Features, Retail Insights

A Fresh, New Look at “The Nordstrom Way”

Readers of The Robin Report know that I have admired Nordstrom—both the company and the family—for how they run their business through good, old-fashioned retail “blocking and tackling.” The Nordstroms are merchants who are always focused on making life easier for the customer (the core of their DNA) — by hiring the right people, using customer-focused technology and nurturing a personalized service culture for almost 117 years.

Robert Spector has been studying, writing and speaking about Nordstrom for 35 years—first as the Seattle correspondent for WWD and later as the author of three different books on the company, beginning in 1995 with the bestselling “The Nordstrom Way: The Inside Story of America’s Number One Customer Service Company.” In 2005, Spector “blew up” (in his words) the 1995 book to create the all-new “The Nordstrom Way to Customer Service Excellence,” and in 2012, he did it again, “because Nordstrom keeps changing and evolving,” said Spector. “That’s how they’ve been able to stay competitive in an ever-changing, ever-challenging retail landscape.”

And now we have the completely new “The Nordstrom Way to Customer Experience Excellence: Creating a Values-Driven Service Culture,” co-written with Spector’s business partner breAnne O. Reeves, with a foreword written by Howard Behar, retired President of Starbucks North America and Starbucks International. As preparation, Spector and Reeves reviewed the first three of “The Nordstrom Way” series as well as three separate privately published memoirs by members of the first three generations of Nordstroms. They distilled these works to highlight the values that they believe define the Nordstrom culture.

After all is said and done, according to Spector and Reeves, the Nordstrom narrative is a culture story built on nine non-negotiable values:

  1. Trust
  2. Respect
  3. Loyalty
  4. Awareness
  5. Humility
  6. Communication & Collaboration
  7. Competition & Compensation
  8. Innovation & Adaptation
  9. Give Back & Have Fun

“Values define who we are, and if they change we become something else,” the authors quote Pete Nordstrom, co-president of the company along with older brother Blake and younger brother Erik, who are great-grandsons of the founder. “Practices are ways of doing things that express our values. Practices may serve us well for long periods of time, but they are not values, and therefore can be changed without changing our culture.”

The Seattle-based company’s goals are to first attract, and then retain, people who share and abide by those values. Only those kinds of people will be happy working for Nordstrom. The authors point out that an organization can’t convince or teach people to share their values; those people must already share those values. How does Nordstrom find people who want to give outstanding customer service? “Most of the time, they find us,” said chairman emeritus Bruce Nordstrom, father of the brothers who currently lead the company. “We can hire nice people and teach them to sell, but we can’t hire salespeople and teach them to be nice. We believe in the philosophy of ‘hire the smile, train the skill.’”

Operating against trend, Nordstrom provides little in the way of a formalized training program. When asked who trains Nordstrom salespeople, Bruce answered: “Their parents.” Or their grandparents or guardians—whoever instilled them with a set of values. “The Nordstrom Way,” write Spector and Reeves, can be summed up in three operating strategies:

  1. Stay true to the values of the culture.
  2. Attract people who share the values of the culture.
  3. Teach and coach based on those values.

Innovation and adaptation keep Nordstrom competitive. And in this new omnichannel world, Nordstrom is reimagining the role of the physical store. The Nordstroms say they are channel agnostic: they don’t have a channel strategy, they have a customer strategy. The authors write that “the physical store is not dead; it’s digitized. Stores must now encompass both worlds—the sensory experience of the physical store and the personalization and convenience of online shopping. The most successful retailers seamlessly blend both.” They point out that, “Nordstrom has evolved from being a curator primarily of products to being a curator of service and experience, supported by product. That means continually adding value to the store experience in order to attract the customer.”

Nordstrom strives to digitally connect with the customer to understand their buying history and to suggest personalized offers—all in a secure environment to safeguard personal data. “Our future is going to allow us to leverage our history but not be held prisoner by it,” says Chief Innovation Officer Geevy Thomas, who 35 years ago started on the sales floor and was most recently President of Nordstrom Rack. Thomas, who has been tasked to lead the effort to reimagine the company, told the authors that he is guided by this over-arching question: “How do you leverage the newest technology to make retail more relevant, more fun, more connected from a social perspective?”

If you want to know how Nordstrom does it—and how your company can, too—I highly recommend this book as a refreshing all-new take on this remarkable retailer.

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