Neiman Marcus may file for bankruptcy, but either way, it needs to get slimmer

It looks like selling plenty of Alexander McQueen dresses for $13,500 and Kiton men’s biker jackets for $10,795 won’t be enough to spare Neiman Marcus from seeking bankruptcy protection.

The iconic 113-year-old retailer—which has struggled for years and is now pushed to the edge by the pandemic forcing its stores to close indefinitely—is reportedly close to filing for Chapter 11 protection on Sunday, with emergency financing of $600 million lined up, in hopes of restructuring itself as a healthier, and, probably, leaner business. A Neiman Marcus spokesperson declined to comment.

Neiman Marcus, founded in downtown Dallas in 1907 and for decades the de rigueur fashion destination for society ladies and debutantes alike, is renowned for its hyper-elegant emporia—with designer clothes presented in sumptuous settings with art by Roy Lichtenstein and Matisse—and its top restaurants.

Yet, despite its cachet, the chain has struggled to keep up in the luxury wars. And its enormous debt load of $4.9 billion—a slightly bigger figure than annual sales and the result of two leveraged buyouts since 2006—has handcuffed the company.

“The ladies who lunch are what the typical shopper may have been. That’s not the lifestyle people live anymore,” says Marie Driscoll, managing director for Coresight Research’s luxury and fashion practice.

Younger consumers aren’t as wedded to a single retailer or brand anymore, and today’s luxury shoppers are happy to match a designer dress with vintage shoes from a thrift shop and a handbag they got at T.J. Maxx. A former Neiman CEO complained a few years ago that Neiman’s shoppers had become less loyal and visited stores less frequently.

That isn’t to say Neiman doesn’t benefit from a loyal clientele: Its most regular customers spend an average of $16,617 a year there, the company told Fortune last year. About 31% of Neiman customers are in a household with a net worth above $1 million.

But it needs a new generation of shoppers.

Neiman stopped publicly disclosing its financials last summer once the number of its creditors fell below a threshold set by U.S. regulators. But its sales had slipped from its $5 billion apex in 2015.

To sustain a nationwide fleet of now 43 stores, making it the largest luxe department business, ahead of Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s, Neiman has cast a wider net than in its heyday. And that, to some degree, has been its core problem: denting its luxury cred.

As much as Neiman Marcus can embody the ne plus ultra in luxury retail, it sells a lot of the same merchandise as does Macy’s Inc’s Bloomingdale’s chain, Nordstrom, and Saks—brands like A.G. jeans, Theory, Canada Goose, Ted Baker, and so on.

That is the same “sea of sameness” that has hurt department stores Macy’s, J.C. Penney, and Kohl’s, but at the luxury level. It’s what ultimately felled Barneys, which went bankrupt last summer and liquidated in February.

“You’re just going into the lion’s den of ‘accessible’ luxury where there’s plenty of competition,” says Steve Dennis, a former Neiman Marcus executive and head of SageBerry Consulting.

What’s more, Neiman did its high-end aura no favors last decade by expanding a fleet of Last Call discount stores. The company said in March it would start closing all but three of them to shore up its luxury image. Saks has made the same mistake with its massive Off 5th outlet chain.

Yet, even at the very high end, Neiman is facing much more intense competition than a decade ago, not just from Saks, but from its own vendors. The luxury brands themselves—such as Chanel, Brioni, Dior, and Salvatore Ferragamo—have opened up many more of their own stores in the past decade and have vastly stronger websites than they used to.

And then there is Farfetch and Net-a-Porter, which have poached a lot of business. To be fair, on the e-commerce front, Neiman is no slouch. Some 36% of its revenue is digital, more than what Nordstrom or Saks get.

But all this makes the following question even more pressing: What is a 100,000-square-foot Neiman Marcus store even for anymore?

Leaner and meaner

Observers believe that a leaner, more focused Neiman will be a more viable Neiman: Ubiquity is the antithesis of luxury, after all.

With fewer stores, Neiman would be able to make the remaining ones more dazzling and distinctive. Observers point to Bergdorf Goodman, owned by Neiman Marcus Group, and Harrods in London as models: one-of-a-kind stores that are true destinations.

Neiman stores are indisputably elegant and lovely. But Driscoll likens them to beautiful European cathedrals: majestic and beautiful, homages to a bygone era.

The point of a store is no longer about browsing, hoping for a nice surprise. Young shoppers browse on Pinterest and Instagram to get ideas.

“The glamour of stores is not necessary anymore,” Driscoll says. “You have to create theater and event.” That means things like more in-store events with designers or private mini fashion shows.

Whatever form that takes will be easier to do with fewer stores. Neiman is already espousing that ethos in many ways: Its year-old store at New York’s Hudson Yards mall, now closed until further notice, hosts a big cooking demonstration area that has proved wildly popular with visitors.

The Neiman Marcus at Hudson Yards in New York hosted a Fashion Week CBD panel in 2019.
Eugene Gologursky—Getty Images for Neiman Marcus

Given the shift by shoppers away from luxury department stores in recent years, many see the landscape ripe for consolidation. And given how badly luxury shopping is likely to be hurt by the pandemic, the case is stronger.

There is, once again, market speculation that Saks’s parent company, Hudson’s Bay Co., will take a stab at buying Neiman, this time in bankruptcy court, and merge operations, while keeping the chains separate. HBC has reportedly tried three times in the past decade.

The idea would be to have more clout with brands and cut stores in markets where they have locations near each other. (Fortune in December predicted HBC would buy Neiman and shut a third of each chain’s stores.) HBC declined to comment.

Whether or not that happens, and whether Neiman seeks bankruptcy protection, the company will most likely have to become a slimmer retailer to keep its spot in wealthy shoppers’ affections and carve out a more distinctive niche for itself—all the more given luxury sales are already cratering, as evidenced by quarterly results from LVMH and other conglomerates.

“There is too much capacity chasing too few dollars,” says Dennis.

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