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February 2004
Putting it All Together -- Customer-driven clothier conveys caliber and cachet
By Susanne Deitzel

      The walk along the glass-paned mezzanines, eateries, businesses and shopping malls of South Park is punctuated regularly with fountains, and quite often, green plumes of fichus and ivy sprouting in unexpected places. The mere mention of this upscale locale in Charlotte conjures images of soft piano music, recessed lighting, marble facades, and, of course, shopping.

     The latest addition to the SouthPark Mall is the much-hailed Nordstrom, a high-end fashion specialty retailer, which will open its doors March 12, 2004, in SouthPark Mall. Shopping stalwarts have reacted to this newest addition with glee; Nordstrom is one of the more exclusive retailers to open on this scale in some time. However, merchants in the area are wary of heightened competition. For, even beyond its carefully selected and impeccably presented merchandise, Nordstrom is renowned for its unparalleled, even obsessive, customer service.

 

The Maelstrom Surrounding Nordstrom

Carla Brown, a soft-spoken yet energetic manager from Buford, Georgia has been handpicked to lead Nordstrom’s foray into the Charlotte market. An 18-year veteran of Nordstrom, Brown’s experience, confidence and character make her well-equipped to meet the task at hand: to meet the incredibly high expectations of her customers and the community.

     The battle to bring Nordstrom to SouthPark was hard-won. In 2000, Charlotte lost the contract to Raleigh’s Research Triangle, but persevered, and is now slated to be the company’s only opening in 2004. Area businesses are banking on increased traffic and rising revenues. But, for her part, Brown is unshakeable, “The Charlotte market meets a lot of the criteria that Nordstrom considers when planning a new location. South Park has a wonderful family atmosphere that lends itself to strong growth potential, plus the area has a growing economy that is well-supported by a healthy shopping environment. Simply walking through South Park, you are surrounded by shopping, entertainment and restaurant choices, in a thriving community.”

     Additionally, say analysts, the South Park area has emerged relatively unhurt by the recession of 2001. The powerful income base fueled by Wachovia, Bank of America and other industry titans is still holding median incomes above the $50,000 mark. These factors, coupled with recent tax cuts and rising economic indicators, promise to sustain Nordstrom’s success, most recently a 9.1 percent increase in comparable store sales for the month of December.

     Says Brown, “We are really looking forward to opening our store in South Park, and are excited about the retailers that we will be sharing a wing with.” Announced arrivals include Kate Spade, Sigrid Olsen, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, and Tommy Bahama among others. “We can all benefit from one another’s traffic, but most importantly, we feel competition is good for everyone, especially the customer. We know we will have to work very hard to earn their business.”

 

The Nordstrom Effect

When Nordstrom starts talking customer satisfaction, the competition becomes decidedly uneasy. Unofficially known in retail as “The Nordstrom Effect,” once Nordstrom opens in a market, competitors either expand, improve, or close their doors. The reason for this is because stories of Nordstrom employees reaching above and beyond the perimeters of “good customer service” pile up higher, and faster, than credit card receipts at Christmas.

     In fact, at least one book has been penned about Nordstrom’s exemplary service culture. Robert Spector’s The Nordstrom Way recounts instance after instance of the fascinating lengths employees are permitted to go on behalf of the customer. According to one story, a client visited Nordstrom unable to find a blue dress shirt with white cuffs and collar for a business trip the following day. Later that afternoon, that customer was happy to receive a phone call from a Nordstrom employee saying the shirt was waiting for him at the sales counter. When the client came to pick up the shirt, he asked how Nordstrom was able to do what he couldn’t. The employee good-naturedly replied, “Well, what I will tell you is, if you know anybody who needs a white shirt with blue cuffs and a blue collar, send them on over.” The employee had chosen one white and one blue business shirt, took them to alterations and had the shirt made that afternoon – at no extra charge to the customer.

     Stories like these abound, yet you will not find Nordstrom boasting about its customer service. For example one representative is quoted as saying, “We know that we aren’t experts when it comes to service. It’s something we have to work at each day and we always have opportunities.” Brown echoes this sentiment; “We are only taking our cues from the real experts, our customers. That’s our number one goal.”

     Despite this modesty, the history of Nordstrom and its founders provide ample reason for its success. In 1901, John W. Nordstrom used his stake from the Alaska gold rush to start a small shoe store in Seattle, Washington. Nordstrom coined “exceptional service, selection, quality and value” as his motto. Yet, by providing an unusually authentic and exhaustive adherence to this formula, Nordstrom and his partner Carl Wallin succeeded where many have failed. According to company history, a patron who was unable to find a particular style shoe in her size left Nordstrom’s shop empty-handed. From that moment the frustrated entrepreneur decided he would never let a customer walk again.

     Since that occasion, the store in his name has been fastidiously dedicated to offering the gamut of sizes whereas other retailers are concerned more about inventory cost. Demonstrating this tenet, Brown says Nordstrom’s world-renowned shoe collection “ranges from men’s sizes 5 to 20 in widths AA to EEEEEE, and women’s sizes 4 to 14 in widths AAA to WW. Women’s clothing includes special sizes for petites (2P to 14P) and plus-sizes (14W to 24W); men’s dress shirts come in 63 possible sizes.”

     In addition to size, Nordstrom also has an unrelenting focus on market trends. Explains Brown, “Nordstrom has regional buying teams that tailor the merchandise to meet the specific needs of our customers in a particular community.”

     In fact, if you have been to South Park over the past year, you might have been close to one of these buyers. Fashion cognoscenti, these buyers have patrolled restaurants, shopping districts, coffee houses, business parks and special events to determine which merchandise will best fit Charlotte’s style. When asked how Charlotte fares on the fashion meter, Brown happily reports, “I can say that our buyers are VERY excited by what they have seen, and personally I can’t wait to see the merchandise. There is a real passion for style in this city and we are happy to be able to answer that need.” She adds, “But again, we are most anxious to hear feedback from our customers. The only important questions are, ‘Do we have what you need? Do we have what you want?’ Then we’ll work hard to fix what we can improve upon.”

 

The Crown Jewel: Nordstrom’s “Inverted Pyramid”

Needless to say, Nordstrom employees are a dedicated lot. Brown says, “The company makes it very easy to make its success your success, and vice versa.” Employees are hired on the basis of their eagerness to help people, career drive and personal desire. It also has a very stringent practice of promoting from within, and places a sincere emphasis on the personal growth of its employees. It is not unusual for a talented and driven holiday stock person to be promoted to an assistant manager in a matter of months.

     Brown can attest to this, “I left a management position at another retailer to be a stock person at Nordstrom, because my roommate couldn’t say enough good things about the company. Then, I learned that the woman who interviewed me had risen through the ranks very quickly. At Nordstrom, it really is possible to find MBAs, career retailers and people just out of school in the same position. The main things Nordstrom looks for in an employee are the desire to serve customers, a ‘passion for fashion,’ a kind and friendly personality, and the ability to self-motivate.”

     Adds Brown, “Each employee is given personal empowerment to make any decision that will benefit the customer. There aren’t a lot of rules or bureaucracy. In fact, each department is run like the sales person’s own boutique. Each person on the floor carries the responsibility, and reaps the rewards, plus our competitive earning structure including commissions and benefits help create an entrepreneurship-like work environment.”

     According to author Robert Spector, Nordstrom is in fact modeled on an ‘inverted pyramid.’ Rather than executives being on the top of the pyramid, customers receive the highest position, followed by sales and support people, department managers, store managers all the way DOWN to the executives and chairpersons. Spector quotes retired co-chairperson Ray Johnson as saying, “The only thing we have going for us is the way we take care of our customers. And the people who take care of the customers are on the floor.”

     Not unexpectedly, Nordstrom puts its money where its mouth is. Rather than putting a lot of money into advertising, Nordstrom spends it on wages, commissions and benefits for the people who are responsible for selling the merchandise, and keeping the customer happy.

 

Distinctive Merchandise

Currently, store manager Brown is hiring and training her sales force, expected to include over 200 employees. The 144,000 square feet of the store is taking on color and panache, with each department catering to its own special brand of customer.

     Nordstrom has gone to great lengths to know its customers, and so has been able to develop several distinctive departments that cater to different styles, as well as lifestyles. From Nordstrom’s “Narrative” department which includes easy-to-wear casual fashions, to “via C” which features the talents of rising stars in the designer world, there is a look and a practicality to fit every need. Nordstrom also has its own exclusive brands of clothing including Classiques Entier, Caslon, Halogen and that offer outstanding quality and value. This way, the customer experiences not only an efficiency of time and budget while shopping, but can find fashion solutions that offer the ‘best fit,’ for one’s lifestyle.

     Nordstrom also offers unparalleled specialized services to its customers. While shopping amidst live piano music, artwork and décor, one can also take advantage of “Personal Touch,” a complimentary wardrobing service, cosmetic consultations, a coffee bar and cafe, even delivery service, shoe shine, and prosthesis products for those who have undergone breast surgery.

 

The Celebration

On March 10, 2004, Nordstrom will be hosting a lavish gala for its grand opening, benefiting The Junior League of Charlotte, and the Crown Jewel and Charlotte Chapters of the Links, Inc. expected to raise over $150,000. Including hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, a dinner buffet, and many of Charlotte’s personalities, the gala will also include a sneak preview of the Nordstrom shopping experience and a theatrical runway spring designer fashion show.

     Says Brown of the upcoming event, “This gala is a wonderful opportunity for us to introduce ourselves to Charlotte, and thank them before we open our doors. We are very grateful to have the opportunity to be involved with organizations like the Junior League and the Links, as well as being able to benefit the neighborhood we hope to be a part of.”

     Within two days of the gala, Nordstrom will open its doors amidst much fanfare and excitement. Brown says enthusiastically, “We are really looking forward to the morning of March 12th, when we open our doors at 10:00 a.m. It is the day that we have been waiting for. We hope customers will come to see us that morning. It is our tradition to have our employees line the aisles of the store and applaud and welcome them to the store.”

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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