So I was just at Nordstrom buying something for a holiday gift exchange. And I’m always nice to the people working there, because I used to work there and it’s pure hell sometimes. And not just regular retail hell, where 60% of your job is looking busy and the other 40% is trying to forget how much your feet hurt, it’s like extra super special retail hell, where there’s a whole other mess of legendary culture thrown in.
The first fun thing about working at Nordstrom is the complete lack of a policy for just about anything. Of course, there are real policies like the ones you have to have about sexual harassment and pay administration and those kinds of things, but otherwise, everybody just uses their good judgement. Which really means everybody makes shit up all the time.
In Fashion Jewelry you had to size and colorize all the merchandise. That I didn’t mind; it was kind of fun. Sizes with like sizes, colors with like colors, cool beans. When you close, you have to make sure your department is gorgeous for the folks who come in to open in the morning. Everything is sized and colorized, straightened, dusted, the glass counters wiped down, everything put away neatly in its place. No problem. Except I started coming in and the Manager would have conversations with me like:
“Nicola* said the Department was messy when she opened this morning and you closed last night so would you like to explain why?”
“What was messy? How could I have done it better? Can you show me?”
“She didn’t specify, she just said it was messy. Don’t leave the department messy.”
“In order to do that I really need more specifics.”
“Go ask Nicola.”
“Hey, Nicola, Laura told me you said I left a messy department. What was messy so I can make sure I don’t do it again?”
“Oh, it was just messy. Like, jewelry just thrown in boxes and stuff. You shouldn’t leave the department messy.”
“Can you show me where, specifically?”
“No, I fixed it. Don’t leave the department messy.”
Rinse and repeat several times until I get so frustrated I ask the Manager on Duty to come over and inspect my department before I leave for the evening. She says it looks fine, and if Laura has any questions, she can come ask her about it. Sure enough, the next morning, the department’s messy again, and it’s my fault.
“I asked the MOD to come inspect it last night and she said it looked fine, you can go ask her about it.”
“It’s not her department; she doesn’t know our standards.”
Nobody does! They’re not written down! Nothing’s written down!
“And sometimes the vacuums bump the cases overnight and things fall out of place.”
“Then maybe you need to go yell at the vacuums.”
Another fun thing about Nordstrom’s lack of set policies is the lack of a return policy. As a customer, it’s great – if I get two pairs of gloves for Christmas and one sits in my car for three months while I keep forgetting to return it, no biggie – I can take it back and get my money back. Now, this may have changed, but in 2005 Nordstrom would openly flout credit card covenants in favor of their customers. If a customer wanted us to, we give cash for returns on credit card purchases, we could give credit card credits for returns on cash purchases, we could even give credit card credits for items purchased on other credit cards.
Now this was loads of fun for employees, because your sales and commission are net sales less returns. The way the store explained it, on a macro level, was that customers who bring a return back to the store leave with sales x dollar amount in excess of the value of their return. Which is super when you’re averaging returns across your hundreds of stores, but when it’s a huge return that wrecks your entire day, week, or paycheck, it’s not such a fun, uplifting statistic. In fact, our store was famous for a return a sales person once took on a set of tires that had been sold to a customer before Nordstrom had bought the store from the original owner, who did sell tires.
Fashion Jewelry was one of the worst, because Fashion Jewelry looks great at an event and unlike shoes or clothing, you can’t really tell if it’s been worn. I quickly learned to ask “Are you in the wedding, or are you going to the wedding?” If they were in the wedding, they were more likely (but not always) shopping for keeps. If they were going to the wedding, you’d almost be guaranteed a return as soon as the wedding was over. In fact, the whole “I need something to wear to an event” opener was cause to flee. I once spent an hour helping a lady pick out a necklace to wear to a wedding that I was convinced she loved and would wear forever. Two weeks later I found it back on the rack with the sale record sticker taken back off.
There were limits to returns, but it varied. Strangely, Fine Jewelry would accept returns on most items except engagement rings. Cosmetics would accept just about anything (in our initial class the trainer once explained why she gladly accepted a return on a completely empty bottle of perfume) I’m not sure how true this is, but the salespeople in Women’s Shoes used to tell me that they wouldn’t accept returns on shoes if they’d been worn even once (although buyer’s remorse had a lot of women returning unworn shoes, apparently) and they’d quickly quote the statistic that a shoe was really only good for about six months of continuous wear before it needed to be replaced. I believe Children’s Shoes and Clothing were also tighter on returns (nope, you can’t return it just because your child grows out of it).
I think returns are slightly different now. There were a couple instances where I couldn’t verify whether a return had been purchased at Nordstrom, and the MOD would come down to help figure out where it came from – they’d refuse returns sometimes if they seemed shady. Another situation where they would refuse returns were customers who returned a lot of items for cash. There was one lady who would routinely come into fashion jewelry and buy things and then return them the next day for cash. This is of course impossible to verify but another employee told me her husband restricted the amount of cash she could get, but he paid the Nordstrom bill every month without looking at it, so she’d get her cash, and he never seemed to notice she never had anything from Nordstrom to show for the credit card bill he kept paying. Loss Prevention eventually caught on and sent her a letter saying we would only accept returns back to the original form of payment or to a gift card in the future.
While I worked there a new point of sale system was also introduced, which would make it easier to track where purchases came from to ensure the returns would be correctly attributed. The general feeling I got was that returns were being watched more closely. A few months after I left, a relative and a friend both bought me the same bottle of cologne for Christmas. I got them at separate times and had already unwrapped one and thrown the box out when I got a larger one that I wanted to keep. So I took the smaller bottle back to Nordstrom to return it. The sales lady behind the counter recognized me but seemed to think since I had worked there I was somehow trying to pull a scam when I had gotten it as a gift. She wanted to know the purchase date and form of payment – I called my friend and he uncomfortably explained he had paid cash. She kept persisting and a manager from another department who recognized me came over and told the sales lady to take the return anyway.
Some returns used to go to Customer Service, but the last couple of times I’ve been in Nordstrom that department has disappeared. When I worked there they used to firmly suggest you go down to the department you’d purchased the item from (people were less likely to return items if they had to face the salesperson they’d bought it from, knowing full well they work on commission; now they don’t really have a choice). Even with Customer Service the gals in Women’s Fragrances used to complain they took the brunt of the “quickie” returns, because their department was right by the front door.
Not all of the returns were bogus. One that I had a lot of sympathy for was in watches – some say waterproof, some say water resistant. I got a lot of water resistant watches back with water damage because people thought they were waterproof and they weren’t. But those were usually easy – an “in and out” replace it with a new one at the same value, return the damaged one to the vendor. No effect on the commission.
Now, I worked there over a decade ago, but I know some things haven’t changed. And there are some things other Nordstrom alums and I agree on – working at Nordstrom makes you tough. At a job I had where workers were new to the idea of having their performance stats posted publicly (and there was significant whining) a fellow Nordstrom escapee and I had a good laugh. Your sales numbers are more important than your name at Nordstrom, and everybody knows exactly what you’re doing. It becomes the stuff of legend. I’d have folks from other departments come up to my counter and say “So, I heard you got a $500 return today.”
Still, I managed to find my niche. One lady would keep coming back to me because I didn’t lay on the hard sell. She’d browse and pick out something she liked, then she’d bring it over to me. We’d have a nice brief chat while I rang her up, and then she’d leave. During the big sales she’d bring me things from various departments all over the store and then keep shopping and bring more stuff back later because she didn’t like to be followed and fussed over and basically bothered while she was shopping.
During training they tell you that the entire store is yours to sell. True, but not true. Good luck getting into the stock room for either men’s or women’s shoes (with good reason – they don’t want you putting stuff where it doesn’t go) or behind any of the cosmetics counters (much for the same reason). You also don’t have the key to any of the dressing rooms so that’s also pretty much out of the question. In addition to items from my department, I’d get lots of grab-and-go items from the sale rack in accessories or Hosiery.
There’s also a lot of hubris, especially when your sales are good. At the time, Nordstrom was touting itself as a trendsetter, or someone people would go to for advice on what was hot in fashion. In 2005 the hot trends in Fashion Jewelry were lots of clunky arm candy bracelets, bohemian satchel bags, and anything with “Juicy” written on it. Which was fine, for the fashion forward folks, but the the ladies who wanted a plain freshwater pearl necklace and matching earrings or a plain watch with one of those curiously stretchy metal wristbands instead of some flashy diamond Michele Watch there didn’t seem to be much respect, even though they accounted for most of our business. Several men told me they refused to shop in Men’s Clothing because the sales folks there were so arrogant. I didn’t know what they meant until one day I went over there and was chatting with one of the guys about fashion and he told me about how he’d recommended a black suit, black shirt, and black tie for a customer going to a job interview.
“A job interview for what, a night club promoter?”
“No, I don’t know what kind of job it was.”
“Oh, ok – I was just curious, because the conventional wisdom for a job interview is to wear more neutral colors – all that black can be off-putting, especially if the employer is a bit more conservative.”
“That’s from a keynote speech from a subject matter expert on business interviewing.”
“They’re not fashion experts. I am. Customers come to me because they want to know what fashion is.”
“Call me crazy, but unless he’s interviewing for a job at Nordstrom, I’d have gone with the interviewing expert’s advice.”
There was plenty of fun with simple communication, too. Soon after the new POS system was introduced, which everybody loved because you could credit separate items of merchandise to different employees in the same transaction, rather than having to ring everything separately if a customer had been helped by more than one person. I was reviewing my sales one day, and I noticed that an employee in Men’s Clothing had done it incorrectly. The customer had purchased a $700 suit jacket and about $50 worth of items from my department, but the employee had credited the $700 suit jacket to me and the $50 to herself.
I went over to let her know to fix it so she could get the credit for the items from her department. You would have thought I was speaking another language.
“What do you mean?”
“The suit jacket rang up under me, when it should have rang up under you. I’m letting you know so you can fix it and get the credit for your sale.”
“No, I sold the suit jacket.”
“I know you did, but you rang up the items from my department for yourself, and you rang up the suit jacket for me, so if you return them and switch the suit jacket to you and the items from my department to me we’ll each get credit for what we sold.”
“How did that happen? I sold the suit jacket! That’s my sale!”
“I’m fully aware of that, which is why I’m here letting you know so you can fix it, because I can’t.”
“Oh I WILL!” *snatches receipt from my hand*
“Do you want me to help?”
She did it exactly the same way the second time, but I didn’t bother to go back and correct her.
Lots it was fun, however. A lot of the people I worked with were a kick in the pants. It was a small town, so I’d see somebody I knew come through the store almost every day. I made some pretty fast friends. Getting food from the cafe for lunch was fun, and relatively inexpensive with our discount, and so were coffee breaks at the espresso bar. My friend Marjie would come over and we’d talk about what “merch” we had our eye on, and we’d do the math in our heads and declare it “practically free”. We knew that “Talk me out of buying this” really meant “I’m buying this either way” and secretly wished Nordstrom would create a position for us to sit on the sky bridge drinking coffee and handing out deflating fashion advice to folks who would then feel insecure and buy more from inside the store, because we’d be awesome at it.
After a few weeks of getting yelled at for “leaving the department messy” in Fashion Jewelry, the Manager in At Home decided she wanted me to replace a girl in her department who was leaving. It sounded much better to me because it was hourly base pay plus a small commission so it wouldn’t be quite so affected by returns.
At home sold curios and crystal and dishes and dinnerware and dining tables and club chairs, bed, bedding, fake flowers, and these bespoke chocolate truffles called Nordstrom Habits. It was a lot of fun cleaning out that chocolate case because you’d get to clear out all the truffles that had been dropped on the floor or broken or cracked and take them out of inventory and “throw them away” (which meant eat them). But it also gave me an artisan sense of pride to make sure the case was just so, with its raised glass plates piled high with fragrant little balls of chocolate. It was an excuse to look busy, because the most cardinal sin in retail is to look like you don’t have anything to do; it becomes a deadly sin if you’re caught doing it behind the cash/wrap desk.
At Home seemed ok at first, because I could make the beds and rearrange the flowers and decorate the dining table and rearrange the chocolates for ever. But then I realized the manager was crazy. She had this delightful little habit of calling me “kiddo”, and I made the mistake of politely asking her to stop, because I felt it was demeaning. I was a grown up person, 23 years old, thank you very much. She agreed, but it later came out during a session where she pulled me into the stairwell to scream (literally, scream) at me for something a coworker had told her I’d said (which I hadn’t) that she didn’t care what I preferred to be called.
She also had this charming habit of interrupting me when I was talking with a customer before closing a sale and needing “something or other” from the stock room upstairs. At Nordstrom the (of course, unwritten) rule if you’ve helped a customer for five minutes, it’s your sale. So I’d go off on my fool’s errand to find whatever she needed from the stock room, only to come back downstairs and find she’d completed the sale, and it hadn’t been in my name. Thanks.
During Christmas I sold this giant Santa-in-a-canoe figure. The sale went something like this:
“How much is that Santa in the canoe?”
“I’ll take it. I’m in a hurry.”
“Ok, I can put it in this big bag for you, or I can run upstairs really quickly to get the box.”
“The bag’s fine, I’m in a hurry. I have to go now.”
“Ok, thanks for shopping at Nordstrom.”
Madame Charming returns from whereever she’s been.
“What happened to the Santa in the canoe?” She seems pissed.
“I just sold him!” I said, proudly.
“Wait, you just sold him? To who?”
“This nice gentleman who just left in a hurry.”
“Did you get the box from upstairs?”
“I offered, but he said he was in a hurry, and he didn’t want to wait.”
“You have to call him and tell him to come get the box! He can’t pack it without the box!”
“He was in a hurry. He didn’t want the box. I offered it to him, but he didn’t want it.”
“But he can’t pack it when Christmas is over WITHOUT THE BOX! CALL HIM AND TELL HIM TO GET THE BOX!”
“I don’t have his number; he paid cash. How about we keep the box down here in the back office in case he comes back?”
“I can’t believe you sold the customer a Santa without a box! That’s not good customer service!”
“He didn’t want the box. It would have been worse customer service to make him wait for something he didn’t want.”
“That’s not how we do things here.”
I apologized because it was the only thing I could have said without getting myself fired.
Retail isn’t known for having the greatest work-life balance. Our schedules were based on what our managers called “a combination of seniority and sales performance”, which was also bogus. Crazy Manager once promised that I could leave early to attend a wedding, but then denied knowing anything about it when she saw how sales were progressing that morning. My Grandmother had a fall on Thanksgiving and I was at the hospital with her until six the following morning; I had to be at work at nine. I had planned to call in sick, but Mom talked me out of it. “You can’t call in sick on Black Friday, she’ll can you.”
Well, surely if she knew the circumstances…
I decided not to risk it. Lucky I did, because my coworkers all agreed: she would have canned me. Managers at Nordstrom were famous for working 60 hour weeks with a single day off if they were lucky, and they expected the same dedication from their employees.
Breaks were another thorny issue. Sometimes you’d be scheduled to work half your shift alone. You’d come back from lunch and there wouldn’t be anybody there to give you a second break. Although you were supposed to get two breaks and a lunch, this was something else that Nordstrom’s lack of a clear policy frustrated. Ask Manager and they’d tell you it was the MOD’s job to relieve you for your break if nobody else was there. Ask another and they’d say it was ok to leave as long as you told somebody from another department to watch your department, which meant keep eyes on it from their department. Another manager would say having someone watch your department meant someone had to be in your department while you were gone (which was impossible, because they’d have been leaving their own department; most departments had a single employee scheduled during the evening).
Clarification of “the rules” always seemed to fit the situation. That’s where the last example came from. I’d just come back from break while somebody else had agreed to watch my department from their own. The MOD was frantic. Frantic is never good at Nordstrom, because that means the fear of their superiors is running through their veins.
“We had an issue with a customer return and we couldn’t find you!”
“I was in the break room. I asked Soandso to watch my department.”
“Well, he was busy and there was nobody in your department!”
“I was taking my break. I didn’t hear a page. They said if I got someone to watch my department I could.”
“That means there is someone in your department the whole time you’re gone.”
“You and I both know that’s impossible at this time of night.”
“Then you don’t get your second break.”
And of course it’s the MODs job to tell Crazy everything the next morning.
Egos at my store were very fragile. Store meetings were mandatory, and missing one could get you fired. My very first day, I missed a store meeting at 7AM (my shift didn’t start until 1 PM) because I overslept, and the meeting was before the store opened so there was nobody on the switchboard to call and explain I wouldn’t be there.
When I finally got ahold of the manager, she was livid, in spite of my explanation and profuse apology.
“Everybody noticed you weren’t there.”
Really? It’s my first day. I haven’t met anybody. I thought to myself.
“The store manager asked, ‘Where’s your team?’ There were only two of us there. Missing a store meeting is very, very, serious. You can get fired for that. I’m not going to fire you this time, but never miss a store meeting again.”
So the Store Manager asks my Manager where her team is, and that’s a crushing criticism? For somebody who works in retail, you’re pretty sensitive.
When I finally had enough and quit to go back to being a travel agent, I had a good long jaw with the HR gal at my store (with whom I had a good rapport), who seemed sympathetic to some of my complaints, and not quite so sympathetic to others. Among them:
“Commissioned sales is tough. When I started in Hosiery my Manager would look at me and I’d have one chance to go get that sale before she’d take it. Our managers work for commission too.”
I understand that, but what we’re talking about is being sent on a fool’s errand in the middle of a sale and coming back to find that the manager has closed and taken credit for it. That’s tantamount to wage theft.
“Your Manager should never have screamed at you. You should have come to me.”
That’s all well and good, but unless you could have promised me a position in another department, which would have been a waiver of the “unwritten, written six month requirement to stay in one department before moving” which other employees had told me Crazy Manager said she would never waive, I would most certainly have been fired. You understand that’s pretty risky when you’re trying to keep your job.
“Yeah, the clean department thing is important, but I understand how it might be subjective. Our employees are supposed to use their good judgement.”
My coworkers “good judgement” usually involved telling the manager I’d done a poor job regardless of what the truth was. Her “good judgement” was taking their word over mine, without seeing what was supposed to have been wrong because they’d “already fixed it”. If you ask me, it was all pretty “bad judgement” on their part.
In the end, I had some good takeaways from working at Nordstrom (the smell of Nordstrom Habits immediately takes me back) and I still shop there from time to time. But whenever I do, I still wonder who’s on the struggle bus, because it’s a difficult job, and I know plenty of those folks have to be.
Bonus Round: Some preemptive answers to some of the things I’ll probably be accused of for writing this post!
Retail is difficult. You’re not cut out for it.
I don’t dispute that retail is difficult. However, it should be difficult for the universal, uncontrollable reasons retail is difficult. Long hours. Difficult customers. Standing on your feet all day. It should not, however, be difficult because of controllable reasons like dishonest employees, insecure managers, or unclear employment policies. There were thankfully more times that were enjoyable than were not, and I have friends who continue to work for Nordstrom and have found it rewarding. For me, it was never a career, and regardless of the field you’re in, you’ll always have employees who are not career folks. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be treated well during their tenure.
You’re wrong; Nordstrom is the best.
I very much admire Nordstrom for achieving what they’ve achieved from humble beginnings, and for their customer focus that is key to their success. I’m proud to see a company with deep roots in the Northwest and Alaska doing well on the national stage. My experience was ten years ago, at a single store – I sincerely hope it’s different now, both at my store, and every other Nordstrom store.
You just didn’t like working on commission and getting returns.
Actually, I do like working on commission. I left Nordstrom for a job as a commissioned travel agent. I’m naturally competitive and like to see the results of my work quantified, and I like to compare it with my peers. However, a commissioned environment with protections against returns and a clear policy for resolving credit disputes is a more positive commissioned environment than the one I experienced. Other retailers even agree, and have stopped paying commissions in favor of a set salary – so there’s not a true “best answer” for retailers on this issue. There are benefits and detractors to both. Like I said, Nordstrom’s return policy is great for customers, great for the health of the organization, but it’s not great for individual employees. In many cases the store even gets a credit from the vendor for returned items (or is able to resell the item at an outlet) but the employee gets nothing (unless they’re successful in reselling the item, in which case they’re paid a single commission for selling it twice). If returns were related to poor salesmanship, then it would be a fair system, but there are returns for defective merchandise, buyer’s remorse, honest mistakes (I bought one and my wife bought one, now we have two, oops!), and flat out dishonesty. Employees shouldn’t bear the burden for circumstances beyond their control. The idea that returns generate positive sales is too abstract on an individual basis.
You didn’t work hard enough to be successful at Nordstrom. And you lack commitment.
Actually, I was successful at Nordstrom, I made enough money to buy the things I needed, and I consistently met or exceeded my sales goals and those of my department. Accept that there are some people, even at the best companies, who work to live, rather than living to work, and they do a good job when they’re working. There were a lot of things I liked about Nordstrom; unfortunately the things I didn’t like
outweighed them. I don’t lack commitment at all; I just had the wisdom not to commit to a job where the bad outweighed the good.
You worked at the company for six months ten years ago, and you think you know everything?
This is a memoir, not an expose. This is my own singular experience, and I’m glad you took the time to read it.
You must not be very successful with your crappy attitude.
I’m a post-graduate degreed professional and I’ve been with my current company for seven years and I make good money. I’ve tried to present a pretty balanced story here.
There are two sides to every story.
You’re absolutely right. This is mine.
*Names have been changed.