Retail giant still feels family-run Nordstrom set to open in Towson

September 06, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer Bloomberg Business News,Dow Jones News/RetrievalBloomberg Business News,Dow Jones News/RetrievalBloomberg Business News,Dow Jones News/Retrieval

SEATTLE -- Here in its hometown, shopping at Nordstrom is virtually a religious rite. The company is as much a source of civic pride as fine coffee and fresh salmon.

After all, how can you not love a place that will sell you a size 9 left shoe and a size 10 right shoe, at no extra cost, if that's what your feet need? Where a cup of coffee still costs 25 cents in the lunchroom? Where salespeople smile at you -- and seem to actually mean it?

From modest beginnings as a downtown shoe store, Nordstrom has grown to a retail powerhouse that rang up $664 million in annual sales last year, about half at its 25 California stores. While it is generally considered a department store chain, it describes itself as a specialty apparel retailer, carrying little in the way of "hard goods" such as electronics or furniture.

The Nordstrom store opening Friday in Towson will be its second in Maryland, joining one in Bethesda, and the 56th in the chain. It will be joined by the 16th Nordstrom Rack, a no-frills clearinghouse and discount store that will occupy the first floor of Towson Town Center.

Nordstrom's unusual management structure, at once progressive and high-pressured, puts a premium on enthusiasm and entrepreneurship. For many employees, Nordstrom is like "a party every day," as one effusively friendly Seattle saleswoman expressed it.

But Nordstrom managers agree the company is not for everyone.

Behind the smiles, some employees find Nordstrom to be an oppressive, insular, cult-like organization that resists diversity and runs roughshod over workers' rights. In recent years, Nordstrom has been embarrassed by charges, which it denies, that it routinely violates wage and hour laws and discriminates against black employees.

The controversies have done little to discourage Nordstrom's loyal customers. When "60 Minutes" carried a report detailing the company's alleged wage and hour violations, company officials recall, its description of Nordstrom's service gave the company's sales a bigger boost than paid advertising.

Hometown hero

It seems everybody in Seattle has a Nordstrom story.

Architect Nora Jaso said every businesswoman in Seattle knows the "urban legend": if a woman gets a run in her stocking before an important meeting, Nordstrom will bring a new pair to her office. Nordstrom executives say it's no legend -- it's true.

Vivian Dias of Seattle recalled the Nordstrom saleswoman who helped her when she went shopping for shoes. "The girl must have called every store in the state to get the color I wanted and then brought them to my office," she said.

Then there's the tire story. Everybody in the Pacific Northwest, it seems, has a friend of a friend who knows the dissatisfied customer who brought a set of tires back to Nordstrom and received a refund even though Nordstrom has never sold a tire in its 91-year history.

Nordstrom officials say they've heard the tire story many times. This one, they say, is a myth, though they don't go out of their way to debunk it.

Tires or no tires, the liberality of Nordstrom's return policy borders on license. Seattleites say some people spend their lives in new Nordstrom shoes, buying one pair to return every few months for a new pair.

"People laugh at Nordstrom for being such suckers," said Christopher Lyons of Tacoma, Wash.

But Julie Fox of Bellevue, Wash., might have put her finger on the reason Nordstrom doesn't go broke with such a policy. "I feel like Nordstrom trusts you, so it causes a reaction in me that I wouldn't want to take advantage of that," she said.

Little shoe store that could

Nordstrom was born as a shoe store, a business where salespeople routinely kneel before customers, and in that sense it has never changed.

The first store opened its doors in Seattle under the name Wallin & Nordstrom in 1901, when shoemaker Carl Wallin offered Swedish immigrant John W. Nordstrom a partnership in a shoe store. In 1928, John Nordstrom passed his share of the company to his sons, who bought out Mr. Wallin's share when he retired the next year.

According to a company history, Everett, Elmer and Lloyd Nordstrom built the flagship store into the largest shoe store in the country. By the early 1960s, Nordstrom had grown to a chain of eight shoe stores and 13 leased shoe departments in Washington, Oregon and California -- all with a reputation for superb service.

In 1963, Nordstrom acquired Best Apparel, a clothing retailer in Seattle and Portland, Ore., and began its transition from shoe store to department store giant.

Through its long growth spurt, Nordstrom never lost its reputation for customer service. Where other small companies that grew became faceless corporate monoliths, Nordstrom retained the flavor of a family-run business.

"We fight hard not going corporate," said James F. Nordstrom, one of four co-chairmen of the publicly traded company.

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