Coronavirus has certainly changed the way merchants sell and customers shop. As COVID infection rates soar, retailers, large and small, fear anticipated mandatory closures during this ever-important selling season. It’s been a challenging, often devastating, year for many businesses. But Nordstrom has found that the combination of its legacy and traditions, along with new ideas and an expanded internet presence, will leave it well prepared for 2021.

It’s not to say that the retailer hasn’t struggled since the first COVID wave hit last March. The company’s New York City flagship was open for barely five months before temporarily closing its doors.

Last summer, Nordstrom permanently shuttered 16 of its full-line namesake stores. Designated as “suboptimal” performers, officials called their closures “long overdue.” COVID-19 only accelerated the company’s decision to pull their plugs.

Despite COVID-19, Nordstrom went forward with its annual Anniversary Sale, a long-standing sale event. In contrast to most retailers who focused on excessive summer stock clearance sales in August, Nordstrom offered new, specially curated merchandise.

Back-to-school sales, traditionally the second largest selling season of the year, were largely abandoned in 2020. Instead, many retailers pushed up their calendars and offered holiday bargains as early as October. That wasn’t the case at Nordstrom. The retailer held firm and didn’t jumpstart the holidays. A company spokesperson explained, “In keeping with our 119-year tradition of celebrating one holiday at a time, our stores [didn’t unveil] their holiday decorations [until] November 27.”

Though the Christmas decorations weren’t hung until Thanksgiving weekend, Nordstrom has worked hard behind the scenes and developed plans that address customer COVID anxieties. 

The company has expanded its curbside pickup service designed for “the safest and most convenient holiday ever.” The contactless service includes complimentary gift wrap with all curbside purchases. Special surprises and gifts are frequently offered to the first 50 curbside pickup customers each day as a gesture of thanks.

Nordstrom has stressed convenience in its stores this holiday season. Stores are stocked with specially selected pre-packaged merchandise designed for quick checkout, extensive toy shops, prominent directional signage, and in-store “pop-up” gift departments.

The retailer says the 2020 season features “a number of exclusive collaborations, launches and partnerships for holiday.” The retailer is test marketing three of these collaborations at 21 designated locations throughout the country.

Nordstrom is test marketing in-store “tree lots,” featuring an unique collection of highly-crafted Balsam Hill artificial Christmas trees, a special assortment of L.L. Bean winter clothing and footwear, and a “Five Two by 52” home assortment of cookware, dishware, and kitchen essentials. 

Over the past several years, the company has slowly expanded its home department. Though it is still lightly stocked, it helps fill a void left by its recently-closed competitors.

Nordstrom has significantly increased its online investment and the results have been fruitful. Last week’s third quarter earning call stated that digital sales have reached 54% of the entire business, up 33% over pre-COVID levels. CEO Erik B. Nordstrom told investors, “we are a majority digital business right now.”

The company launched its Holiday 2020 website, under the Make Merry theme, on October 19. The site states, “Holiday cheer looks a little different this year, but at Nordstrom, festivities are in full swing.” The internet promotion includes links to video Santa chats, virtual Santa mailboxes, and festive craft ideas for the family, in addition to hundreds of gift selections.

The retailer’s Cyber Monday sale was touted by Marie Claire magazine as the “Best Cyber Monday Sale of the Year.” With over 1000 items specially priced at up to 50% off, Marie Claire encouraged readers to search the site and look for “items that [you have] been meaning to try for years.”

The company’s online footprint has also expanded into its Nordstrom Rack
store format. The retailer has competitively positioned Nordstrom Rack into the only off-price merchandiser with a significant digital presence. 80% of the company’s top brands sold at its Nordstrom stores are presently carried at 248 Rack locations.

COVID-19 has provided a restart at the company’s opulent $700 million New York flagship. COVID temporarily closed the store shortly after it opened. But as shoppers and visitors eventually make their return to midtown Manhattan, the store will have a second chance at a grand opening.

Absent of traditional display windows, the New York Nordstrom is embracing elaborate holiday decorations. Over 253,000 lights, 150 trees, 700 ornaments, and an exterior flashing light show welcome weary shoppers in need of some festive cheer and normalcy.

Nordstrom was forced to abandon one beloved annual tradition at its downtown Seattle flagship store. Harking back to the building’s former life as the Frederick & Nelson department store, the Santa Lane exhibit, featuring Santa Claus in a street front window, was cancelled for 2020. Considered the nations’s first Santa Claus photograph concession, generations of Seattleites have posed with the store’s “Real Santa Claus” since 1943. 

The retailer is somewhat of a Johnny-come-lately as a large-scale clothing retailer. Founded in 1901, Nordstrom, over the course of 50 years, developed into the largest shoe retailing business in America. Its 1963 purchase of Seattle-based Best’s Apparel, greatly expanded the company’s merchandise assortment. By 1980, it became the country’s third largest specialty store, behind Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor.

Nordstrom remains somewhat of an anomaly in today’s retail market. Exceeding expectations, it plans to enter 2021 with $1.5 billion in liquidity, including $900 million in cash. 

COVID-19 has brought numerous bankruptcies and liquidations to an already-battered retail industry. The new year promises more names to be added to the retail casualty list. Nordstrom’s present success and optimistic forecasts are refreshing.

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