 90th birthday at a lavish party attended by 1,200 guests, who joined him from as far away as Italy, Denmark, and Japan.
Further Reading on Stanley Marcus
Marcus, Stanley, Minding the Store: A Memoir, Boston, Little Brown, 1974.
Marcus, Stanley, The Viewpoints of Stanley Marcus: A Ten-Year Perspective, University of North Texas, 1995.
Advertising Age, May 15, 1995.
Boston, February 1998.
Fortune, March 22, 1993.
Inc., June 1987.
Texas Monthly, December 1992.
People, May 13, 1985.