How the Pandemic Has Sparked Creativity + Out-of-the-Box Thinking for Nordstrom Chief Merchandising Officer Teri Bariquit

Teri Bariquit wrote the first chapter of her Nordstrom story when she was in grade school. “I wanted a pair of Calvin Klein jeans. I lived in Seattle. My mother said, ‘You’re going to have to get a job at Nordstrom.’ And I said, ‘I will.’”

After working at the storied retailer part time in high school, she pursued a degree in accounting and finance, but decided to take a different path and headed back to Nordstrom for a job in the buying office.

Bariquit soon discovered that many of the processes were manual and decentralized. “I started working on training programs and other ways to find automation and Excel tools before technology was available.”

The executive spent more than three decades climbing the merchandising ranks and was named to the newly created role of chief merchandising officer in August 2019. “I’ve been in the job for two years, and I’ve spent 18 months of it in [the pandemic],” she said. “If nothing else, it’s created this level of resilience. I know that’s an overused term, but I try to find the silver lining. It has [sparked] creativity and out-of-the-box problem solving. Sometimes, you get to have permission to challenge and buck things.”

Like many other business leaders, Bariquit has also let go of the notion of having a perfect plan during such an uncertain time. “You create scenarios: What if masks were to come back? What if closures were to happen again? What if [more] vaccines are approved [by the FDA]?”

Staying flexible has been critical for the executive and her team as customers have shifted their preferences through the pandemic — from buying mainly home, active and casual products early on to now gravitating toward occasion looks again. In-store shopping is also seeing a resurgence.

“We’ve gone through so many cycles since lockdown. During the last six months, it’s not that digital went away, but customers wanted to touch, feel and experience products,” Bariquit said. “They wanted to have engagement with sales associates and stylists. We’ve tried to replicate that experience through livestream events — which have done really well for us — but customers love coming in. People aren’t going to go back to 2019, but what we’re going to see emerge out of this is even more connection [between] digital and physical.”

While Nordstrom has been lauded for its digital-first approach, what that means is continually evolving. “It’s recognizing that customers have access to just about anything that they want, and they have a breadth of choices that are out there when and how they want it,” Bariquit said.

So is the answer to stock more styles? Not necessarily, according to Bariquit. “I don’t think the customer wants more choices; they want their choices. We want to give them an experience that provides access to a lot of products, but does it in a way that creates discovery and inspiration. The last thing you want is to go on to any retailer’s website and see 1,500 black pants. You want to feel like it’s just for you. How do we find ways to connect with consumers on a deeper level. That’s part of our ‘Closer to You’ strategy.”

No matter where and how they’re shopping, customers expect product to be available — and that’s increasingly complicated for Nordstrom and every retailer amid a supply chain crunch.

“We’re trying to find ways to work with our brand partners to flow deliveries so that we can get things in as quickly as possible ahead of the selling season. That might mean warehousing some things,” Bariquit said. The retailer also is engaging in conversations with vendors about where goods are manufactured, with the goal of ultimately getting them closer to the consumer.

One of Nordstrom’s advantages, the executive said, is that the retailer’s network allows it to make choices about where to position its inventory — and give consumers a clear picture of what’s in-store and what’s online.

Part of Nordstrom’s aim to move product around seamlessly involves the way it works with vendors, which has changed significantly.

“Traditional wholesale is a model that’s just not going to work, especially in the future. It leaves somebody holding the risk, whether that’s the retailer taking markdowns or the vendor taking a bunch of cancelations. And it’s not a win for anyone,” Bariquit explained.

“It’s recognizing that there are a lot of new and emerging brands out there. And whether you’re a direct-to-consumer brand or a traditional vendor, people want to gain access to more customers. We want to be able to serve more of them.”

Alternative models can also be beneficial when it comes to controlling costs, which continue to rise, thanks to inflation coupled with higher gas and material prices.

“It’s really about how quickly we can [exchange information] and share and reduce costs — and then share the rewards,” Bariquit said.

New ways of doing business will also be crucial as Nordstrom takes more of a lifestyle approach to buying and merchandising.

“It’s evolving away from individual items to how you provide the best and most relevant brands and categories. It goes beyond just thinking of fashion, apparel, shoes, handbags, jewelry, beauty. [For example], are they having a backyard barbecue? Do we want to offer them pizza ovens? It’s really thinking about the customer’s lifestyle beyond what we traditionally [label] fashion.”

No matter which category they’re exploring, the Nordstrom team is keenly focused on diversity and sustainability as part of the big-picture strategy.

Around the time she took the reins of chief merchandising officer, Bariquit had a pressing agenda item on her whiteboard: How to have more representation for Nordstrom’s customers.

“We don’t want the customer to have to leave our site or our store to go find their hair-care products or beauty products for their skin tone — or a nude shoe when there are so many tones of skin,” she said.

To start, Bariquit and team had conversations with vendor partners and Harlem’s Fashion Row about how to embark on the initiative. A year later, when Aurora James launched the 15 Percent Pledge following the murder of George Floyd, the retailer immediately began talking to the designer and fashion exec Emma Grede about getting involved. 

But it took time to commit — for all the right reasons.

“I’ve onboarded a lot of brands in my years. I didn’t want to launch and leave,” Bariquit explained. “If we’re going to bring a brand on, especially one that’s new, we have to put in the resources and commitments to help that brand be successful — whether that’s compliance or understanding how to ship product or create digital assets for our site. That was important versus just signing a pledge. This is about a long-term thing. It was important to approach it with integrity.”

Nordstrom signed the pledge in July and has created training programs around it, including an internal site for supplier diversity, tracking and monitoring systems and dedicated staff behind the initiative. “We cannot just check a box and move on. You let your customers down, you let a whole community down,” the executive said. “It’s about creating a financial eco-system of bringing brands on board — and it’s not just products we sell. It’s also third-party services and non-traditional product suppliers. It’s about creating a circular environment for the economy, to put money into the system to support diverse communities and then give back to them. If a brand we start with goes private equity, that’s great. We can know we’ve had a hand in getting them to that point.”

Just as importantly, Nordstrom knows it must hire and promote more diverse talent within its own walls. “Our customer is broad and diverse, and we need people who are planning, designing and buying products that represent the customer and really understand their wants and needs,” she said. “It’s that simple.”

When it comes to sustainability, Nordstrom is also taking a multi-pronged approach.

“When you’re manufacturing and moving and flying things — is anything really sustainable in the fashion industry?,” said Bariquit. “It’s so much more than just the product. It’s how you operate your business. How do I reduce the shipping destinations? How do we think about re-commerce and reuse? Where are the choices in all of our processes to minimize waste?”

With so many complicated decisions to consider, this period has taught Bariquit some valuable lessons.

“You have to operate with a different speed. You can’t be all-inclusive in the decision-making process in the way we’ve done in the past, so it’s being OK with trusting partners and peers
at work in the spirit of moving faster,” she explained.

“When it all gets intense, what’s been great for myself and our teams is not only trying to find our balance and boundaries — and self-care and wellness — but to remember why we’re here. We’re not curing COVID, but we can give customers a moment of joy.”

Access exclusive content