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FN Virtual Summit: The Future of Retail

FN’s first virtual summit, “The Way Ahead,” continued this afternoon with a candid conversation between Jamie Nordstrom, the president of stores for Nordstrom Inc., and FN Editorial Director Michael Atmore.

Here are edited excerpts from the session, which focused on the department store’s increased focus on culture and service during the coronavirus era and the future of the physical store. The leaders also discussed how Nordstrom is moving quickly to capitalize on digital momentum and accelerate the growth of curbside pickup and returns as well as digital shopping appointments.

Big lessons learned during coronavirus:

“We’ve come together as a team and had to learn a new way of working. In some ways, there are advantages to this. There are people on my team I talk to a lot more now than when we were in the office together. I have five screens in front of me — I’m texting and emailing and video chatting all at the same time. Another thing is the way our team has come together to support each other. Those first few weeks and months were really dark days. Having our stores closed was something we had never experienced. Given the financial reality, we had to make some adjustments in our workforce and say goodbye to some people. Those were really emotional, difficult things. Certainly everyone in our industry is going through a version of that. The way the team managed through that was inspiring … The companies that survive these things are companies that have both a strong balance sheet and strong culture. Having one or another isn’t enough. The balance sheet is a bit of a math problem, but it’s solved by culture.”

Reopening stores as the pandemic continues:

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“We had a goal of wanting our stores to be the safest places — and I think we [generally] accomplished that. We feel good about the measures we’ve taken. Our expectation when stores reopened was that it would be a slow build. We saw that for a while, but certainly by mid-July, it leveled off. It corresponds with the news that people were seeing spikes around the country. It was clear this was going to be a longer-term thing. We were hearing from our customers and our employees that they were just as nervous, if not more nervous, because some of the spikes, about coming into the stores.”

Family Zoom calls:

“It’s been a challenge. For many decades, it’s been a tradition that whoever is around the office on Monday goes to lunch together — my dad, my grandpa before him. Obviously, we’re not doing that right now. We’ve been doing Zoom calls — my cousins, my uncles, we get together at least once, if not twice a week. We eat our sandwich at our desk. We joke about it because people see us going to lunch and think we’re going to have a strategy session. We mostly talk about sports and fishing and Washington Huskie football. We don’t talk about shoes much during those lunches. We are keeping in close contact with each other — [president] Pete Nordstrom and [CEO] Erik Nordstrom, we’re talking multiple times a day.”

Being flexible and agile:

“When it comes to our inventories and buys, we want to be able to react to what’s selling, and work with our vendor partners to make sure we have a flow on hot stuff, but also manage it. There is a wide range of outcomes that could happen over the next six to 12 months. It’s managing where we can but ultimately being flexible for our customers, our vendors, our shareholders, our landlords — everybody — to make sure we can navigate through these stormy seas.”

Staying connected with employees:

“[Regularly in store], we call out the people who have the best performance and give them an award and recognize them in front of their peers. We do that across the company. It’s certainly motivating to people. We can’t do that right now. How do we recognize people who are standing out? We’re doing more of that digitally and have these big giant Zoom calls. But do we start to lose some of that glue that holds us together? Every company around is having these same conversations. I think about it as motivation. I live within 10 to 15 minutes of a bunch of our full-line stores and Rack stores. I throw my mask on, I go to the store, they do a health check and I’ll spend an hour with the team — hearing what challenges they’re facing but telling them to keep their chin up and stay focused on the long-term.”

Nordstrom, flagship, store, nyc
The Nordstrom flagship in New York.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nordstrom

Navigating ups and downs:

“Having gone through Sept. 11 and 2008, and other fashion cycles where sometimes you get it wrong, there’s going to be a ride back. I don’t know if that’s in three months or six months, but there’s going to be a return to work, a return to school, going out with your friends. People are going to need cool clothes and shoes for that. I want to be the retailer who gets that business. When we do come out of this, we have the opportunity to have the best year we’ve ever had as a company. I think about my grandpa who wrote a book about managing through the Great Depression — that was a hard time. They focused on paying their vendors’ bill, paying their landlord, [that’s] how they managed through that. Those were some dark years. The ride back up — those guys had a lot of fun, they made a lot of money, they grew the business like crazy.”

Clicking in with digital:

“Our company’s been around for 120 years. For the vast amount of that time, our business was done on traffic. That world looks very different now. I think there are retailers out there who do a better job than we do on digital outreach — being more purposeful — whether it’s Amazon, Net-a-Porter or Neiman Marcus. Our customer is going to have that expectation of us. We’ve got a good foundation and we know how to do it, but we haven’t been focused on scale. We have a good opportunity to get better on it very fast.”

The D+I conversation:

“Three years ago, we took another step forward in establishing some clear priorities and goals, particularly around inclusion. We established employee resource groups for LGBTQ, for Black employees, for veterans. We’ve been focused on increasing the diversity of our workforce across all levels of the company. We’ve measured that and we made progress. We’ve got a long way to go but if you look at where we were five/ten years ago, we have dramatically increased the level of diversity we have … If you bring your true self to work, you’re going to be productive. We have people who come to work and feel like they have to play the role of someone else. We want to be the place where you can bring your whole self to work. We know if you do that, you’re going to be a better employee and mostly we’re going to be a much better place to work.”

Taking D+I action internally and in store:

“What we’ve all discovered as a country over the past few months is we have an opportunity and platform around racial justice that we need to take responsibility for. We’ve learned a lot about what a lot of folks on our team have been going through. We are more motivated than ever. There are simple things we can do within our stores that we heard — and I’m sure a lot of retailers did — that while not [intentional], may perpetuate some of these racial injustices. We need to fix those. That’s our responsibility and our entire team is focused on that.”

Nordstrom x Nike, NYC
Nordstrom x Nike NYC boutique.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nordstrom

Why newness is critical:

“There’s a lot of demand out there — and customers want something new and what makes them feel good. In May, June and into July, there wasn’t a lot of newness. We’ve done some launches of Nike shoes that were pretty rare and pretty hot. Demand for those is always high, but they really spiked.”

Mandating masks:

“Everyone is wearing masks in our stores. That happened in mid July. A lot of states had already mandated that. It makes our customers and our employees feel better. Our focus is making it safe, making it feel good, making it comfortable and making it a fun place to shop.”

The shoe story:

“The target of fashion is moving toward more casual stuff. We’ve built our business on having a big focus on wear to work [and] on special occasion. We had all these categories, and we built our systems and buying processes around managing those categories. Now it’s going to be taking a couple of them and making them big. The whole global supply chain and vendors need to catch up — and that’s happening now.”

The power of Nordstrom Rack:

“We think the value proposition and experience is going to be as attractive as it’s ever been. We’ve been investing in increasing the digital component on that. We’re going to take the pick up, return and alterations [services] into the majority of our rack stores. Our merchants have the ability to find that treasure. The customer that’s shopping in our Rack stores and on Nordstromrack.com — it’s a treasure hunt. We’re at our best when we have great product at a great price from great brands that the customer wasn’t expecting to see.”

Replicating the success of Rack online:

“It is difficult. You’re dealing with lower price points and lower margins. In a typical digital fulfillment business, those things are constraints. We are doing a lot of business there with certain price points and certain margin structures. If you’re in our stores, we can cover a much wider range of price points, particularly lower ones. With a digital experience, you probably need to start at a little higher price point. There’s a lot of demand there and a lot of product out there.”

The Nordstrom Anniversary sale:

“We pushed it back a month into August. It normally starts in July. A lot of that was our desire to make adjustments to our assortment. A lot of that we bought back in January or February. The other change is we weren’t able to produce a catalog for practical reasons. We weren’t able to do a photoshoot. The digital experience is better because you get a much broader view. The other change is that our top customers we give early access. We’ve spread that out a bit more to ensure we give those customers more time and space in the store. In the past, it was this overwhelming, crowded deal. We don’t think customers are looking for that right now. We’ve gone narrower and deeper into those categories that are super relevant right now — less wear at work, more wear at home and on Zoom calls. It’s definitely going to be different this year, but more than anything it’s about newness and it’s supposed to make people feel good. We all need something to feel good about right now.”

nordstrom local upper east side new york
Nordstrom Local in New York’s Upper East Side neighborhood.
CREDIT: Courtesy

Appointment shopping:

“I wish it was easier to get more help with styling. We have a lot of that, the challenge is always with demand for stylists in store. Our sales people are doing a lot more virtual appointments, walking around the store on a Zoom call or Facetime and saying here’s a new style that just came in or texting them pictures with new, hot item that might not be on the website yet.”

Being channel neutral:

“It’s going to be harder to tell [whether] it’s a digital sale or is it a store sale? Internally, we’ve taken a lot of our reporting around those subjects and thrown it away. We really don’t care — are we getting customers business? Are we getting more people to buy our product from Nordstrom?”

Why physical stores will always be important:

“The role for a great store is going to be as important as it’s ever been. A great store is a great store. They have these experiences, this product you bump into and didn’t expect to see. It could be a new brand you want to see in person or a food and beverage experience you want to try. As humans, we’re looking for those experiences. How many of them do you need to have? That’s probably an open question long-term. The world is going to need, and our customers are going to want, great stores. I don’t think that goes away anytime soon. The way the world is right now, it’s a little tricky on how you deliver on that. I’m sure we’ll still be sitting here [talking about this] 20 or 30 years from now. What defines on a great store will change and evolve, but there are still going to be stores people want to go to — and why we’re encouraged to continue to invest in.”

How cities will bounce back:

“The dense, urban markets are the most challenging. Office buildings are empty, people aren’t using public transportation. Some of the more regional, suburban markets are doing better. I do think it’s a point of time. Think about over the years people have bet against New York. It’s had it’s dark days, but it’s going to come back. We didn’t open our store in New York for 2020 — we are going to be in business there for a long time. The spirit of New Yorkers and what is going to happen there over the coming months and years — there’s going to be a rebirth. I think you will see that in other cities. Exactly when that future arrives, we’ll see.”

Nailing the store experience:

“Starbucks talks about the concept of a third place — you have your home, your office and a third place. I think our stores have played that role, but to be compelling over time, you have to continue to do that. There’s an energy level we have to bring. Bringing our services to life — alterations is a another good example. We’re the largest employer of tailors in North America. A lot of the clothes we buy have to be altered in some way. There’s OK experiences, but we have an opportunity to make a great experience. Focusing on services and experiences with food and beverage — and at the end of the day, having compelling product.”

Biggest worry:

“I’m worried about continuing distractions. We have a pretty big election coming up — what does that do to distract people or potentially create unrest. We have some large unemployment numbers. There are just a lot of unknowns. I think the big question is this a one-year thing, a two-year thing or a five-year thing. That’s the hard thing just not knowing.”

Sponsored by Klarna, the two-day summit is being held in partnership with FFANY, FDRA and Two Ten.

 

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