Nordstrom observes the local customs A FASHION PREVIEW

September 03, 1992|By Joe Surkiewicz | Joe Surkiewicz,Contributing Writer

When Nordstrom in Towson Town Center opens a week from tomorrow, fashion shoppers should be prepared for a dose of sensory overload: The specialty retail clothing store will have on hand 125,000 pairs of shoes.

That's not all. The new store will stock 7,000 ties, 12,000 pairs of socks, 3,000 men's suits, 5,000 pairs of jeans, 4,000 blouses and 2,600 pieces of outerwear. For the mall-addicted, the store will add a new dimension to the expression "shop till you drop."

Beyond the overwhelming variety of clothes, however, fashion-conscious Baltimoreans can add another reason for putting the West Coast-based Nordstrom on their shopping itinerary.

It's a clothing firm that prides itself on knowing the fashion preferences of its customers.

Long before the first article of clothing hit the loading dock of the new four-level, 230,000-square-foot store, Nordstrom had done its homework: For the past several months, teams of buyers have been scouting the city and environs to discover what people wear to work and school, how they dress on weekends, and to shop the competition.

As a result, the clothing gurus learned a lot.

"The customer in Baltimore knows fashion and understands it," reports Iris Ivey, a buyer for Savvy, Nordstrom's contemporary women's clothing department. "They read fashion publications. And the way they dress is very well put together. As a result, Towson will be one of my more fashion-forward stores."

To get the pulse of Baltimore fashion, Ms. Ivey and teams of buyers from Nordstrom's regional headquarters in Tysons Corner, Va., shopped area malls, cruised the Inner Harbor and Charles Street, attended Oriole games and galas at the Maryland Science Center, and surveyed students in the halls of local high schools.

"Last May, we did seminars at Towson, Loch Raven and Pikesville high schools and asked kids where they shopped, what magazines they read and what they watch on TV," reports Barbie Lycette, a buyer for the Brass Plum, Nordstrom's junior department. "We found out what brands of clothes they like, whether they wear jeans or dress up on weekends, and asked them what clothes they're most comfortable wearing."

The word on local high school fashion, Ms. Lycette found out, is casual: "We saw a lot of denim shorts worn with T-shirts -- kind of casual but very clean-cut," she reveals. "We didn't find a lot of ripped-up jeans or an urban-influenced dress style."

When not cruising local high schools, Nordstrom's fashion researchers hit the malls. "We went on Saturday afternoons to watch the kids and then returned on weekdays to shop the stores," Ms. Lycette adds.

The bustling Inner Harbor and downtown were another target area. "I found it helpful to go to the harbor and watch people," reports Katy Calhoun, a buyer for "bridge," or better women's ready-to-wear sportswear.

By closely observing local fashions, Ms. Calhoun discovered a market niche for bridge sportswear that Nordstrom will try to fill.

"There's a very small selection available in the Baltimore area for clothing that falls between better and designer sportswear," she points out. "It's an area that's really taking off -- lines such as Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman, Calvin Klein, Adrienne Vittadini and Tahari."

Scoping the shopping and dressing habits of Baltimoreans helped the buyers get a feel for Baltimore, but a definitive sense of local tastes and preferences will have to wait for opening day.

And because of Nordstrom's decentralized purchasing system, buyers say they have the flexibility -- and authority -- to fill customer requests efficiently.

"We can react very quickly because there is a buyer in each store," reports Bob Burns, buyer for the women's shoes and salon department in Towson. "If a customer wants something I don't have, I can get it without going through 47 people -- and get it almost overnight, either from another store or directly from the vendor."

Furthermore, Nordstrom's buyers live and work in the Baltimore/ Washington area, which means fashion selections aren't dictated by out-of-touch buyers in New York.

Nordstrom's reputation for extraordinary service is well earned, according to one loyal customer.

"I wear a size five shoe on my left foot and a size eight on my right," sighs Judith Bowman, a Columbia resident who regularly shops at Nordstroms in the Washington area. "As a result, I can't just buy one pair of shoes. For years I've been buying two pairs of shoes and throwing half of them away."

That is, until she attended a women's health seminar where a Nordstrom sales rep was giving a presentation on shoes. "He didn't bat an eye when I asked him if Nordstrom would sell me a pair of shoes with different sizes," marvels Ms. Bowman. "He told me it's a national policy of Nordstrom's to sell what they call 'intentional mismatches.' My jaw dropped. It's unbelievable!"

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