NOLA L. SARKISIAN

Staff Reporter

At Neiman Marcus' lower-level restaurant in Beverly Hills, Petrossian Beluga Caviar is on the menu at $80 a plate and real oranges and kumquats adorn the dinnerware displays.

It's a store where success comes from taking meticulous care of customers on every conceivable detail. Making sure that gets done is the job of John Martens, who as vice president and general manager oversees 450 employees and 180,000 square feet of retail space.

Martens, a native of South Africa, has helped the store prosper at a time when many traditional brick-and-mortar retailers have cashed out or been consolidated.

During a typical day, Martens walks the floor, chats with shoppers and monitors employees to keep them on their toes. Meanwhile, he has helped guide a multimillion-dollar renovation that doubled the size of the men's store while adding an Estee Lauder Beauty Spa and martini bar.

After a foray into the hospitality industry in London, Martens returned to South Africa in the '60s to learn merchandising at the posh Stuttaford Co. & Ltd. store in Johannesburg. After rising to the rank of general manager in the early '70s, he set his sights on the United States, landing a job at the Neiman Marcus store in St. Louis in 1977 before coming to California in 1980.

Question: Given the fates of other high-end retailers, like I. Magnin, how do you account for the success of your store?

Answer: We never saw the demise of those stores as a problem. We saw it as an opportunity to grow and learn. Several factors have accounted for our success. One is that the merchants (at Neiman Marcus headquarters) in Dallas have realized the needs of our store. We're in a high-profile community and we're much more fashion-forward here. Secondly, we have a very solid sales staff. We choose carefully before we invite people to join us. There's little turnover here, which allows our staffers to get to know our clients' needs.

Q: Department stores have been slow to jump online. So far, e-commerce is not a component on the Neiman Marcus Web site. Do you think that's a hindrance to sales?

A: We're in the specialty fashion business, where fit is important, the exact color is important. If you can't feel or touch the merchandise and assess the quality, I'm not sure how that affects the return rates, which could be higher. And good service is our hallmark identity that a customer receives one-on-one in the store. I don't think that level of interaction and shopping style will ever die out. As far as changes to our Web site, I'm sure it's being looked at for the near future, but I don't know when or how.

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