VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

In Conversation | Iconoclasts and Thought Leaders

Retail’s Elder Statesman: Ira Neimark on Bergdorf Goodman and Beyond




Don’t tell Ira Neimark that the department store is dead.


At 93, Neimark may not be clocking in for work anymore, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an opinion about what the retail industry needs to do to energize the customer experience at the store level.


Ira Neimark is a man of the old school, and he can rattle off the names and competitive advantage of just about every department store that ever existed. But his heart belongs to Bergdorf Goodman, where for 17 years he established himself as “the benevolent dictator” and catapulted the store to legendary status. He broke standards by being one of the only CEO and General Managers to spend most of his time on the sales floor.


Neimark is a master raconteur and his three books, including his latest tome, The Rise of Bergdorf Goodman and the Fall of Bonwit Teller (2015, GamePlan Books,Inc.) are an insightful chronicle of New York’s golden age of luxury retail.  While he says he is weary of interviews, we found that he still has plenty to say about the shortcomings of today’s department store.


The Rise of Bergdorf Goodman


BERTRAND PELLEGRIN: Department stores get plenty of scrutiny for not always measuring up to smaller scale boutiques, especially where customer service is concerned. Do you think department stores still have work to do?


IRA NEIMARK: The generation of executives operating retail stores today particularly department stores, are not familiar with the art of customer service. There are exceptions of course, but as a rule, most require a completely new mindset. Sales people, like spark plugs in a car, generate business. Their expense can easily be covered by a fair commission system.


BP: So you think there’s a lack of investment in customer service training?


IN: Customer Service has to start with the CEO. I observed for over 50 years, when the CEO believes in the customer comes first, since the customer pays our pay our salaries, then the whole organization gets on board. If the CEO is indifferent to customer service, so will his organization.



Photo by Tony Palmieri carla-fendi-pinto1983



At top, In 1983, Ira Neimark escorts Carla Fendi through the store, presumably to so she can inspect the store’s Fendi fur salon. Below, a drawing of Neimark, as seen by Andy Warhol. 

BP: Besides customer service, what are some of the details that aren’t being delivered today?


IN: What is missing is the excitement of something new every day. Target’s promotion of Designer clothes at ridiculously low prices is an excellent example of excitement bringing hoards of customers into their stores. Major fashion shows as major events also attract customers into stores.


BP: In my own book, Branding the Man, I argue that by the early 2000’s, rather than mentor the male shopper, many American stores had begun to give in to the “casual business” attire that had taken over corporate America. Do you believe that men’s retail is still an important investment for retailers?


IN: My experience both with Bergdorf Goodman Men and with Hermes, where I was a board member, showed that there are very many men of good taste and income who are interested in quality and appearance. These customers in most cases are above the age of 30. Even those of moderate income recognize the importance of “looking right”. There are others of all ages who have no sense of style, who wear casual T shirts and jeans to nearly all occasions. To them, Casual Friday is every day.



shoe dept 1969

Established in 1899, Begdorf Goodman is best known for its 1928 incarnation on Fifth Avenue, where it continues to lead by example. Below, the very groovy shoe salon in 1969.

BP: In your book, you emphasize that a store’s reputation is built on a consistent experience. What makes that more difficult today than before?


IN: Most of my retail business experience has been with luxury retail and high end department stores. In all cases, no matter how large the store, the customer was made to feel welcome and treated as a valued asset.

I made a point of doing all my office work on a podium at the foot of the escalator. I made sure that every customer was taken care of on the selling floor. I walked around and observed sales people and customers. I call it an MBWA degree. Management By Walking Around.


BP: So what are retail executives cutting back on?


IN: Things like unbelievable store hours, staggered sales people, or recording the store’s telephone operators. These reinforce the importance of consistent customer satisfaction.


BP: It’s easy to say “things were better before than they are now.” In your opinion, what modern retailer impresses you?


IN: There is one retailer who in my opinion, consistently stands out and that’s Nordstrom.The family running that business, more than many others, understands how their customers would like to be treated. Their continued success, due to outstanding customer service, is an exception to the rule. But It should not be an exception, it should be the goal of all retailers.


>> Read Ira Neimark’s new book, The Rise of Bergdorf Goodman and the Fall of Bonwit Teller (GamePlan Press, $26.95). Buy it now on Amazon.

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