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Posted on Sun, Dec 13, 2009 : 6 a.m.

Ann Arbor's Von Maur's department store fills high-end niche

By Paula Gardner

Von Maur’s entry into the Michigan market 5 years ago filled two former Jacobson’s stores in Metro Detroit.

Today, the higher-end department store fills a niche among the four anchor stores at Briarwood Mall.

It also helps the Ann Arbor mall retain some unique elements in a shopping center environment where the decade’s rapid national store expansion created uniformity among U.S. shopping malls.

“There are very few Von Maurs in Michigan,” said Jennifer Cherry, a retail expert at Marx Layne in Farmington Hills. “That makes it a destination.”

Von Maur’s 24 stores, all in the Midwest, are built on amenities like attentive customer service and an interest-free charge card.

They’re also known for carrying high-end merchandise that doesn’t go on sale. Instead, items go through a series of permanent markdowns.

“It’s always been our strategy to price fairly and not play the (sale) rollercoaster,” said Amy Davis, marketing manager for the Iowa-based chain.

That means days like Black Friday don’t play out differently in the store, which opened at its normal time and featured fresh markdowns for customers - but none of the coupon- or sale-induced shopping frenzy that co-anchors Sears, Macy’s and JCPenney generated.

“Being non-promotional and staying true to what we do has been successful for us,” Davis said. “… There’s no need to change that strategy. We think customers appreciate that. It sounds like a simple approach, but it works for us.”

As a private company, Von Maur won’t discuss its revenue or sales trends. Online employment site cites annual revenue as $228 million, but doesn’t give a year.

The chain is maintaining its measured approach to expansion by opening one store in 2010 when it moves into Missouri, its 10th state.

And Davis said the economy seems to have less impact on the store, even as Macy’s and JCPenney reported national same-store sales fell by over 5 percent in November.

“We’re doing well,” Davis said. “It seems to be business as usual.”

The Ann Arbor store employs 110, said manager Marnie Harris, with an additional 30 gift-wrappers hired for the holidays.

Local departments with strong sales include shoes - “there’s a big UGG trend” Davis said of the Australian brand - and the typical gift-giving areas of jewelry, accessories and handbags.

Brands and pricing follow what Davis calls “good, better, best” layering in each department. Store managers make suggestions to buyers to get a unique mix for each location, Davis said.

But the Michigan stores may have a slightly different flavor from stores in other areas. Even the other store at Laurel Park in Livonia is bigger, allowing more items from popular brands like Juicy and Coach, for example.

“We’re laser-focused on merchandise,” said Davis.