SEATTLE -- She was young, blond and light-skinned. She had a slim, athletic build. She came from an middle- to upper-class background, and she projected an image of sorority-girl enthusiasm.
She represented "the Nordstrom look."
Tom Nesby, a management consultant who specializes in helping companies deal with multicultural workplaces, created that composite four years ago after asking employees to describe Nordstrom's corporate culture, the shoppers to whom it caters and the personal traits of a worker likely to rise in its ranks.
When he presented the image to a group of Nordstrom managers, the entire room fell silent. The managers had wanted to hire more minorities but hadn't understood why few were applying. They wanted to promote more minority employees but couldn't seem to find outstanding candidates.
What "the Nordstrom look" lacked was diversity.
"The Nordstrom look didn't include people of color," Mr. Nesby says. "It sent a subliminal message that if you were a person of color, you wouldn't fit.
As society has grown more ethnically and racially diverse, large companies such as Nordstrom are discovering it makes good business sense to pay attention to these changing demographics.
"We all want to expand our market share, and reaching out to ethnic groups is one way to do that," says Cindy Paur, Nordstrom's executive vice president of sales promotion.
"If retailers don't broaden their market bases, they won't have strong markets in the future."
Changing the Nordstrom look is a challenge the Seattle-based retailer takes seriously.
Nordstrom, which is one of the nation's leading retailers -- with 68 stores, and one scheduled to open in September at Towson Town Center -- made diversity a corporate goal in 1987 after several minority employees at its downtown Seattle store filed discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Since that time, Nordstrom has created a new human-resource department, with officers in each of its seven regions, to oversee the hiring and promotion of people of color. It has hired Mr. Nesby as a consultant to train its managers to make the work environment more comfortable for people of color.
To bolster its image among minority consumers, Nordstrom has begun to use models of varying ethnic backgrounds in its catalogs, advertise in publications that target diverse markets and expand its base of vendors.
But although Nordstrom's attempt to diversify its image has impressed some shoppers and consultants, others maintain that the retailer is still primarily a store for the white affluent.
Four former black employees recently filed a $113 million discrimination suit against Nordstrom and called on minority shoppers to boycott the stores. The lawsuit, filed by a lawyer for the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund of Washington, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for minority employees, alleges Nordstrom fired the four blacks, including former downtown Seattle store manager Jim Nicholson, on the basis of their race.
Plaintiffs and a handful of supporters picketed Nordstrom stores at Christmas.
"They're a racist company that's got the idea they can destroy people's lives," says Don Heath, a former shoe-department manager who alleges he was fired because of his race.
Nordstrom denies the allegations, and few in the black community appear to support the protesters' claims.
Five years ago, a study done by Mr. Nicholson accused the company of failing to enact affirmative-action policies. Since then, Charles Dudley,Nordstrom's vice president of human resources, says, "We've done way more than that study."
Mr. Dudley cites Nordstrom's record:
Nearly one-third of its employees, including 17 percent of its department managers, are people of color.
In an industry where top executives are still largely white men, Nordstrom has a female president. Three of its vice presidents -- including Mr. Dudley, who is black -- are people of color. A black businessman sits on the company's board.
In the past two years, Nordstrom became the nation's first upscale retailer to advertise in Ebony, a magazine that targets black women. Sales-promotion director Paur says the retailer plans to advertise in Essence this year and is considering buying ads in fashion-oriented publications that target other ethnic markets.
Stylishly clad black, Latin and Asian-American models have posed for Nordstrom ads in newspapers and magazines such as Vogue and Town & Country. More than one-third of the models Nordstrom uses for its catalogs are people of color.
As Nordstrom opens stores, human-resource directors say they make sure the employees hired reflect a range of races and ethnic backgrounds.
"When we went into Oak Brook [a Chicago suburb], people told us we didn't need diversity because blacks don't shop in the suburbs," Mr. Dudley says. "We went in at 28 percent minority, and now blacks account for a lot of business at that store."
During a recent trip to Chicago, a black publishing executive, John Alex, wandered through the Oak Brook mall, looking for the stores where minorities were shopping.
"It was interesting to see how many headed straight for Nordstrom," says Mr. Alex, an advertising director for Johnson Publications, which publishes Ebony and Jet magazines.
In the next five years, Mr. Nesby says, he'd like to see more people of color as buyers and store managers.
"There's a lot of good people of color in that company who are young and eager and turned on about Nordstrom. In time, we'll see how well they advance," he said.