Retail Confessions: Nordstrom
Yes, there are stories about that infamous return policy.
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Welcome to the third installment of “Retail Confessions,” anonymous interviews with former and current retail employees about what it’s really like to work for the world’s best known clothing stores. Back Row previously took you inside Saks Fifth Avenue and Harrods. Today, we’re going inside Nordstrom, which might have the most famous return policy in all of fashion retail. Do you think it brings out the best in people? Well, has Anna Wintour ever gone to fashion week wearing her hair in a sock bun?
The first interviewee has worked in a suburban Nordstrom location for many years.
How has your job changed over the years?
Nordstrom associates are on commission. There’s always a push and a pull between a sales associate who’s selling in the store to a customer and the people who are trying to sell online. Sometimes it’s hard when you’re a sales person on the floor and you’re trying to sell and here comes web fill. I think we, for the most part, have gotten over that.
Working on commission seems like a universally stressful part of retail jobs with that pay structure.
Sometimes our customer doesn’t understand that we’re on commission. They’ll ask for your help and then take out their phone and order right in front of you. Like, “Does this come in other colors?” And by the time I get back they’ve ordered it already. So we’re getting used to that now, which is kind of sad.
What are the commission rates?
I think sunglasses and accessories are 8 percent and handbags are like 6 percent. Cosmetics is hourly plus commission. Now, it’s not really explained – basically, for the two-week pay period your hourly rate is X number per hour, so you would get either that hourly for two weeks or your commission, whichever is greater, and it is almost always your commission. Cosmetics is very low, I think it’s like 3 or 4 percent. Whenever we have new people who are hired it’s not explained well to them and as you can tell I can’t explain it well either.
What kinds of customers do you get?
Mostly local suburban customers.
What do they like to buy?
Designer-adjacent, but definitely upscale. We have Clare V., Rag & Bone, Tory Burch, Kate Spade, Marc Jacobs. The customer sometimes gets annoyed we don’t have Saint Laurent, we don’t have Chloe, but we explain we simply don’t have the room for it. Sister stores with designer merchandise are not that far away. Brands don’t want to stock in both places.
What are the customers like as people?
Most are perfectly pleasant, perfectly normal people. Nordstrom has an infamous return policy, and even though Nordstrom does say, not every item will be able to be returned, we hope you will be respectful of us when we’re respectful of you – some people take advantage of that.
You must have stories about that.
People will say, “I broke my sunglasses, I want a new pair.” “Well, many sunglasses can be sent back to the vendor, here’s some information.” “No, I’m going on vacation tomorrow, I need a new pair.” We sometimes will make a judgement call without talking to a manager. If something’s really, really worn, and the customer’s returning it because they don’t want it anymore but that’s what it is, then you have to have a manager say no because it’s like, is this person going to throw a fit? I had a previous manager who would say, “This item looks well-loved, so I’m sorry, I can’t return this.”
If someone throws a fit, then what?
If we can find [a purchase record], we’ll do it, but if I can’t find it because it’s several years old or whatever, you can’t just tell me it’s worth $300 and there’s no proof of purchase. Now, people are bolder. When Nordstrom had this policy a long time ago, people wouldn’t dream of doing that. Now people will wear it for a weekend and say, “Oh I didn’t like the fit,” and bring it back.
It’s interesting that this is more of a recent phenomenon. I wonder if people are buying more than they did ten or 15 years ago.
I think they’re looking to recoup costs from anything. I got my use out of it, I don’t want it anymore. I had a customer whose son was moving and brought in a shirt that was unworn – there was a Nordstrom tag on it, but the tag was so old it didn’t work anymore. But she had called customer service – she found the receipt and it was four or five years old – so instead of donating it, the mom wanted her money back. I think it’s just, I can do it so I’m going to do it. It’s not, I bought two sizes online, I’m returning the size that doesn’t fit. It’s almost always worn merchandise.
I just think honestly there are a couple times a year when people go through their closet, like before sales in July and August – people go through what has a tag on it and return it. Whereas before, you would have donated the clothes. They’re trying to return it first because it’s easier to return it to us than sell it on Poshmark.
Do you see parents buying for their kids?
We do have parents coming in for Kate Spade and Marc Jacobs – the Snapshot bag is very hot now, a lot of teenagers want that, and that is $295 to $395. Kate Spade used to be what everybody wanted.
What other trends are you seeing in handbag sales now?
People want an outside pocket for their cell phones. We’ll show a bag, then it’s, “Is there an outside pocket for a cell phone?” And [if not] it’s almost always an automatic “no.” That’s something I’m surprised handbag manufacturers don’t understand.
Do you like the company?
Yeah, I do. In general it is a good company. Everyone has their specific grievance with any company. I would say mine is really return policy-based, but other than that, it’s a well-kept store, the people I work with are nice. I do wish that the buying offices gave more personalized attention to stores. It’s difficult – there are hundreds and hundreds of stores.
What happens to unsold merchandise?
When merchandise is marked down at Nordstrom and reaches a certain price point it gets sent to a distribution center for Rack, and then it gets sent to Rack stores. Once it hits a certain price point at Rack – have you heard of Last Chance stores? It is like a Goodwill store on steroids. It’s messy, there’s stuff everywhere, bags thrown on a table. You have to be that customer that likes digging, and you’re digging through stuff to find a good deal. Once it’s done there I don’t know where it goes. Also the merchandise – like I told you, they wore it a couple of times, and we can’t sell it? It will wind up at Last Chance. I bought my first pair of Tory Burch Miller slides there. They were lightly worn and they were at Last Chance, so you have to look carefully.
The second interviewee was employed at a Nordstrom in the Northeast for a couple of years around 2010.
How did you end up working at Nordstrom?
I don’t know if they still do it, but there was a program for teenagers to get into fashion. You’d learn the ins and outs of the store, so you’d meet once a month. You’d have an afternoon in the store, you could style outfits. For someone like me, that was all I wanted to do – that was my favorite day of the month. I had tried retail at American Eagle and I hated it. Down the line, I get a call from the new stylist manager at Nordstrom, and she was like, “I’d love to take you to lunch.” And I was very naïve – I show up in flip-flops and she’s decked out in a Chanel suit. A week later, she bumped into me at the mall and was like, “I was just about to call you, I would love to extend an offer to you.”
The stylists kind of take their role a little bit more seriously than a general sales associate. They would have private appointments and and things like that. I was there to help fulfill their orders for them, so instead of them running around and putting stuff back, I would.
What were the stylists like?
There was a woman who was the top seller in the store and she was kind of the first fashion person I ever worked for that was flat-out rude. There was a lot of commission fraud. It’s basically when you ring something up under [another sales person]’s number. If someone comes up and says, “Can you help me?” They’re free reign, it’s no big deal. This one family came up and had $500 worth of stuff and all of a sudden, as I’m done with the transaction, [the stylist] said, “Oh my god, you’re Mary and Joe, how are you?” And she went downstairs and returned their stuff and rang them up under her name.
You weren’t allowed to discuss it, but people would tell customers, “I make money off you buying from me.” If someone asked me, I would say, “Yes, I make commission.” But I would leave it at that. Some people were very devoted to their sellers, like, I want to make sure that so and so gets the sale. But sometimes they were just sick of their seller, and they would run away from them to me and be like, “I just want to buy a hoodie.”
People were very protective of their clients because a lot of them were a meal ticket for a lot of people. It was kind of stalkerish. I had a family that would spend thousands with me that I kind of would follow. I would walk them around the store and get them water, I would order them lunch in the café, and things like that, and we’d go down and buy a couple Alexander Wang bags. I had all their numbers in my phone, so if someone’s birthday was coming up or it was a special occasion, I’d be like, “Do you want this?” And send pictures. Some people I worked with, they would never come into the store. They would call in and say, “I need 20 items and get them for me,” no questions asked. And that would be your project for the weekend.
It sounds kind of cutthroat.
It is, and it is a tough job because you’re on your feet all day. You work nine hour days, you can come in earlier or stay later, they’re not going to be mad at you for doing that, but it was a lot. And your sales goals go up every year. The woman I worked under would make a million dollars in sales a year, and she got 10 percent commission, so she was getting $100,000 a year.
What about the infamous return policy?
I used to call it Rent-a-Center because you can return everything with a receipt. I had someone once buy a brand-new pair of Paige denim from me, she came back the next day with it covered in dog hair, smelled like cigarettes, but we had to take it back. I had someone come in with something that was 20 years old and we had to take it back. The thing that I saw most often get returned were Louboutins. One of the big local newscasters – I remember one night she wore this hot pink tweed Alice & Olivia on the air, and she brought it back the next day and said, “I don’t like this, I didn’t wear it.” And we were all like, We saw you wear it on the news.
And if someone returns something that counts against your commission, right?
If something was rung under your number that was counted against you – it doesn’t matter when it was sold. So say I sold someone something six months ago and they come in and return it, I would be in the hole with the new pay period. Unless you’re checking your numbers in the system, you wouldn’t know if you got hit with the return or not. But like day after Christmas was the worst, the half-yearly anniversary sale – you would make a ton of money, but you would also lose a ton of money.
What were people buying when you worked there?
It’s very logomania at that Nordstrom. I was there when Burberry stopped doing the plaid on the bags, and that was very offensive to people. They wanted everyone to know they were buying a $2,000 bag.
You could sell Chanel, though our store didn’t carry it. You were given a book every season with what the other stores had, so if you wanted a classic black Chanel bag, we’d have to see, Did Chicago get it? Did upstate New York get it? Did the Seattle store get it? We’d have to call that store and ask the Chanel department, “Oh did you get this bag?” And they didn’t want to sell it because they wanted the commission, so you had to fight them for it.
What was the wealthier clientele like?
Very much, I am up here, you are down here. There was a woman who, every Saturday morning at 10 am, she would come in. She was a lawyer and she would throw all this stuff on the counter and be like, “I want a water, give me a cappuccino.” And she did eventually say to me, “This is my therapy, I come to buy stuff every weekend because I work very hard during the week and I deserve X, Y, and Z on the weekend.” And she would be decked out Chanel, Valentino – top, top brands – and she would spend all day in the store, til 6 pm. She would shop, eat. And you would have to cater to her all day.
She was really picky – she hated everything – but she would always buy something. I think she made coming to Nordstrom an experience – she had a book with her, she had her tablet, she always had a shopping bag filled with stuff. She’d be like, “I was at Barneys in New York and I bought this.” If she liked something that was expensive, she would buy it when it was on sale but she had to come in and try it on a lot. She would easily spend $1,000 every Saturday.
That’s bizarre. What about the other luxury shoppers?
Oh, they were horrible. There was nothing luxurious about these people. They might look pretty and chic, but they were total monsters behind the scenes. They would talk down to you. I remember this one woman, she gave very much like, Don’t you know who I am? I remember looking her up and it was like, Oh, you were in the see and be seen page once. They all kind of knew each other, the women who lunch type crowd. Once, they asked this woman, “Oh do you work here now?” And she’s like, “GOD, can you imagine?”
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