Retail

Blake Nordstrom: Gone too soon, but his impact on retail will long be remembered

I met Blake Nordstrom, co-president of the namesake retailer, only one time, and it was way back in 2005. I was an executive at Neiman Marcus, and many of us on the senior leadership team were attending the grand opening of our new store at the Shops of La Cantera in San Antonio, Texas. About an hour or so after opening our doors and greeting customers, we decided to check out the new Nordstrom, which had also just opened that morning.

Strolling past the specialty shops that were a bridge to our more accessibly priced competitor, who should be coming toward us but the Brothers Nordstrom? It turned out they were on a similar mission. I honestly don’t remember much about what was said, but I remember the feeling: warmth, congeniality and mutual respect. As we parted, Burt Tansky, our CEO, said something along the lines of “that is one great family.”

More than a decade later, well into my new career as a consultant, speaker and writer, I was interviewed by the Seattle Times for a piece about Nordstrom. My comments, both on background and ultimately in the story, highlighted my strong admiration for the brand and its leadership. The day of publication, I got an email from Blake saying how much he appreciated my kind words. While it was a very small gesture, no doubt aided by an assistant, it still meant a lot to me. I have told this story to several people who knew Blake personally, and they all basically say the same thing: “Oh, yeah, that’s just the kind of guy he is.”

As I reflect on Blake’s death on Wednesday at 58, I am reminded that in business—and I suppose in our culture more broadly—we often focus intensely on what is achieved (record growth, improved profit margins, number of followers, awards, etc.) and much less on how it is done. And it is hard to understate what Nordstrom, the retailer, has achieved during a time of tremendous change and disruption. Given Nordstrom’s leadership structure, it is hard to say precisely what Blake was responsible for, but it is not difficult to highlight some of the major accomplishments during his tenure.

1. A memorable experience. For the most part, the department store sector is boring, characterized by me-too assortments, lookalike environments, rampant promotions and uninspiring customer service. While others swim in a sea of sameness, Nordstrom has remained remarkable by keeping its stores current; remaining committed to personal sales attention; curating interesting, fresh and highly relevant assortments; and resisting the temptation to put just about everything on sale all the time.

2. Digital leadership. Nearly two decades ago, the company saw the potential of digital commerce, not only as a transaction but also as a key driver of its brick-and-mortar business, and invested well ahead of the curve. Today, Nordstrom has among the highest e-commerce penetration of any traditional retailer (over 30%) and is one of the few whose growth in online sales is actually accretive to earnings.

3. Harmonized shopping. Nordstrom was one of a handful of retailers that understood early on that the customer is the channel and it’s all just commerce. Accordingly, the company committed to being channel agnostic and began investing in creating a truly seamless experience across channels many years ahead of its competition.

4. Innovation. Unlike virtually every other retailer that has been around even half as long, Nordstrom has been on the leading edge of just about every major trend in retail. It pioneered upscale off-price retail. It invested early and heavily behind its e-commerce business. It has been willing to experiment early and often with social, mobile, personalization and new modes of shopping (Trunk Club). It was among the first to open an innovation lab, and in a sign of its commitment to radical experimentation, the company shut it down and moved on when it was no longer delivering the desired results.

5. Smart diversification. Nordstrom has leveraged its core with new stores in Canada and New York City. It has invested aggressively behind its faster-growing Nordstrom Rack division and acquired HauteLook to enhance its capabilities. Now it is piloting its new merchandise-free, service-centric concept called Local as a way to extend customer reach and better meet customers where they are.

6. Solid, profitable growth. At a time when many other mall-based retailers are closing hundreds of locations and struggling to stay afloat, Nordstrom has defied both the retail apocalypse narrative and the multi-decade secular decline of department stores, managing to grow relative market share, sales and profits. That is no small task and one for which I do not believe it gets enough credit.

It probably goes without saying that it is always sad when someone dies—and especially so when it happens at such a young age. I know I am among many in both Blake’s immediate and extended family who are deeply saddened by this news. While we mourn his passing, we can (and should) celebrate not only the “what” of his accomplishments but how he did it: with integrity, passion and kindness. Ultimately, the values Blake Nordstrom embodied and reinforced will be his gift and his legacy.

As Maya Angelou reminds us, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.  

Next week I’ll be in NYC attending the NRF “Big Show” and participating in various related events, including a special “fireside chat”. On January 24th I’ll be keynoting the ICSC Nexus Conference. In February I’m headed down under.

One thought on “Blake Nordstrom: Gone too soon, but his impact on retail will long be remembered

  1. Very nice tribute Steve to Blake. I spent years working for Nordstrom, as a vendor, consultant and employee. I remember when the “boys” came in to take over their Dads jobs. Blake always had a smile on his face. Thanks for a memorable read.

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