Upping the Ante

I visited my first Von Maur store in 1999, a decade after I relocated from southern boomtown Atlanta to Lincoln, Neb., a sleepy college town that only really wakes up on Husker football Saturdays. Today I am back home in Baton Rouge, La., still no bustling metropolis, but the food and football trump.

Retail offerings weren't exactly prolific in Lincoln in the 1990s — and fashion-forward retail offerings were nil. Then Von Maur arrived. The department store opened in August 1999 as the 90,000-sq.-ft. anchor tenant of a new open-air mall, SouthPointe Pavilions, on the southeast side of town.

Von Maur changed my opinion of Nebraska shopping. The moment I entered the store, with its soaring ceilings, tinkling baby grand in the center atrium, and designer apparel and shoes (oh, the shoes), I forgot I wasn't in Atlanta, or New York, or Chicago. In fact, I made Von Maur a twice-monthly destination, or more. I liked forgetting that I wasn't in a retail mecca.

Von Maur hasn't forgotten its Midwestern roots — and the Davenport, Iowa-based retailer says it will never outgrow its Heartland customer base — but it is expanding to greener non-pastures. I talked with president Jim von Maur at length (see real estate cover story on page 60, as well as our April/May Profile of Leadership on page 16). The fourth-generation family leader isn't your stereotypical corn-fed Iowa businessman. He is progressive and innovative, likely honed by years spent on the front lines, first on the sales floor selling shoes, then as a buyer and a store manager. Despite that his great-grandfather founded the company, von Maur wasn't handed the title and responsibility; when he was named president in 2001, he had earned every perk that the job might deliver.

I will talk with him again, this time face-to-face in his Iowa office, and we'll revisit the topics we've discussed, as well as explore the company's booming e-commerce presence and continuing plans for expansion. Watch for the video interview on chainstoreage.com in mid-May.

10 under 40: At 44, von Maur is only slightly older than the group of retail real estate executives featured in our "10 Under 40" coverage beginning on page 80. For the first time, we highlight the people behind the job — all under the age of 40, and all trend-setters and innovators. Got a nomination for next year? Email me the particulars and why you feel the nominee should be recognized.

Elsewhere in this issue: When you check out our customary focus on real estate technology and solutions, remember that today's technology and solutions (page 96) move us beyond "gut instincts" into the realm of quantifiable site selection and strategic growth and contraction. Never was I more reminded of how important strategic portfolio reviews are than during our SPECS 2013 — held in March in Dallas — real estate session, "Is your portfolio fully optimized?" Panelists Andy Graiser, co-president of A&G Realty Partners; Jon Graub, executive VP real estate for Charming Shoppes; and Jon Siegel, partner, Open Realty Advisors shared insights on the still-soft-but-improving economy and how retailers are leveraging the climate. Here are a few meaty excerpts from their discussions.

Graiser: "Landlords are seeing opportunity to take back space to re-create and improve their centers, rather than just fill space."

Siegel: "Big markets are gathering strength. Rents are going up."

Graiser: "Landlords are making decisions akin to investment bankers. They are examining retailers' financials, evaluating the risk — because their businesses and reputations are on the line too."

Graub: "Keep an eye on the power centers. The large stores are going to right-size, and power center spaces are great venues for Lane Bryant and Charming." And, "we try to cut the underperforming stores — the bottom 10% — every year."

Graiser: "It's actually positive to cut your bottom 10%."

That's just some food for thought as you prepare to consume this bigger-and-better-than-ever April/May expanded real estate section, and as you pack your bags for real estate's biggest show, RECon 2013 in Las Vegas, May 19-21.

kboccaccio@chainstoreage.com