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How Nordstrom Is Using Innovation and Activations to Drive Apparel Results

Nordstrom wants a bigger share of its customers’ closets.

“We’ve been hard at work over the past year to 18 months to really establish our offer to build an assortment that covers active, athleisure, outdoor, work, dresswear, occasion and fashion orientation,” said Shea Jensen, the retailer’s EVP and GMM of women’s and men’s apparel.

She noted that the company uses a significant amount of analytics to help inform its strategy. “First and foremost, our ambition is to have an incredibly relevant assortment. We want to have a collection of the world’s best brands and also [names] that are new and emerging [to] create a sense of discovery for customers in stores and online,” said Jensen.

According to the executive, Nordstrom has 10 markets that serve “a disproportionate” amount of customers and drive a “disproportionate” amount of its volume.

She noted that the retailer aims to have a compelling selection across all the life stages and across all price zones. For example, Nordstrom is using analytics to reassort its plus-size women’s offering. Meeting the demands of the millennial population, the largest demographic in North America today, is another priority. “We recognize an opportunity to bring to bear a lot more youthful brands to our plus-size offer,” Jensen said.

Creating collaborations with brands is an important way for Nordstrom to not only show great product and distinguish itself, but to tell a compelling story. For example, the retailer partnered with Rag & Bone to create a New York-style deli at its Manhattan flagship.

Over the past several months, Nordstrom has been creating 360-degree activations across all of its touch points to celebrate the story of the product. Last April, the company supported sustainability and Earth Month by collaborating with Ganni, the Danish brand, and expanding its store offer. The monthlong pop-up featured activities and storytelling around Ganni’s key responsibility projects and brand values. Activations, limited and exclusive products and special capsules were featured across top markets.

The retailer followed that up with a Free People activation, celebrating the summer that everyone had lost and “re-wardrobing for summer.” That featured dresses, rompers, tops, shorts and bandeaus made for packing up and heading to the shore or beach, available at the New York flagship, online and 10 select stores.

Nordstrom continues to leverage the close relationships it has with its strategic partners, including leading brands like Nike and Tory Burch, global luxury partners like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and emerging brands such as Good American.

Asked how important it is to be cutting-edge, Jensen said, “We [consider it] across the spectrum. If we think about New York, it certainly is one of the most iconic and important fashion cities in the world. And we want to have an incredible manifestation of our offer in that city. We have to have an assortment that serves cutting-edge — the newest and latest runway fashion — [and also offer] what customers will wear on their day off.”

Being a store that provides discovery is paramount, and Jensen said her buyers are constantly seeking newness. “That’s something that our teams work hard at every day. We scour social media, we do a lot of competitive shopping, we have our ears to the ground in the market with our partners who are bringing to life new brands.”

Discussing some of the brands the retailer has discovered, Jensen cited the Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) brands that it has been working with over the past year.

In 2021, the company will launch 17 Black-founded, -designed or -led brands. A few examples are the Oula Co., Oak & Acorn, Phenomenal and Renowned. “We don’t just launch the brands, we partner very closely. We help provide new and unique relationships where we can find mutual success, help them scale and introduce them to our customer base,” she said.

Jensen said the retailer’s Black-owned and -led businesses are highlighted on the web and
in-store. The company has navigational tools to sort, filter and show them. As part of the Center Stage activation during Black History Month,
Nordstrom featured eight Black-founded and Black-owned companies from across the U.S., spanning men’s and women’s apparel, beauty,
accessories and footwear.

Turning to the broader assortment, Jensen said top women’s names include Topshop, Open Edit, Free People, Treasure & Bond, Good American, Halogen, Caslon, Rails, Rag & Bone, Frame, L’Agence and Mother. Buzzworthy new labels for women are Ganni, Farm Rio, Simon Miller, Alix NYC, Naked Wardrobe and Levi’s.

In men’s, top brands are Faherty, All Saints, Vince, Boss, Ted Baker, BP, Open Edit, T&B, AG, Paige and Levi’s. Buzzworthy new brands for men are Fear of God Essentials, BBC, Brixton, Carhartt, Ksubi, Pendleton, Filson and Barbour.

Other noteworthy labels for women are Cotopaxi, Tonal, EleVen by Venus Williams, Fjallraven and Harper Wilde; and for men, Cotopaxi, Fjallraven, Tonal, Bombas, Vissla and RipCurl.

“Similar to what we’ve been focused on in women’s, we’ve been trying to build an assortment that covers the entirety of the man’s closet,” Jensen said. She noted that in men’s wear right now, Nordstrom is excited to see a return to demand for dress, which, she said, “went almost completely dark during the pandemic as people weren’t dressing for the boardroom or for work occasions.”

There’s no question that occasion dressing is having a moment again as people come out of hibernation.

Jensen said she’s seeing a lot of consumers buy a suit for their first interview or a wedding, and men are thinking about a return to travel. In the dress area, brands such as Canali and Ted Baker have been strong, as well as Hugo Boss, “which is a great sportswear line for us.”

Nordstrom’s recent collaboration with Cross Colours was a strong fit for the retailer. “Talk about an iconic street brand and a really relevant brand,” said Jensen. It partnered with the founders and brought the brand to life on its Center Stage in New York. For two weeks this summer, Nordstrom highlighted the brand’s past and present in a way that celebrated the 1990s, featuring pieces worn by celebrities and consumers over the years.

Activewear continues to be a big draw. For men, the company is doing well with Zella, Nike, Vuori, The North Face, Outdoor Research, L.L. Bean and Billabong.

“The athleisure focus that happened during the pandemic with everyone working from home and wanting to feel comfortable, it was a very real thing. But we don’t think it was limited to the pandemic. We think that’s something that’s lasting,” Jensen said.

In the women’s market, “versatility is here to stay,” she noted. “Women have their choice. They might want to throw on a jogger and short-sleeved T-shirt one day to work from home, but maybe they’re going to get dressed up and wear a dress that night for a date,” Jensen said.

Sustainability continues to be a growing concern for Nordstrom’s customers. The company has pledged that 15% of its merchandise will be sustainably sourced by 2025. Among the sustainable offerings are Nordstrom-made products. “A lot of our denim brands are doing exciting things with water preservation and biodegradable fabrics,” she said. And Ganni, as well as other Scandinavian brands, are sustainably sourced.

Another example of Nordstrom’s innovative partnership model is its expanded deal with Asos.In July, Nordstrom acquired a minority interest in Asos’s Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge and HIIT brands. “This is going to be a real pinnacle example of how we partner in new and unique ways with the world’s best-known brands,” said Jensen. A multichannel showcase will launch this fall, with Asos products in select stores and online. “Then we’ll continue to build from there,” she said.

According to the executive, each store is merchandised uniquely and has a different footprint. “Department store managers and local store managers are going to know best what will resonate with their customers. We definitely convey product intent and knowledge about brands, but it’s really up to them to bring it to life in a compelling way,” she said.

Key to the Nordstrom philosophy is customer service. Jensen said the retailer offers free basic alterations and personal styling, both in-store and online. They have complimentary personal stylists available across the fleet of stores and online. “They can rework your entire closet or dress you for a simple event,” she said.

Further, she said, Nordstrom has created a suite of digital styling tools where the company can curate an assortment and zip it to a customer’s phone, showing what’s new from their favorite brands. “Increasingly it’s happening more and more digitally,” she said. The company continues to lead with a digital-first mindset.

Asked whether millennial customers are more apt to shop online or in-store, she said, “Customers shop when, where and for whatever they want. There’s a lot of discovery happening online,” she said. “If people have down time, the experience of getting back to stores is coming back. There’s no linear journey anymore. Our 360-degree activations are a good example of how we want to weave our stories across all touch points. There’s consistency, inspiration, discovery and connection.”

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