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For 88 years, Neiman Marcus has published its legendary Christmas Book, quite possibly the only catalog in existence that sells Boeing jets and whimsically-printed limited-edition ATVs alongside luxury handbags and custom Toms shoes. But the Christmas Book is not your average catalog. At a time when e-commerce has made mail-order shopping nearly obsolete, Neiman's annual publication is still getting as much attention as ever—and it's Ginger Reeder's job to make sure it stays that way.
Reeder spends her days dreaming up and tracking down the Christmas Book's famed—and occasionally infamous—fantasy gifts. Prior to joining the ranks at Neiman, Reeder was a buyer for luxury catalog company Horchow and then worked in PR at the Dallas Museum of Art, where she first got to know Neiman CEO Stanley Marcus. This connection led her to her current gig, and she was clearly a good fit. She's held the same position for 18 years, though things like economic crises and digital revolutions have forced her, and the company, to adapt in ways she couldn't have foreseen when she joined the department store in 1996.
From the Neiman Marcus headquarters in Dallas, Reeder told us all about the storied history of the Christmas Book and what it's like spending all year uncovering the world's most over-the-top holiday gifts.
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This year's Christmas Book debuted on Tuesday. How long have you been working on it?
I've been working on the gifts in this issue for nine months. It's really a year-round thing! The final selection happens in May, and that's when we start contracts, copy, photography, and all of that stuff. I had a pitch this morning for a fantasy gift for next year!
How did the catalog first come to be?
The catalog started as a Christmas card for customers 88 years ago, and Stanley Marcus started doing fantasy gifts 54 years ago to answer inquiries from the press. People would call and say, "Okay, what are you crazy Texans doing for Christmas this year?" And usually he'd have a story, like there was one gentleman who bought all the downtown window displays to have them reproduced in his living room for Christmas morning. We'd have stories like that, and then he said, "If I come up with these deliberately, we'll always have an answer when the press calls." The publicity on those gifts meant that when we expanded outside of Texas, our reputation preceded us. People would say, "I know that company, that's the company that sells camels and mummy cases. I'm going to get my lipstick from that store."
What exactly does your job entail?
My title tells you nothing, as titles often do. I'm the vice president of corporate communications for the Neiman Marcus Group. One of my responsibilities, along with business news and media relations and crisis communication, is finding the fantasy gifts. We've been doing fantasy gifts for 54 years. I'm the fourth person to do this, and I've been doing it for 18 years. Every year it gets harder and harder because the world gets smaller. With social media, you'll see great products, but if it's on Facebook or Instagram, it's already been out there. We're looking for things that are specific to Neiman. This year in particular, we have more experiences than we've had in the past. That's certainly something we can do well—giving people access to things that they might not have access to otherwise. We'll see if that becomes a trend of where things are going.
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Do brands reach out to you with gift ideas, or do you reach out to them?
Both. This year, Creed perfume came to me and said, "What have you always wanted?" We hadn't done a beauty fantasy gift in many years. We did the launch of Aramis perfume in 1969, and you could have a lifetime supply. The picture in the catalog was a tanker truck with Aramis on the side. Creed came with some great ideas for us. So yes, from time to time, a brand will call. For the Vilebrequin Quadski his-and-hers gift, I knew it had to have a cute print. Those ATV vehicles would normally be sold in a camouflage print, and for Neiman Marcus, it had to be something different. Vilebrequin seemed like the right touch. It's bright, it's colorful, it's French, it's fashionable, and we carry the line, which is great. We approached them and they got it right away.
What kind of person buys a turtle-print ATV-jet ski hybrid?
I have to tell you, you just never know. People ask, "Is it celebrities? Is it rich Texans?" But it's not. It tends to be everyday people. Obviously they are people of means, because these aren't inexpensive gifts. But they know what they want, and they want something unique. Last year, for example, we had the opportunity to spend the night in Philip Johnson's Glass House, and we sold three of those packages. It's someone who's an architect enthusiast. It was the perfect gift for them. A few years ago, we sold a custom suit of armor. In my mind, I thought maybe a titan of industry would order it to have in his office corner. But no, it was a couple in Connecticut whose adult son traveled the United States going to medieval fairs. Contemporary men can't fit into antique armor, so a custom suit of armor was just right for him. You just need one person to say, "This is great!"
Are there ever gifts that no one buys?
Oh, yes. We sell about half of these gifts every year. I'm probably the only person in the whole company of Neiman Marcus who doesn't have a sales plan. Fifty-four years ago, Stanley Marcus came up with these gifts primarily for their publicity appeal. But if they do sell, they must be the finest of what they are. You can't just throw something in because you think it'll get publicity. It has to be a good buy for the customer. Someone contacted me a few years ago about gold-plated hand weights, and I said, "What's the point of a gold-plated hand weight?" Their answer was that it was very expensive, and we'd get a lot of publicity because it was very expensive. But it was just expensive...it wasn't a better hand weight. I do what I call the Stanley Marcus test. I hear his voice in my ear. I need to make sure the gifts aren't a trick or a stunt or just expensive. It really has to be the very best of what it is.
How do you decide if something is special enough to include?
I don't want to make myself sound too important, but after 18 years of doing this, there's just something—I can't put my finger on it. What's the old story about pornography? "I'll know it when I see it?" I don't know exactly what it is, but it's wit and elegance and quality combined in a way that makes it just right. Take the most expensive gift this year, which is the $475,000 Creed custom fragrance. The House of Creed goes back to 1760. It goes back to Napoleon's time, and you are becoming part of that history. I don't want to over-blow it too much, but it's a quality brand, and you're going to be the first person to have a custom fragrance by them.
Can you remember the most expensive gift you've ever included?
It was a Boeing business jet in '98 or '99, and it was $35 million dollars.
What about the most popular?
I once met Dan Rather, and he shook my hand and said, "Did you ever sell that submarine?" There are certainly things that have gotten us lots of attention. In terms of sales, that's not really how we judge it, but some things do sell. Last year we had a Jeff Koons piece that was commissioned by Dom Pérignon. It was a limited-edition run of 75, and we sold all of them.
Do you have an all-time favorite item?
Every year I have a favorite! One of my first years doing this was the 90th anniversary of Neiman Marcus, and I worked with Stanley and the gentleman who worked on his library with him. We came out with a collection of 90 years of The Great American Novel, and they were all first editions. You had Gone with the Wind and The Great Gatsby and Charlotte's Web and Catch 22. These were wonderful, really rare books. People would call us, not even wanting the library, just wanting the list of the books.
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Do you go out and scout gifts?
Sometimes I do. I used to go to TED conferences back when there was more design involved. I'll occasionally go to Europe and scout. We have buying teams that are always scouting the world for the greatest things to put in our catalogs and online and in our stores, and oftentimes they'll call me and say, "Hey, I saw this great thing in Germany, you ought to go check it out." So I'll do that. My mother always says it's like I'm on a sixth grade field trip.
This year you're selling a pretty luxe Maserati. How did that come about?
We do a car every year, and this year we worked with Maserati. We've worked with them before, and we know it's a quality product. It's their 100th anniversary, so they decided to do 100 of this Neiman Marcus special edition. The past few years, we've had really specialized cars in smaller editions, like 10 cars in the $300,000 range.
Do you get to test-drive them?
Sometimes! They tend to not let me take them too far away, but I've certainly seen them all.
Have you noticed a shift in the response to the catalog in recent years?
In 2008, we did get backlash. We launched the Christmas Book a week after Lehman Brothers folded. That was a tough thing for us. We do a charitable donation for each fantasy gift, which takes a little bit of the sting out of it. But even if all you do is pick up the catalog and it makes you smile, then it's great—Neiman Marcus has brought a smile to your face.
Anything else we should know?
There's always a preteen boy who calls and pretends to be a dad and wants to know the details about something, like the Zeppelin airship. I love that someone gets a catalog and it catches his imagination. That's what it's about. When you were a child, you always anticipated the holiday season. You'd dream about what you were going to get. It might be a new bicycle, it might be an American Girl doll, and you always had that sense of anticipation. Why do we have to give that up just because we grow up?