"The Nordstroms believe they're above the law and that they can run their stores any way they want to," said Mr. Peterson, whose union has brought a class-action lawsuit against the chain seeking what he called the largest back pay award in history.
Nordstrom has also come under fire from some leaders of Seattle's black community.
Early this year, the Rev. Robert Jeffrey Sr., executive director of the Black Dollar Days Task Force in Seattle, presented %o Nordstrom with the group's annual Bull Connor Award, named )) after the notoriously racist Birmingham, Ala., police commissioner during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.
The outspoken Mr. Jeffrey criticized the company for its record on hiring, promotion and treatment of blacks, alleging that the company has more than 50 pending discrimination suits brought by blacks.
The activist minister also took issue with the company's proud tradition of promoting only from within, contending that it has been used as an excuse for the lack of black faces in its top management ranks. None of the co-chairmen or co-presidents are black, and only one of the company's 21 vice presidents is.
Nordstrom officials admit that the company did not reach out to recruit blacks before 1987, when another Seattle black leader raised the issue.
Since then, Ms. Tormey said, Nordstrom has introduced a
diversity program that makes a concerted effort to reach out to minorities. Jim Nordstrom estimates that blacks now make up about 20 percent of the salespeople in the company and that many of them are "coming up fast" along the career ladder.
Nevertheless, the company sometimes shows a startling naivete and insensitivity on racial issues.
In March, it ran an ad in the Washington Post showing pictures of 43 smiling Washington area buyers, only one of whom was black. The company was surprised and outraged when its critics turned the ad into a poster.
The impact of Nordstrom
At Towson Town Center today, crews of Nordstrom employees are hard at work, stocking shelves, preparing displays, putting the finishing touches on a $31 million store that will bring profound changes to the retailing climate in Baltimore.
That's what happened at Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, where Nordstrom opened its first Maryland store last fall. There, Nordstrom has had a dramatic impact on its neighbors, according to Steve Nichlin, the mall's marketing director.
"Overall, most of the stores in the center probably took a look at the service they were offering and brought it up a few ticks," he said.
They've been well rewarded for their efforts. Since Nordstrom opened, an increase in mall traffic has brought a 20 percent jump in sales at stores that were open when Nordstrom arrived, Mr. Nichlin said.
At Towson Town, Nordstrom's impact can already be seen. Hecht's, for instance, completed the expansion and remodeling of its store Friday. The timing is no coincidence.
Other retailers in the mall are sprucing up, stocking up and putting new emphasis on service as they ready themselves for a new burst of mall traffic. "They are eagerly awaiting it and they are increasing their staffing levels," said Christopher Schardt, the mall's general manager.
And at other regional malls, such as Owings Mills Town Center, retailers are waiting apprehensively to see how much business drains away.
The one thing virtually everyone agrees upon is that this is not just another retail opening.
"This is a big thing," said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association. "In the long term, it's good for Maryland, good for the consumer and good for retailing in that they're going to have to sharpen their pencils and just be more competitive."