Upscale chain that caters to richest 1% set to debut at SouthPark on Friday
NICHOLE MONROE BELL
CHARLOTTE - When Neiman Marcus opens at SouthPark mall Friday, self-described "fashion addict" Vahni Hughes plans to be there, ready to splurge.
But her pocketbook better be ready.
With its $3,000 handbags, $5,000 evening gowns and $10,000 diamond-studded false eyelashes, Neiman Marcus' over-the-top, unapologetic glam caters to the richest of the rich.
"At Neiman, it's about the total experience," Hughes said.
Neiman Marcus will bring an unrivaled level of luxury shopping to the Charlotte region, retail experts said. The department store's strategy is simple: indulge the rich by selling clothing, jewelry and trinkets only they can afford.
Their target clientele: households with an annual income in the top 1 percent. In the Charlotte area, that's about $245,000 a year.
"Neiman has great product, and they don't water their price down for the market or anyone," said Glen Taylor, co-owner of Taylor Richards & Conger in Phillips Place. "If you're a shopper, you step up, or you step back."
The Charlotte store will be the only Neiman Marcus between Atlanta and Washington, D.C. And while the retailer has traditionally focused on larger cities, the company's arrival in Charlotte is part of a broader strategy to expand to new markets.
Neiman spokeswoman Gabrielle de Papp said the company had its eye on Charlotte for "some time," and plans to draw from a 50-mile radius. The store has been designed to accommodate a third floor, which could be added after a year.
"We study markets carefully and have been watching the amazing growth the city has experienced over the past 20 years," de Papp wrote in an e-mail. "The demographics show growth in the luxury sector. ... Charlotte has seen a phenomenal increase in the recent past within our target market."
More than 9,100 Mecklenburg County households have a net worth of $1 million or more, but researchers estimate that figure could grow to 15,000 in the next few years.
"It seems to me there's a fairly natural base for Neiman to come in and serve a customer that may not be served at this point," said Patricia Edwards, a retail analyst for Wentworth, Hauser and Violich in Seattle. "Even people who don't have the money will go in and look at what's hot. Anytime you bring up the fashion sensibility of a city, there'll be a trickle-down effect."
When Nordstrom opened at SouthPark in 2004, shoppers were excited at the prospect of an upscale department store. But observers say Nordstrom targets a lower-income demographic than Neiman -- and pales in comparison when it comes to the amount of luxury items.
Even Neiman's decor oozes opulence. The walls are covered with original artwork commissioned from 19 regional artists. Handbags, shoes and gloves are displayed in museum-style cases. Home decor items are set against a backdrop of Venetian plaster, mosaic marble accents and beaded textured glass. And for optimum application of cosmetics, the entire store is bathed in a glow that replicates natural light.
Hughes, a Wachovia Web site content manager, said she plans to take Friday off to attend the opening. While her income falls short of the top 1 percent, Hughes said she sees Neiman as a place where people can splurge on little things such as lipstick. She said she tries to visit Neiman when she's visiting other cities.
"I do hit these stores if for nothing else than for inspiration," she said.
Neiman is thriving at a time when some retailers are struggling to hold on to customers. One reason: high-end shoppers are not as sensitive to factors such as skyrocketing gas prices.
"What Neiman Marcus is doing is what we recommend for all retailers who can afford it -- follow the money," said Gerald Celente, director of Trends Institute, a consulting agency in Rhinebeck, N.Y. "The people at the top are not going to stop spending money, and they are not going to lose it. And that market doesn't move much with the ebbs and flows of the economic tide."
Other Charlotte-area retailers said they believe their stores will benefit from Neiman Marcus' opening. Belk spokesman Steve Pernotto said he expects increased traffic at SouthPark, which will cause an overall boost in sales for the mall's tenants.
Taylor of Taylor Richards & Conger said he plans to compete by offering clothing from trendier, lesser-known designers. The men's store also will rely more on custom-tailored pieces.
He said there's another benefit to Neiman Marcus. Customers will be less likely to complain about his prices.
Although his customers can afford $2,000 Armani suits, they still grouse about the price, he said.
"In a community like this, where we've always been at the top of the elevator as far as pricing, we feel like it will legitimize some of the price points we have," Taylor said. "They'll raise the ceiling on pricing here."
Database editor Ted Mellnik and Staff Writer Stella Hopkins contributed.