After 114 years, Seattle-based Nordstrom finally made it 143 miles due north to open a store in Vancouver, British Columbia on September 18.And what a store it is. As someone who has visited many Nordstrom stores in the U.S., I can say that none can match the 230,000-square foot store in Vancouver’s Pacific Centre on the corner of Robson and Howe in the heart of the downtown shopping hub.
Vancouver, which is Nordstrom’s third full-line unit in Canada, is considerably larger than Calgary (140,000 square feet, opened September 2014) and Ottawa (158,000 square feet, opened in March 2015).
Two more stores will open in 2016, both in Toronto. A 213,000-square foot unit in the Eaton Centre downtown, and an 188,000 square-foot store in Yorkdale Shopping Centre.
According to Retail Insider, Pacific Centre is Canada’s highest revenue-generating mall, averaging $1,498 (Canadian) per square foot. Eaton’s and Sears were the two previous tenants in the 42-year old building that Vancouverites had dubbed “the urinal” because of its windowless white stone tile paneling façade that was designed by famed American architect Cesar Pelli. Nordstrom, on the other hand, has dramatically enhanced the statement of the building with long vertical glass windows on every floor that help bring the exterior inside.
Jamie Nordstrom, president of stores, told me that Vancouver represents the company’s biggest commitment to designer offerings, on both the first and second floors. A partial list of vendors includes Christian Louboutin, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent Paris, Stella McCartney, Céline, Chloé, Lanvin, Burberry and Delvaux (which is exclusive to Nordstrom in Canada).
Nordstrom’s overall merchandise presentation is a statement to Canadian shoppers that they would not bring “Nordstrom Lite” north of the border—unlike Target, which was accused of offering “Target Lite”, and eventually closed dozens of stores that they had opened virtually simultaneously. Nordstrom is taking its usual methodical, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach. “With every store we open in Canada, we learn new lessons,” said Karen McKibbin, president of Nordstrom Canada.
Nordstrom’s go-slow approach is reflected by its decision to wait until next year to open Nordstrom Rack stores. The company wants to thoroughly understand the market before making its moves. And when it does open Rack stores, you can be sure that it will be both strategic and rapid. In all, nine full-line stores are planned for Canada and 12 to 15 Racks locations, BMO’s analysts suggested.
The downtown Vancouver store is a signal that this fourth generation of Nordstroms intends to take the company that was founded by their great-grandfather to new heights. Vancouver fits into Nordstrom’s strategy of offering spectacular downtown flagship stores that cater to tourists and visitors, and raise the company’s profile both nationally and internationally.
Nordstrom is in the midst of remodeling its other downtown flagship stores in Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco. The company will be opening another downtown flagship store in Toronto next year.
“We’ve really focused on this location,” said Erik Nordstrom co-president of the company, along with his older brothers Blake and Peter. “Vancouver is an opportunity for us to start from ground zero. We’ve tried to do some different things and really stretch ourselves. This store is a representation of where we are today.” Pete Nordstrom added: “This store is the next chapter in the book.”
Nordstrom’s downtown flagship strategy will reach its peak (literally and figuratively) in 2018 when the company opens its first location in Manhattan at 217 W. 57th Street. The 285,000-square foot store will occupy the bottom seven floors (three below ground; four above ground) of the 1775-foot building, which will be one of the tallest in the Western Hemisphere.
“We’re hopeful that a lot of our partners in the market will come out and see this store, particularly as we get ready for our store in Manhattan,” said Erik Nordstrom. After the New York opening, Nordstrom will definitely have established itself as an international brand. In my opinion, I could see Nordstrom opening in a world-shopping hub such as Singapore. (I should add, this is strictly speculation on my part.)
Erik Nordstrom said that the Vancouver store offers several new services, such as free two-hour delivery to downtown locations as well as same-day delivery within 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) for a charge of $15.00.
To ensure that Nordstrom’s new Canadian employees delivered the company’s legendary level of customer service, before Nordstrom opened any Canadian stores, they brought several dozen Canadian managers to Seattle for eight weeks of training in The Nordstrom Way.
“These are Canadian stores run by Canadians,” said McKibbin. Observing the new Vancouver sales people in action, it was evident that the lessons took, beginning with the moment the doors opened for the first time, and thousands of shoppers, curiosity seekers and (no doubt) competitors filed in, while store employees cheered and applauded the customers who cheered and applauded right back. With cellphone cameras held high, employees and customers shot videos of each other, as “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” by The Clash blared over the speakers.
In the Nordstrom tradition, many family members were in attendance, including fourth-generation co-presidents Blake and Pete, as well as Bruce and John of the third generation. I asked John what his father and uncles (who were shoe retailers) would have thought of the Vancouver store, he laughed and said, “Those guys didn’t understand what my generation was trying to do. They just let us do it.”
The opening was the culmination of Nordstrom’s introducing itself to the market. The evening before, Nordstrom hosted an Opening Gala, which raised $420,000 to benefit BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre Foundation, BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, Covenant House Vancouver and the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The Vancouver opening epitomizes how Nordstrom introduces itself to a new market. Although most British Columbians are well acquainted with their Washington State neighbor, Nordstrom acted as if they were an unknown quantity. The company’s public relations team methodically created a buzz through strategically placed stories, special store previews for media and selected consumers, and the philanthropic Opening Gala with fashion show—all leading up to the store opening and the accompanying coverage through television, print and social media.
Although some industry sophisticates might read Nordstrom’s humble “we want to earn your business” approach as disingenuous for a $14 billion powerhouse, it’s not an act. While the Nordstroms are as competitive as any players in the business, they don’t allow hubris to overpower prudence. Other retailers should take note.