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.

Q: How would you describe the Neiman Marcus customer?

A: They demand quality, and if the quality is there, price is not an issue. They dress to be noticed in the most positive sense. Many are involved in the entertainment industry and have a keen perception of fashion knowledge. They usually come in here knowing what they want. They are familiar with designers, brands and up-to-date trends.

Q: How are returns handled?

A: The customer expects the best from Neiman Marcus and if we don't deliver that they let us know and we encourage them to do so. We'll exchange or credit whenever we can. We like clients to be reasonable and sometimes when you get something back after five years, it's not quite what we had in mind. But if it means doing that to maintain customer loyalty, we'll certainly consider it.

Q: As you say, Neiman Marcus is known for customer service. Have your employees performed any remarkable feats?

A: One year we delivered this huge teddy bear on Christmas Eve to an individual's house. They had bought it earlier and had nowhere to store it without the child finding out. So we offered to store it. When Christmas Eve came, it was raining. By the time we got the bear from the car to the house, it was soaking wet. So we sent our hairdresser (at the time) with a hair dryer and comb to smooth the ruffled bear.

Q: How do you think Hollywood affects the fashion industry?

A: I can't think of one designer who wouldn't love to dress a Hollywood celebrity. It's their fashion objective to receive such exposure and validation. When Sharon Stone wore a Barry Kieselstein-Cord green matte and gold necklace in "Basic Instinct," people came in asking for the jewelry. Meanwhile, celebrities need the high-profile gowns at certain occasions like awards ceremonies, and also the understated fashion that these designers are now providing.

Q: What do you think of the onslaught of major designers that have set up shop in Beverly Hills?

A: Beverly Hills has become a major shopping destination. Every designer is here. I'm sure they're able to showcase the wares very well and still provide a boutique environment. But I'm not sure how convenient they are for the shopper who has to go in and out of stores looking for things, versus coming here for one-stop shopping. You can buy your clothing, accessories, hosiery, have lunch and go to the spa in one spot.

Q: Beverly Hills officials and merchants are at odds about a proposed ordinance that would require labels on furs explaining how the animals are killed. What do you think of the issue and would it hurt business?

A: We sell fur and it does very well here. It's a highly dangerous initiative. It could open the doors for a whole new scenario. Would one then have to state on every menu how the poultry, fish and meat got on the plate? The net result is that it provides no consumer protection. There's no advantage to the consumer in any way. Before people vote for it, they should be aware of the ramifications: any article of merchandise over $50 would be affected. That means the little fur collar on a coat, the trim or even the cuff. It would put Beverly Hills at a disadvantage compared to neighboring cities such as West Hollywood or Santa Monica, which wouldn't be penalized.

Q: Retail is notorious for having long hours. What's a typical day like for you?

A: I'm in the store before 8:30 a.m. and generally don't leave until at least 7 p.m. I often work Saturdays, and if it's my day off, I'll come in and finish paperwork. The first thing I usually do is call the corporate office in Dallas, which is two hours ahead. Between 9 and 10, I visit every department in the store, looking at the merchandise and making sure things are stocked and people are looking well groomed. I may make a comment on the presentation or inventory. Then, I return local calls and head back to the store rounds for another two hours. I love to be on the floor and mingle with the customers. I try to get to know the names of our clients. The afternoons are devoted to staff meetings and more paperwork.

Q: You fell into this competitive industry by default. What happened?

A: I was a student in London studying at a hotel-management college. I had always wanted to get into that industry. The people, the travel, the customer service are all exciting facets of the business to me. But during the schooling, the emphasis was on the kitchen, and cooking is the last love of my life. So I left and began working on Oxford Street at the John Lewis Partnership selling men's wear, which began my long journey here. Compared to the hotel industry, I found retail is an ever-changing business that is ever-stimulating. So I stuck with it.

Q: You work in the midst of fashion and obsess about it daily. So what's your closet like?

A: I love fashion. I love good-quality merchandise, the classics. My closet is full of dark suits, which is my preference. I like Armani and Donna Karan. I try to dress appropriately for my age and my profession. I shop when I can and try to take advantage of our promotional sales. I'm very casual on the weekends, wearing jeans and whatever, especially when I escape to the countryside of New Mexico every couple of months.

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