The Fantasy Shopper

It’s my job to find those outrageous gifts that make everyone talk about Neiman Marcus’ famous Christmas catalog. The $20 million submarine? Great idea. How do I top it? Not with a trip to the moon, that’s for sure.

I was working at the Dallas Museum of Art in 1996 when I got the call. The woman who had been finding fantasy gifts for the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book was retiring after 22 years, and they were looking for someone new to do it. They wanted somebody who had buying and public relations experience. Frankly, the idea terrified me. I said, “No, no, no. I’m very happy right here.” I didn’t think I could do it.

I had grown up with Neiman Marcus. The Christmas Book was iconic. Growing up in Shreveport, I had heard about those gifts all my life. We used to come to Dallas at Christmastime to see them and shop. How could I possibly do that job? And then I went to see Stanley Marcus, whom I had gotten to know well while working at the museum.

He said, “I can’t give you any advice. I don’t work for the company any longer.” He was very clear about that. But he said, “Why wouldn’t you take the job? What a wonderful thing! Think of all the people you will meet, all the things you’ll get to do. Why wouldn’t you at least try it?” That was enough for me.

That year, the Christmas Book was unveiled at the museum, and I watched how they did it. One of the gifts was a life-size X-Wing Starfighter, from Star Wars. It was huge. And heavy. They had to reinforce the slate in the sculpture garden to support it. I thought, “These gifts are crazy, but maybe I could come up with stuff like this.” I accepted the job and realized that I had to start from scratch. There was no manual that said, Here’s how you do it or here’s who you call. Not only that, but there was a committee I had to present the gift ideas to. Within six months, I had to come up with 30 potential gift ideas. Luckily, everyone at Neiman Marcus was willing to help. I get terrific ideas every year from buyers and executives throughout the company.

SHOPPING SPREE: (top to bottom) Neiman Marcus limited-edition Bell Helicopter, $6.7 million (2001 Book); pink sapphire and diamond jewelry suite, $2.5 million (2004 ); Las Vegas trike, $65,000 (2004); one-of-a-kind, hand-carved carousel, $300,000 (1998).

My first year was the 90th anniversary of Neiman Marcus. Personally, my fantasy would be to have a library of first-edition novels. So I worked with a rare book dealer and David Farmer, a librarian at SMU, and put together a library of 90 great American novels. There was a Great Gatsby with an original dust jacket. That alone was worth $30,000. There was a Grapes of Wrath, Tender Is the Night, Lolita. Every great American novel from the past 90 years. No one bought the entire library, but more than 600 people called for the list of books.

That first year, we also offered a Sony Suburban. It was a collaboration between GMC and Sony, with video screens everywhere. No one had ever seen anything like it. But the idea was ahead of the technology. We were burning out the batteries every 300 miles. It was not our best effort, in terms of a car.

I learned that the press doesn’t always see things the same way we do. We featured an artist who made beautiful marionettes, in your exact likeness. The one we photographed was of the artist’s neighbor. Someone on a newscast quipped that it looked like Ross Perot. Next thing you know, there were reports all over the country that Neiman Marcus was selling a Ross Perot puppet.

That was all in my first year. And it was fun! I quickly learned that you could never predict how the gifts will be received. In 2001, after 9/11, we canceled the big launch party for the catalog. We thought, “This year there will be no publicity. It’s not appropriate.” Six weeks later, we received a call from the Today show, and they said, “It’s clear that our viewers need some reassurance that life goes on. Will you bring the gifts to New York for the show?” That year we were offering a luxury helicopter. Of course, we’d planned it months earlier. But we got lots of negative comments from customers. People were saying, “How could you offer a weapon?”

The year before, we’d offered a $20 million submarine. It was basically an underwater yacht, very top of the line. The living area had 10-foot ceilings. It slept 10. It was very cool. It had been designed for a gentleman who had died before it could be built.

In October 2001 I got a message from our call center. They said, “Sergeant Ryan from the New York City Police Department called. He wants you to call him back immediately.” And I said, “Very funny,” because we get prank calls all the time. But this was legitimate. When I finally got through to him, he said, “All I want to know is, did somebody buy the submarine? I’m with the NYC Terrorism Task Force, and we need to know if there’s a private submarine out there that we don’t know about.” I told him that we had not sold one and gave him all our contact information for the company that designed it. Then I told him, “You know, I’m sorry it took me a couple of hours to get back to you. I thought this was a prank.” And he said, “Frankly, Ms. Reeder, I thought a catalog selling a submarine was a prank.”

Many of the big items like the submarines don’t sell. But we have to act as if every one of them will. Stanley Marcus said about the submarine, “It’s not outrageous that you would offer a $20 million submarine, because somebody is going to be in the market for one. What you have to be sure of is that you’re offering the best submarine there is.” That’s the key. If somebody is in the market for a submarine—the very best, top-of-the-line sub—they can find it at Neiman Marcus. We’re not just putting something like that in the catalog to be nutty. Last year, we offered a zeppelin. I went and flew in it. I checked it out and can say that it was the best airship of that kind being made.

The helicopter was the most expensive gift we’ve ever actually sold. It was $6.7 million. That idea came directly from Bell Helicopter. They contacted us. Most of the gift ideas come to us that way. Someone will contact us directly. I remember the man who called and said, “I’ve built a working merry-go-round in my backyard, and my neighbors told me I should call Neiman Marcus.” And I said, “Tell me a little bit more about it.” This was before e-mail was widespread. He said, “It’s big, and it’s got lots of animals on it.” He’d retired and inherited woodcarving tools from his grandfather, and his wife asked him to make her a carousel horse, just for the living room. Once he got started, I guess, he just kept carving. It was a compelling story.

BULL’S-EYE, A WOMP RAT: In 1996, Neiman’s offered a life-size replica of an X-wing Starfighter for $35,000.

I went to his house in rural Tennessee to see his merry-go-round. It was beautiful. We put it in the catalog, because, again, if you were in the market for a merry-go-round, this was the best one you could buy. The price was $300,000, which I thought was reasonable for a working, hand-carved, hand-painted merry-go-round. He sold several of the individual animals, and PBS did a story on him. He got publicity that made him feel good, and he kept the merry-go-round in his pasture for the neighborhood kids to play on. He’s the kind of person I love working with on the Book.

With e-mail now, the search is different. Every September, after the Book comes out, about 400 e-mails and letters come from people who think they’ve got the perfect idea for a gift. Some of them build elaborate presentations. When I open them, things pop up, and there are pictures of them and their children. I’m such a softie. I think, “Oh, I’ll just present it. Then I can write a thank-you note and say I presented it but it just wasn’t right for this year.” I am a coward when it comes to those things. It’s hard to say no to nice people. That’s the worst part of the job.

Then, of course, there are some people who have been really unpleasant. This one man spent his life building a toy railroad, until he’d gone through all his savings. It had an elaborate village and the little cars and everything. He wanted $250,000 for it. He called every year, and he would get furious, just livid. I had to keep telling him, “It’s not for us. It’s just not right for Neiman Marcus.”

The other thing about the job that has changed since I started is that the legal department has had to become much more involved. Insurance has become a serious issue. We used to shake hands on these things, and we were done. But the world has changed. And I’m constantly consulting with our legal department.

KNIGHT RANGER: One buyer ponied up $20,000 for a custom suit of armor in 2004.

Over the years, for example, I’ve been approached to do space travel. And our attorney would say, “No. Too risky. We just can’t allow it.” Then, in early 2001, Dennis Tito went into space with a company called Space Adventures. They called and asked if we wanted to put a space trip in the catalog. And I said, “Not now. Somebody has already done it.” If you want to be in the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, you have to give me a reason, some kind of reason. Why would someone buy it from Neiman Marcus? Why wouldn’t they just call Space Adventures? They were not happy and hung up.

Two years later, I got another phone call from them. This time they said, “Okay, we’ve come up with something new for you. How about a trip to the far side of the moon and back?” And I said, “Keep talking.” The guy said, “It’s never been done. And everybody knows that the far side of the moon is the most romantic place in the world.” At this point I was laughing. What is this? Astronaut love stories? He went on to say that when you get to the far side of the moon, there’s no more sunlight in the cabin. They turn off the lights, and it’s pure starlight. It’s really wonderful, etc., etc., etc. So I said, “All right. How much? For two people.” They started out at $300 million. I told them that was crazy, and they came down a little on the price. But still, it was too high. There were going to be a number of test flights. We would have had to fund the changes to the Russian rocket ship to enable it to go to the moon. And, of course, there were the legal issues. It was going to be far too risky.

Then there are the ideas that don’t work, but not because of any objections from our attorneys or because they’re not unique enough. It’s more like they’re too unique. There were the his-and-hers caskets with the likeness of the deceased painted on them so that when the two caskets were put together, it looked like they were dancing. That was a little weird. We decided it didn’t really fit with Neiman Marcus.

Or the guy in Houston who had an enormous portable barbecue pit. I think it was 17 feet long. It was shaped like a gun, a revolver. The meat went into the chamber, and the smoke came out of the barrel. It was called the Smoking Gun for obvious reasons. We presented that to the committee, because who knows? They might say, “We love it!” I have to say I was relieved when it was not chosen.

THIS SPUD’S FOR YOU: In 2004, they covered Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head with Swarovski crystals. The price? $8,000 each.

Every few years there’s a gift that makes its way into the Book that I wish had not. I’ll give you just one example. One year we worked with an ice-carving artist. His work was anything but turtledoves and angels. It was more like motorcycles and curvy women. He was so enthusiastic about his work. He was a great salesman, very creative. And he had held his own on Martha Stewart’s TV show. So I thought it would be great to have him build an entire house out of ice in your backyard where you could have a party with a bar and everything. All built out of ice blocks.

But he was a little too creative. At the launch party, he showed up in leather pants, with no shirt. He no-showed for a television appearance and then didn’t create what I asked him to for another show. I think I failed on that one. I don’t think that was the best ice house I could have offered. He might not have represented Neiman Marcus very well. Thankfully, it didn’t sell.

The Christmas Book mails in late September, and we breathe a sigh of relief. That’s actually our Christmas Day. Then we have to get ready all over again. There is constant pressure to come up with another great selection of fantasy gifts. People will let you know what they think. They’ll say, “I didn’t like the gifts this year.” Or, “Those weren’t as good as last year.”

I have to admit that we do get tired of struggling to round up fantasy gifts for so many years. I start to wonder, does anyone really care about the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book? I am so close to it that I sometimes forget that it’s a story people can’t wait to see and love to talk about. I was in New York a few years ago and met Dan Rather. His first question was, “Did you ever sell that submarine?” It reminded me that we couldn’t ever take the history and traditions of Neiman Marcus lightly.

Besides, who am I kidding? It is a dream job. I went to Germany and flew over Lake Constance in a zeppelin. That was amazing. And the cars! Last year we did a special-edition Maserati. They were $125,000 apiece, and we sold 60 of them in four minutes. I went to Italy to pick the grill and the color, and, obviously, I had to drive one. It was fantastic.

In May, O, Oprah’s magazine, listed me as one of five women whose job she would like to have for a day. She’s right. I’m happy that I let Mr. Stanley talk me into taking it.

The launch party for the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book is September 27, at a secret location.

Photos: Courtesy of Neiman Marcus


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