The Dallas-based retailer is rumored to be positioning itself for possible sale. Seattle-based Nordstrom recently reported record volume. Any chance the two chains renowned for customer service and upscale fashions could end up joining forces?

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DALLAS — Swarms of Jaguars and Lexuses queue up for valet parking outside Neiman Marcus on a rainy Saturday at NorthPark Center, a retail hub that attracts this flashy city’s fashion istas.

Inside, Neiman’s sales reps show off designer jewelry and couture at special events and trunk shows, doting on customers wearing rhinestone-studded jeans and leopard-print high-heeled boots. Smiling models outfitted in the latest Dolce & Gabbana fashions greet shoppers as they step off the escalator.

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Bold and glitzy Neiman’s is a Dallas icon synonymous with the city’s reputation for high fashion and ostentatious tastes. But change could be in store for the Texas retail legend, which, like Seattle’s Nordstrom, is renowned for its customer service and upscale fashions.

Wall Street is abuzz with rumors that Neiman Marcus is putting itself up for sale. The New York Times reported earlier this month that the retailer, whose stock has soared nearly 50 percent since last spring, is meeting with investment bankers and consultants to consider options.

With the retail industry rife with real and rumored mergers, is it crazy to think that Neiman’s and Nordstrom could end up joining forces?

Neither company cares to wonder aloud. But shoppers, analysts and other retail observers have their own ideas.

If Nordstrom has ever daydreamed about taking over its Dallas rival, now might seem a most opportune time. The Seattle retailer has roared back from its failed “Reinvent Yourself” campaign of 2000. Fourth-quarter sales hit a record $2.1 billion. It also is flush with cash, with roughly $400 million in the bank.

“We are entering 2005 in a position of strength, both competitively and financially,” President Blake Nordstrom told Wall Street analysts Tuesday. “[The company is] well-positioned to consider a wide range of strategic alternatives.”

He said the company’s short-term expansion strategy is to pounce on newly available locations as the retail industry consolidates. The company has a list of 50 places around the country where it hopes to open stores.

Many who follow both companies doubt that such a deal would occur. Neiman’s, like its merchandise, would not come cheap; its market capitalization is roughly $3.6 billion.

“I do not think Nordstrom will be an immediate player,” said Walter Loeb, a New York retail consultant and former Macy’s executive who publishes the Loeb Retail Letter. “They’ve just straightened out their operations. It would be difficult to make a mistake now.”

On top of the premium price tag and concerns about maintaining momentum, the two chains have different core customers. Nordstrom draws a well-heeled crowd, but it also offers a wider assortment of moderately priced fashions.

Neiman’s unabashedly bills itself as a luxury retailer.

“The one thing about Neiman’s — about 80 to 85 percent of their customers are women,” said George Whalin, president of Retail Management Consultants in San Marcos, Calif. “They tend to be older; they tend to be very affluent. And they are very frequent shoppers. Granted, they get high-end, luxury buyers at Nordstrom, but nowhere near the degree they do at Neiman’s.”

Dallas’ image of glamour and provocative fashion “is embodied more so by Neiman Marcus than anybody else,” said Edward Fox, director of the JCPenney Center for Retail Excellence at Southern Methodist University. When the store opened in downtown Dallas in 1907, “it very quickly became known for bringing style and fashion to the prairie,” Fox said.

Customer service is a Neiman’s staple. Its InCircle Rewards customer-loyalty program is an industry original, offering such exotic perks as private trapeze lessons. Heavy hitters are taken to private showrooms and outfitted with thousands of dollars’ in merchandise, all without pulling out their credit cards.

Fay Cakarnis, a seasoned luxury shopper born in Tacoma, lives near a Nordstrom in her north Dallas neighborhood. But in the 25 years since she migrated to the Lone Star state, she has developed a fierce loyalty to Neiman Marcus.

One rainy Saturday, Cakarnis bypassed Nordstrom and drove eight soggy miles to the NorthPark Neiman’s. She bought cosmetics and perfume and ordered a $400 pair of orange Ferragamo shoes. She says she and her daughter come to Neiman’s about three times a week.

“I prefer to shop over here,” Cakarnis said. “They carry the brands and the items that we’re interested in. Their customer service, I think, is much better.”

Nordstrom, with 94 full-line stores, is more than twice the size of Neiman Marcus Group, which has 35 Neiman Marcus stores nationwide and two Bergdorf Goodman stores in Manhattan.

In the Dallas/Fort Worth area, Neiman’s has four full-line stores compared with Nordstrom’s three, but none share a shopping center. In November, that will change when Nordstrom opens at NorthPark.

In the meantime, merger fever rages among retailers. Kmart’s purchase of Sears closes next month. Saks Fifth Avenue’s struggling parent company might sell its luxury stores. Macy’s parent, Federated Department Stores, has an on-again, off-again, on-again dance going with May Department Stores. Kurt Barnard, president of Retail Forecasting in Montclair, N.J., said that while the idea of Nordstrom buying Neiman Marcus might seem unrealistic, “it would have been very unrealistic to assume that Kmart would buy Sears.”

If Neiman Marcus is sold, Whalin said, it is more likely to wind up in the hands of a venture-capital or banking firm. Saks might be a better fit for Nordstrom, he said, because it has a more moderate image than Neiman’s.

As for a Neiman-Nordstrom merger, “I don’t see it as a viable alternative,” Whalin said.

“There probably aren’t two companies in the country that have as much discipline and commitment to customer service,” he said. “But it takes more than good customer service to make a match.”