The Mystery of Nordstrom

or “Right in Front of your Eyes”

Photo from Nordstrom’s blog Men’s Shop Daily “Get it Custom: Made to Measure Suiting” 2013 Mar 5

I went to buy a suit (this was thirty years ago).  I needed a dark, conservative, subtle pinstripe. I was making an appearance as an expert witness in a big money commercial dispute and I wanted to look “expert”, so to speak.

The Seattle flagship Nordstrom store is in the heart of the city.  Those of us from the Pacific Northwest have lived in Nordstrom-Land most of our lives.  It started as a family owned shoe store and then, well you know what Nordstrom is today- everybody who likes to shop for clothes or shoes or accessories knows.

I went to see James in Men’s Clothing.  He greeted me by name, showed me several options, examples of the suit I might like to buy.  After about 15 minutes we knew what I wanted, and he took my measurements, because this suit had to fit like a glove, and the one I chose would be cut and tailored for me, and James would call me to retrieve my new duds within the week.  Perfect.

A week later when I appeared at the counter, James greeted me by name.  I tried on the suit, and it indeed did fit like a glove.  He said if I was interested, they were having a sale on a high end brand of men’s dress shoes, a special yearly event, big savings, but only if I was interested.  If I was, I should go and ask for Maribel who could help me.  Since I was already in for several thousand dollars (this was a very fine suit) I walked over, suit bag on my arm to look at the shoes.  James walked with me and introduced me to Maribel.  She spent twenty minutes with me.  She looked at the suit, asked what types of shoes I liked, what I wore for formal occasions, and we finally settled on a pair of soft Italian leather, lace up, black pointed, thin soled shoes.  Perfect.  I thanked Maribel, we shook hands and I left the store with my armour and boots for the courtroom joust to come.

Since this event, I have bought many more suits, even more shirts, at least five belts, many pairs of shoes, all from James and Maribel, and after James retired, I bought my suits from James’ protégé Samantha.

One last point.  I am not a “happy clothes shopper”.  I do not enjoy shopping for clothes.  I say this to place this Nordstrom back story in proper context.  So when I have a good experience, well it is more than a good experience: it is a relief, a kind of “get-out-of-jail-free card” feeling… just so you know.

Fast forward 30 years, another shopping experience.  Right after the iPhone launched, I got mine.  I had been waiting for it like millions of others, and when orders were being taken, I was one of the early adopters.  As soon as it arrived, I hooked it up to iTunes, set it up, and off I went.  For the next month my iPhone did everything it was advertised to do and more, much more.  I loved it.  Then one morning in a hotel room in New York (I live near Seattle Washington) I awoke, and the phone wouldn’t power on.  I pushed, swore, and tried to swallow panic as thoughts of being cut off, adrift and isolated, flooded my brain.  On day one of a seven day business trip, I was relying on my new iPhone to keep me in business while I travelled on a speaking tour to four more cities on a vagabond’s itinerary, one after another without breaks. 

My speech wasn’t until late afternoon so I grabbed a cab and went to the Apple store.  It was crowded, but I found one of the greeters, blue t-shirt, mike and one ear head set, triaging the onslaught of customers as we entered the white and wood arena, the receiving area of all Apple stores.  I told her “I have this phone, less than a month old, it won’t start, I’m on a business trip, I need it, I’m screwed unless you can help me.”  She took the phone, pushed a couple of buttons – nothing happened.  She said okay, I am going to send you to Rachael, she is over at the genius counter, the third person from the left there, do you see her?  I look across the room count to three and identify Rachael.  Yes, I say.  Heart still in my throat, I approach Rachael, a plump cheerful looking rosy cheeked blue t-shirted genius because that’s what it says on her shirt… “genius” in very small white letters.  I explain it all again to Rachael.  She takes the phone, pushes some buttons.  Then she inserts a plug, and tries again, reads a computer screen behind the counter, says, “Nope, it’s toast, be right back.”  She disappears for just a minute, returns with a sealed iPhone box, opens it, takes the new phone out, plugs it into her computer, asks me for some information about my iTunes account, and in ten minutes I am walking out of the store with a new “my phone” fully operational, all my stuff in it, ready for the rest of my trip.  No extra charge.

I could hardly believe my luck as I walked down …. Fifth Avenue retrieving my voicemail – calls to my account while my phone was broken.

Nordstrom has been “doing it” since 1867, right in front of everyone, including its competitors.  Apple stores have done the same thing, a retail store in the world of retail, selling computers, pretty much only their stuff, and they have made the Apple stores a spectacular success.  These stores have, for more years than one ought to care to count, been awarded excellent ratings for customer retention experience, all while the entire retail industry has been pummelled by the fall of great brands, the disintegration of the old department store model, and more than a few comings and goings in this part of the world economy.

How do Nordstrom and Apple and other companies like them (and yes there are others) do it?

Well, let me tell you.

They pay attention.

They listen.

They train.

They treat their employees (associates and geniuses all) like adult human beings, they treat them fairly and well, including paying them a living wage.  The average wage for retail salespeople is $12 an hour; at Nordstrom it’s $19.18. With commissions, some make more than $200,000 a year.  And since 2006 when Fortune started ranking the 100 Best Companies to Work For, Nordstrom has made the list every year.

Apple also offers above average retail industry pay — well above the minimum wage of $7.25 (better than the Gap). The company also offers very good benefits for a retailer, including health care, 401(k) contributions and the opportunity to buy company stock, and Apple products at a discount.

That’s how (among other things).

Take for example (from Wikipedia):

For many years, new employees were given a copy of the Nordstrom’s Employee Handbook – a single 5-by-8-inch (130mm ×200mm) gray card containing 75 words:

Welcome to Nordstrom

We’re glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.

The message:  you as CEO, Owner, manager, team lead, you too can do this.

You can even do it better than Nordstrom or Apple.  You don’t have to build a national business with thousands of people.  Most of us have a smaller geography, smaller numbers.  But we’re all wired the same way.  We’re all human beings (not human doings), and being treated like adults and being trained and encouraged to do our best always produces excellent results.  Give it a try, I think you’ll like it.  OR if you’re already on the Nordstrom or Apple path, keep it up.  The world is literally a better place for your efforts and your organization.

Caveat: For those of you who are going to disagree with me because you don’t like Apple products, or think Nordstrom is too expensive and only appeals to a certain economic class, or those who read Steve Jobs’ biography and were as impressed as I was about how difficult a person he was… let me save you the effort of getting all riled up.  Whether you like Apple products or not, Apple stores sell more per square foot than any other retail store, and Nordstrom has consistently performed and succeeded in an industry that could only be called a disaster area for years and years and years.  You don’t have to like their product(s) or their market segment.  But what you should learn from and cannot help but admire is how they do it…. I believe the success and the genius is in the how, as in how they do it. Each of these businesses use a high touch, people centric system of building an employee community that sustains itself (and the business) by skillfully serving customers.  And the model of serving customers is based on human skills working with that most challenging of other humans… you got it – customers!

Oh yes, and they do it right in front of our eyes.

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