Nordstrom gets mediocre marks

REPORT CARD FOR A RETAILER

December 18, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Nordstrom ain't givin' Baltimore no respect.

That's the gist of a report issued this month by one of the nation's top retail stock analysts after an extensive "shopping around" tour he conducted at the chain's Towson Town Center store shortly after it opened in September.

In his December "Shop Talk" report, Robert F. Buchanan of Alex. Brown & Sons in Baltimore concluded that Nordstrom had chosen to make its Towson store "a decidedly downscale version of itself. . . . positioned as just a cut above the across-the-mall, mid-tier department store called Hecht's."

His grade for the store: a lukewarm B.

"Our hunch is that this won't end up being the best store in the chain because, outside of a few such select areas as women's designer suits, this store really wasn't all that special," writes Mr. Buchanan.

But cheer up, Baltimore. The folks from the Seattle-based retailer might have given us a "less than exciting" Nordstrom, but the chain has graced Baltimore with an "excellent" Rack.

Mr. Buchanan gave the chain's discount and clearance arm an A grade, with kudos for the person who decided to locate the store on the first level of Towson Town, just below the anchor store.

"Although the main store . . . may need to work out some kinks in its act . . . the value-laden basement called The Rack is a lead-pipe-rack cinch to do well in Baltimore," wrote Mr. Buchanan, who is well-known in the industry for his detailed inspections and brutally frank commentary of stores run by the companies he follows.

Basically, Mr. Buchanan concluded, Baltimore is a Rack kind of town, whose denizens are "even more parsimonious" than those of penny-pinching Boston.

"Baltimore's affluent types tend to keep what they make," the veteran observer of shopping habits writes.

"Baltimore is a proud part of America in which threadbare sleeves and frayed collars are a mark of distinction," Mr. Buchanan noted.

The problem, Mr. Buchanan said, was that Nordstrom might have taken this concept of Baltimore consumers a bit too far in its main Towson store. He cited "low-luster" marble floors, a "step-down grade of carpet" and the "decidedly utilitarian air" of the store's atrium skylight.

"Although we understand why Nordstrom has done what it has done in a Baltimore market not prone to profligate spending, we also can't help but think how important it is for a retailer to stand for something," he concludes.

Charging through the store like an analytical avenger, Mr. Buchanan evaluated the merchandise selection in department after department.

Ladies' designer suits, cosmetics lingerie and petites got high marks, but many departments were found wanting.

* Ladies' after-five "disappointed" with its lack of "good stuff."

* Ladies' shoes didn't have "enough assortment on the high end."

* Juniors were "too basic."

* Boys' clothing, age 4-7, "lacked much in the way of merchandise punch."

* The young men's section called Brass Rail failed "to distinguish itself from that of your mainstream department store."

* Men's suits "were among the worst" parts of the store.

Nordstrom's response was not what you might expect.

"This is great in its details," said Kathy Valentine, a spokeswoman for Nordstrom's Eastern region. "We're definitely going to share it with our buyers."

Ms. Valentine said Mr. Buchanan's comments echoed some that Nordstrom has been hearing from customers.

"There's a stronger designer business than our buyers anticipated, but we listened and we'll bring it in," she said.

The spokeswoman said that when Nordstrom opened a new store, its original merchandising was based on the buyers' best judgment of the market, but that "once we open the store, we continue to make adjustments."

While the comments on the merchandise mix were appreciated, some of Mr. Buchanan's conclusions were not.

Ms. Valentine disputed his assertion that the Towson Nordstrom was a downscale "B" store.

"That is not the case at all," she said, adding that Nordstrom

does not categorize stores as A, B or C.

Ms. Valentine said the company has been pleased with the results from its Towson store. "We're happy, the stores are busy and sales are going good," she said.

Mr. Buchanan's commentary on the Towson store was pungent, but he was hardly down on the company.

He raised his rating on the company's stock from "neutral" to "buy" in November and the December report also praised service in the Towson store, noting that "associates consistently went -- out of their way to try to help."

Mr. Buchanan, a member of Institutional Investor magazine's All-America team of market analysts, was named a managing director of Alex. Brown this week.

He was unavailable for comment yesterday because he was traveling. But his associate, Maria L. Medaris, said Mr. Buchanan had been back to the store since his Sept. 15 tour. She said she had no reason to believe his opinions had changed since he wrote the report.

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