As he waited at the corner of Main and Ervay streets to welcome Sophia Loren to Neiman-Marcus’ 1975 Italian Fortnight, Tom Alexander, the store’s executive vice president, looked up. In the windows of the Mercantile National Bank building, dozens of faces were eagerly pressed against glass, eyes expectantly peering down at the spot where the famous actress was scheduled to arrive. Those faces, Alexander knew, were a good sign. Crowds waiting outside the store usually meant that good sales volumes would soon follow. The crowded office windows appeared to be a special omen that the third Italian Fortnight would be a hit.
“I keep looking up to see the faces again,” says Alexander, the chief architect of Fortnight in recent years. “I haven’t seen them.” But what he has seen during recent Fortnights more than makes up for their absence: record sales. Twenty-seven years after Stanley Marcus staged the first Neiman-Marcus Fortnight, the world-famous celebration of international culture, cuisine and fashion is still a smash with the store’s customers-and a thorn in the side of competitors.
Neiman-Marcus executives long ago stopped revealing sales figures to the media, but, says Alexander, “Last year’s German Fortnight was the most successful Fortnight yet.” And hopes have been high within the store that this year’s British celebration, which Princess Margaret is scheduled to attend, will eclipse even last year’s record sales volume.
Today, Fortnight imitations are being staged in major department stores across the United States and in parts of Europe. “Fortnight is probably the most copied merchandising technique in the country,” says Stanley Marcus, who developed the concept in 1956 as a way to offset the slowdown that usually hits fall sales about two months before the Christmas rush.
Neiman-Marcus’ first Fortnight in 1957 celebrated France-and the downtown store’s 50th anniversary-in a way that Dallas and the nation had never seen. The building was aglitter with Gallic decor, French goods, Paris models, French business, fashion, cultural and diplomatic leaders, and the crème de la crème of Dallas. French writers and artists flew into Love Field aboard a special Air France plane (then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson secured the landing rights). The Dallas Museum of Fine Arts hosted a stunning display of 32 paintings by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. National and international press coverage was extensive. Time magazine cooed: “All Dallas was swept into the act… Naturally, Neiman’s chose France, where the highest fashion comes from-and naturally, France was only too glad to help Neiman’s, where all good Texas millionaires outfit their wives.. .The six-story building was like a Gallic birthday cake.”
That first Fortnight cost roughly $400,000 to stage and generated an estimated $2 million in sales-a 25 percent boost over the usual volume. Today, nearly three decades later, Fortnight costs considerably more; exactly how much is “a private matter,” says N-M chairman of the board Richard Marcus. “But Fortnight is our most expensive promotional effort outside of the Christmas catalog.” And the investment, he adds, “is paid back fully. We probably do twice the level of business [with Fortnight] that we would do in this store without Fortnight.”
Adds Alexander: “We do more business in general merchandise on a given day of the Fortnight than we do on a good day during the Christmas rush.”
In the competitive arena of fine department stores, the line between profit and loss can be very thin. To gain an edge, Neiman-Marcus and its competitors have long battled each other for merchandise “exclusives.” Importing goods from faraway lands has been one way that merchandisers can corner the first or only supply of a prized item. But with the rise of easier world travel and instant global communications, stores must contend with what Tom Alexander terms “the death of exclusivity.” He says, “the world has shrunk, and that puts an extra burden on merchandisers to find things others don’t have.” In search of prize finds for Fortnight, N-M’s buyers often spend weeks scouring the cottage industries and back-country regions of the chosen nation. “And for a brief shining moment, we will have our exclusivity,” Alexander says. But even those coups usually move quickly to the larger marketplace, since representatives of N-M’s competitors are always in the Fortnight throngs. Following the great success of the 1957 French splash, those competitors showed up in force for Stanley Marcus’s 1958 British fete. And they have been returning ever since. Soon after the doors open on a new Fortnight, they are on the phone to their bosses, reporting what Neiman-Mar-cus has discovered-and where it was found.
A sage once declared: “Amateurs imitate; artists steal.” Stanley Marcus stole the idea for Fortnight, expanded it and shaped it into a merchandising art form. One day in 1956, the peripatetic Marcus was soaking up the sights of downtown Stockholm. Suddenly, he saw something in a store window he liked very much: a colorful display of French merchandise. The store itself was decorated in tricolors and had a French fashion show, as well as an imported French chef. Marcus talked to the Swedish store’s management, learned that the French government had helped foot the bill, and soon flew to Paris to meet with officials of the Comité des Foires. There, he promised the skeptical French a celebration on a grand scale that would benefit their industry and tourism if they would split the costs and help round up key spokesmen for the arts and economy of France. Marcus then held a press conference in Paris to announce his scheme and flew back to Dallas to convince local business and civic leaders to help him turn his new idea into a city wide event. He succeeded, and Time soon dubbed him “The Man Who Sells Everything.”
To help galvanize community support, each Fortnight is preceded by a gala ball benefiting a selected organization or charity. The funds are donated on a rotating basis to arts, education and health organizations and the City of Dallas. The size of the galas at the store has more than doubled since the mid-Seventies (to about 1,800 guests, N-M officials say), and some of the charities have netted up to $150,000 from the star-studded preview. Last year’s Fortnight Gala proceeds went to Timberlawn Psychiatric Research Foundation. This year’s beneficiary is the Friends of the Dallas Public Library.
Planning a Fortnight starts a year to 18 months in advance-sometimes longer- and the background work often takes years. For example, efforts to bring Princess Margaret to this year’s British Fortnight first began during Neiman-Marcus’ 1979 Fortnight celebrating Great Britain. Alexander became the chief planner of Fortnight after Stanley Marcus left the store in 1975 to become executive vice president of Carter Hawley Hale Stores Inc.
“Once the choice is made,” says Alexander, “we make an approach to that country. We discuss the many benefits to them Of Fortnight, and we seek their support.” After the deal is struck, N-M executives, buyers and others connected with the event begin a series of visits to the Fortnight nation. They meet with officials, do research, take photographs and fan out in search of the all-important goods and cultural touches that will create Fortnight’s unique atmosphere. Alexander explains the criteria they use: “Is the country newsworthy? Is a large quantity of quality merchandise available? And can we bring it into the store and sell it somewhat profitably?”
Once work commences on the next Fortnight, Alexander prepares floor-by-floor outlines of what the event might offer. “I do about 10 working outlines, and the final outline becomes the directory for the Fortnight,” he says.
In his book Minding the Store, Stanley Marcus credits much of Fortnight’s long-running success to New York designer Alvin Colt, hailing him as “a master at bringing the quality of the theater into a retail store.” Colt, a veteran set designer for Broadway and television, was hired in 1962 to help stage the 1963 Swiss Fortnight. This year’s Fortnight, Colt’s 22nd, is his fourth turn at a British theme. “Fortnights really are done like settings for the ballet, the opera or a Broadway musical,” Colt says. “They are done with a very theatrical point of view. There must be an impact on the audience so that when people come into the store, they are completely engrossed in what is happening. It’s not display, interior design or anything like that. Fortnight design has a whole stamp of its own. It’s an experience, and it’s just the same as when the curtain goes up on a show.”
Indeed, the manager of one New York retail outlet that holds its own version of Fortnight has called the stagings “department store theater,” a description that pleases both Colt and Stanley Marcus. But the original N-M Fortnight, Marcus insists, “continues to be the most thorough” and has the strongest community support. Where the imitators of Fortnight fall short, he believes, is in their inability to create “a cultural event as well as a marketing event. I was very insistent about bringing in folk art, music, dancers, paintings and other things that we wouldn’t sell but that would help educate the public. I think that’s a very essential part of Fortnight.”
At its bottom line, Fortnight is a commercial happening-salesmanship in elegant guise. But the celebration of merchandise and culture must be an aesthetic success as well as a financial one. Fortnight’s traditions, the store’s founding tenets and N-M’s executives all demand that the customers be pleased by what they see and do and eat-as well as by what they purchase.
How do Fortnight’s planners know when they have another six-floor hit on their hands? The most important measure, of course, are sales figures, studied discreetly in the executive offices on the seventh floor. But N-M’s executives also watch the faces of customers and listen to their comments. According to Alexander, store personnel note “the length of the lines of people stacked up like cordwood and dominoes waiting to get onto the escalator and elevators, as well as the length of the lines for the Zodiac Room and the pubs and the free samples.” Local, national and international press clippings provide another gauge of how well Fortnight is promoting the store’s image as a purveyor of quality merchandise. There is also an occasional “grid-lock” in the aisles. On some Fortnight Saturdays, the store becomes so crowded that customers can barely move. “We now try to take the grid-lock into account in our planning,” Alexander says. “There is such a thing as being too successful.”
But the highest praise, says Richard Marcus, is when representatives of the Fortnight nation tell them that they see wonderful merchandise from their country that they’ve never seen in their country. Adds Marcus: “That’s a tribute to our buyers.”
Many countries crave their turn in the Fortnight spotlight, but only a few can qualify to be a Nei-man-Marcus nation. “We get messages all the time from emerging countries saying, ’Now we’re ready,’ ” Alexander says. Adds Keith Nix, N-M’s vice president for public relations: “There has to be a terrific heritage and a terrific array of merchandise, as well as the willingness of business and government to cooperate with us.” The honor of selection carries with it economic rewards that can last well beyond the three weeks of sales in Dallas and the worldwide media exposure. Fortnights have opened new markets and created new industries and jobs in foreign countries, Stanley Marcus says. “And we have given them a lot of understanding of what the American market wants in the way of products.”
Critics might argue, however, that by showcasing foreign goods, Fortnights are doing little to help America’s frightening-and apparently widening-trade deficit. Stanley Marcus counters that during Fortnights he “always tried to stress what our exports were, too-that we exported to France or Britain or Italy millions of dollars’ worth of goods, such as oranges from the Rio Grande Valley and cotton from West Texas-and the fact that you can’t export without importing.”
Richard Marcus notes that many products imported by department stores today are actually universal goods. “The cotton in an item of clothing may have been grown in one country, woven in another, transported by yet another country’s air carrier, and finally retailed in stores around the world. The cotton, in fact, originally may have come from the United States,” he says.
For the first time in the Fortnight’s 27-year history, Neiman-Marcus has expanded the concept beyond its downtown Dallas store. An Austrian festival was staged in Houston September 17 through 29, well in advance of Dallas’ British Fortnight. For Houston, Colt created the settings for a Viennese focus at Neiman’s Galleria store and a Tyrolean emphasis at the Town & Country store. But the expansion is a cautious experiment, not a trend, according to Richard Marcus. “We’re not calling it a Fortnight-yet. We’re going to learn if we can stage this kind of event in more than one venue at a time.” One reason for the expansion, some N-M executives say, is because managers of many of N-M’s 20 other stores have been pressuring the downtown Dallas store for the chance to share in its annual fall bonanza.
Richard Marcus says he doesn’t foresee a time when all 21 Neiman-Marcus stores might put on fall extravaganzas on the scale of Fortnight. “We might end up diluting the concept,” he says. “But we might explore these kinds of events [at other N-M stores] on a rotating basis.”
Inevitably, the question arises long before the latest Fortnight has run its course: What will Neiman’s do next year to top this one? As 1984’s British Fortnight opens, foreign trade officials continue to badger and pressure Neiman-Marcus executives to select their nations for Fortnight in 1985 and beyond. “They all recognize the great value of spotlighting the production of their countries,” Stanley Marcus says. But the store remains steadfast, its executives say, even when nations offer to pay the whole cost of the fête, instead of splitting the tab, which is the formula established in the beginning by Fortnight’s creator.
N-M officials recently began the decision-making on the focus of the 1985 Fortnight. But the nation, region or theme will remain a closely guarded secret until at least January or February 1985. Nix nonetheless offers two tantalizing hints. “We’ve been working with one country for 12 years, and we hope within the next two years to do it,” he says. “It’s an exceptional situation. We’ve wanted to do it for so long, and finally it’s coming together. Also, it’s possible to combine countries thematically, as we did with The Odyssey Fortnight in 1982, which featured Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia.”
A theme not involving a nation or region is also a possibility, Richard Marcus says. In 1971, when the downtown store staged its colorful “Fete des Fleurs,” the celebration of flowers and flower-themed merchandise proved both an aesthetic and a sales success. It helped, of course, that Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco were the guests of honor. “Those [kinds of Fortnights] need more time to organize and need much more original thinking, but we have some of those ideas on our back burner,” Richard Marcus says.
Historical themes might also work well, Stanley Marcus believes. The Holy Roman Empire, for example, might have a good run. But packaging an entire continent is taking the idea too far, he says. He learned that from the 1959 South American Fortnight-’a good show.. .but financially… our least successful effort,” he notes in Minding the Store. “There is the practical problem of merchandise availability,” he says, “plus the fact that most countries don’t like to be thought of as part of a group. They all like to be spotlighted as the star.”
The 1970 Fortnight honoring a made-up nation, Ruritania, didn’t set sales records, but it proved to be a clever solution to a sticky situation and remains one of Stanley Marcus’ personal favorites. Australia had pressured Neiman-Marcus for years to be a Fortnight nation, but when it finally got its chance, turmoil developed in its government. The new head of Australia’s Department of Trade pulled out of the contract five months before the show was to go on. A sympathetic advertising man suggested to Stanley Marcus that he could invent a country. Marcus liked the idea and declared on the spot that he would stage a “Ruritanian” Fortnight. Later, he realized that the name had come from Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, The Prisoner of Zenda.
Tom Alexander liked the idea, too, and the two men set about inventing Ruritania-its heritage, monarchy, postage stamps and money. Coins were minted from chocolate instead of silver. N-M’s buyers were given free rein to import the merchandise. Victor Borge played the role of Ruritania’s prime minister, while Gloria Vanderbilt and her husband, Wyatt Cooper, appeared as the queen and king.
N-M officials refuse to even hint at the nations under consideration for 1985 and beyond. “There’s too much at stake,” Nix says. But a few nations and regions suitable for wild guesses by Fortnight watchers might include the following: Australia (14 years have passed since it pulled the plug); the People’s Republic of China (its profile is higher, its history is rich and exotic, it needs more trade, and N-M’s highly successful “Orientations” Fortnight in 1981 celebrated Thailand, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong but, significantly, not Taiwan); the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands (consider the possibilities-diamonds, chocolates, cheeses, tulips, artists, medieval architecture, castles, windmills and lots of royalty-and Fortnight planners and Dallas society have a particular fondness for royalty); and Norway and Sweden (more royal possibilities here, plus historical ties to Texas’ settlement-and neighboring Denmark was showcased back in 1964). Ireland’s Fortnight in 1976 was also a smash hit; the strong Irish ties in Dallas and Texas helped generate the second best sales volume in Fortnight’s history. Or the choice may prove conservative: another French Fortnight-the fourth-to keep in balance the scales of N-M’s Anglo-Franco relations. The last French Fortnight was in 1977, and the British are having their second go since then.
There remains another possibility, of course. Neiman-Marcus could decide not to stage Fortnight next year and attempt a new selling technique. But that question doesn’t even come up, N-M executives say. “I don’t think we could not have Fortnight, even if we wanted to,” Richard Marcus says. “It has become a community event. And one of the great joys of Fortnight involves the numbers of people it attracts and the great diversity: young and old, regular customers and infrequent customers. If we didn’t have it, I think somebody would get run out of town.”
Perhaps the biggest Fortnight quandary that N-M executives have faced recently involves semantics: What do you call a Fortnight that lasts for three weeks? Three Fortnights ago, they added the extra week to spread out the crowds and go for even higher sales volumes. But purists among N-M’s top staff members confess that they have felt guilty about continuing to use the ancient synonym for “two weeks.”
Shortly before the opening of this year’s festivities, a very proper British trade official wondered if there perhaps might be a more accurate name for what clearly was a fortnight and a half. Alexander had an answer handy, and it soon brought a relieved smile to the official’s stiff upper lip. “It’s a Neiman-Marcus fortnight,” Alexander replied. “Everything in Texas is a little bit bigger.”
CALENDAR OF EVENTS
The following Is a partial listing of special events scheduled to be held at Neiman-Marcus and within the community during the ’84 British Fortnight, October 15 through November 3. Certain events will be held almost daily. These include the following:
First week: KERA/90FM broadcasting from store-British related programming. . . Len Metcalf and his British Music Hall-8:45 a.m.,First Floor. . .John Styles Punch and Judy-11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., Fifth Floor. . Ring O’Bells Morris Dance Team -11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m., Third Floor. . . Ron Fink and his North Texas State Musicians- 11:00 a.m. -2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.-7:00 pm., Fifth Floor. Second week: New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players-12 noon, 2:00, 4:00, 6:00 p.m., Third Floor. Ron Fink and his North Texas State Musicians (same times). Third week: Players Theatre Company (Performing Victorian Music Hall, 12 noon, 2:00, 4:00, 6:00 p.m., Fifth Floor. . . Ron Fink and his North Texas State Musicians (same times).
October 15,1984. Public Opening 9:15 a.m. MHCG Tallboys opening remarks. . Barbara Woodhouse, author of books on dog training, television personality. . .Special exhibit: Winston S. Churchill, Painting as a Pasttime. This showing will consist of 15 to 20 landscapes as well as several sculptures. Edwina Sandys, granddaughter of Churchill, here Oct. 14-16 (also her assistant, Jennifer Beeby). . .Apparel and furnishings from London’s famed supplier of attire of the Prince of Wales, Turnbull & Asser. Ken Williams, managing director, here Oct. 15-17.
October 16, 1984. Special exhibit: Winston S. Churchill, Painting as a Pasttime. Edwina Sandys, granddaughter of Churchill, here. (Also her assistant, Jennifer Bebby). . .Turnbull & Asser: Apparel & furnishings from London’s famed supplier of attire of the Prince of Wales. Ken Williams, managing director, here Oct. 15-17.
October 17, 1984. Barbara Woodhouse… Turnbull & Asser.
October 18, 1984. Jean Muir formal fashion show.
October 19, 1984. Barbara Woodhouse. . .Betty Jackson of Betty Jackson, Ltd., London.
October 20, 1984. Betty Jackson of Betty Jackson, Ltd., London. . . Richardson Community Band (Richardson Square Mall) 2:00 p.m.-a band consisting of 50 members who have an established repertoire of present and past English composed music. . . Dallas Public Library, Oct. through Dec. -Stratford exhibit of “It Was a Lover and His Lass” costumes from Shakespearean plays exhibited in 7th floor exhibit hall… British Genealogy presented by Lloyd Bockstruck; 3-6 hours long (a minimal fee will be charged).
October 22, 1984. New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players.
October 23,1984. Formal fashion show with Zandra Rhodes-11:00 a.m., Second floor. . .New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. . . Ron Fink and his North Texas State Musicians.
October 24, 1984. New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. . . Ron Fink and his North Texas State Musicians.
October 25,1984. New Arts Theater -Betrayal, the play by Harold Pinter which follows the seven year affair of a woman and her husband’s best friend. . . New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. . . Ron Fink and ’his North Texas State Musicians.
October 26,1984. New Arts Theater -Betrayal:. . New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. . . Ron Fink and his North Texas State Musicians.
October 27, 1984. SMU, The Meadows Museum, 10:00-5:00-A symposium will be presented by the Charleston Trust on the Charleston House in Sussex. In association with the Dallas Museum of Art, Kimbell Art Museum, Meadows Art Museum and SMU. . Sale Street Fair 10:00-6:00 p.m. A street fair with food, crafts, music and entertainment . . .New Arts Theater-Betrayal. . .New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players . . . Ron Fink and his North Texas State Musicians.
October 28, 1984. SMU, The Meadows Museum, 1:00-5:00-Exhibit by the Bloomsbury Group for the Charleston Trust.
October 29, 1984. SMU, The Meadows Museum. 10:00-5:00- Exhibit by the Bloomsbury Group for the Charleston Group. . . New Arts Theater-Betrayal . . . Players Theatre Company (Performing Victorian Music Hall) . . . Ron Fink and his North Texas State Musicians.
October 30,1984. New Arts Theater – Betrayal . . . Players Theatre Company (Performing Victorian Music Hall) . . . Ron Fink and his North Texas State Musicians.
October 31,1984. New Arts Theater –Betrayal . . . Players Theatre Company (Performing Victorian Music Hall).
November 1,1984. New Arts Theater- Betrayal . . . Players Theatre Company (Performing Victorian Music Hall) . . . Ron Fink and his North Texas State Musicians.
November 2,1984. New Arts Theater -Betrayal . . . Players Theatre Company (Performing Victorian Music Hall).
November 3, 1984. Croquet tournament held on City Hall lawn, which will be the final competition of five different tournaments held at the five community branches early in Sept. Three age groups to compete. Croquet sets as prizes . . . Best of British Rock held on City Hall lawn from 3:00-5:00 p.m. with sound and light show and retrospective of British Rock producers by KAFM radio. DJ will emcee croquet tournament before concert . . . Players Theatre Company (Performing Victorian Music Hall) . . . Ron Fink and his North Texas State Musicians.