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Reality Check: Nordstrom

Still Doing It?



Letters from readers are inspiring. Especially angry letters, because the writer cares enough . . . One of these recent letters concluded, “Chill a little. Shop Nordstrom. You'll find plenty to complain about.”

Good idea.

I shopped.

At some time in the life of every extremely successful company, the “devil's advocate” people start to pick it apart. You know, the kind of people who look for what is wrong, even in Heaven.

Well, the time has come for Nordstrom. After so many years of spectacular success (and virtually no competition in the field of customer service), it is now time for their would-be competitors to start ventilating.


It is true, a great restaurant can lose its brilliance as quick as a chef can walk out the door. Levi's can stop shopping Melrose Avenue for inspiration, and McDonald's can make the same food much too often. Retail is a fragile business, too. And customers check stores all the time, whether the stores check with them or not. It was time to check Nordstrom.

My friend Trudie (visiting from Mexico, with a giant shopping list) and I checked one Sunday afternoon in San Francisco.

We were going to be easy to help, because we knew what we wanted. We needed a gift for a newborn baby. This is the kind of chore that replays maybe 20 times in a life. If a store could change this chore into a pleasure, that store would get our money, now and forever.

Our comparison started in the city's oldest jewelry store, where a genuine white-haired gentleman escorted us (the word “ushered” comes to mind) down aisles as long as bowling alleys. We reached a distant showcase, which displayed Traditional Newborn Infant Gifts at moderate prices. We viewed and selected and were seated whilst our sales person handwrote the bill and a person behind the paneling wrapped the gift and handed it over to our sales person who escorted us back down the aisle, past the usher (who, it seemed, bowed slightly), and back out onto the street. The street was noisy.

We then transferred our mission to a big department store. This is the kind of store that has everything and tries to sell it to all people. This is hard in the age where next to their front entrance, a huge billboard advertises on the roof of a building that houses a huge Borders bookstore. But the idea of “family” dies hard, and the department store seemed a likely place for a traditional gift.

The big store story is not a happy one. Our anxiety started as soon as we tried to find our way up and up through a labyrinth of signage and display. We passed other customers searching for other things, but we all seemed slowed by the experience. The air was stale, and we were breathing differently by the time we finally found Infants. It is located right next to an optical department (for some reason), so we waited at their counter until they (wearing badges) stopped talking to each other, and we said, “Who knows about Infants' Gifts?” and before we could breathe, they said, “We don't!”


After that slap we went on through Infants, where we found nobody and no obvious infant gifts. At the end of Infants we could see another badge standing barefoot in a stockroom door, talking to another badge about something. We asked her the same question: “What can you tell us about baby gifts?” and she looked us straight in the eye and said, “I just do shoes. Try Infants.”

Is there a manager in the house? We left.

By the time we got to Nordstrom, we were tired. So we were ready when the concierge directed us immediately to Infants where a single tower of ten choice gifts at moderate prices awaited us, along with a genial human being who told us everything we wanted to know, wrapped our choice carefully and said she hoped the baby would have a happy life.

Same day, same city, same street, same labor pool, same merchandise . . . opposed impressions. The worst part of this daily tragedy is that the people who are ruining the big store are clearly as miserable in their jobs as the Nordstrom people are filled with confidence.

And take this bit of lore I never knew before: In every department store the Cosmetics Department is a snarling inferno of separate clerks selling separate brands, on separate checks. (“I'm only Lancôme.”)

Not at Nordstrom. The employees pool their commissions (“I work for Nordstrom”). Trudie and one Nordstrom sales person gathered $350 of five different brands, from Lancôme, Shiseido, Aramis, Aramis 900 and Gianni Versace — from one sales person, on one sales check, in five minutes. Why can't other stores do this? This kind of experience makes a customer for a lifetime.


And another: At the concierge desk I asked for a telephone. She said, “Right here.” And she picked up the receiver and handed it to me.

One more: After Trudie decided on three pair of shoes, the salesman said to her, “Wow! This is my lucky day!”

Reality check: We could have been satisfied at the old-line specialist, or frustrated at the big store, but at Nordstrom we were lifted.


Keep doing it, Nordstrom. The lesson is still a vital one and you are still the best. 

Peter Glen's recent activities include presentations to Nautica, Marketplace Redwood, WSAAA (Western States Advertising Agencies Association), ICSA (International Customer Service Association), and the California Community Colleges Symposium '98.



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