As department stores struggle, Nordstrom makes a play in New York City

Nordstrom opens a NYC flagship store

It seems that New York is most beautiful at holiday time, when the city is a sparkling jewel and the bustling department stores are like old friends.

Except now, some of those old friends aren't exactly bustling anymore. After more than a century, Henri Bendel is now but a memory. Barneys is circling the drain. And on Fifth Avenue, Lord and Taylor is done and dusted.

But a few blocks away from those dear departed department stores, in October, Nordstrom was throwing a party the day before they opened their new flagship store in New York City. And the highlight of the morning was an appearance by some people who usually avoid the spotlight: The Nordstroms themselves. 

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Nordstrom, the fourth-generation family-run company founded in 1901, opens its first flagship store in Manhattan, where you can sip martinis while shoe-shopping. CBS News

Jamie Nordstrom ("I'm the fun one") is part of the fourth generation minding the store.

Correspondent Tracy Smith asked, "Was New York always a dream for Nordstrom?"

"Oh, for sure," Jamie replied. "If you're gonna compete with the best, you gotta be here."

"If you can make it here …?"

"I'm not gonna finish that!"

But they're definitely playing to win. Like all Nordstroms, the New York store carries the prettiest and the priciest. They've even put full-services bars in the shoe section. "Anything from a cup of coffee to a martini," said Jamie.

Why? "You know, shoe shopping should be fun. And we're gonna make sure that you're comfortable when you're doing it."

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The Nordstrom shoe section bar.  CBS News

And the Nordstroms could probably use a drink themselves about now. Getting people to shop at department stores at all these days is an uphill task, and the Nordstroms will have their work cut out for them, says Mark Cohen of Columbia University Business School.

Smith said, "I put the question, 'Does New York need another department store?' to the Nordstrom brothers, and they said, 'No, New York doesn't need another department store, but it needs a Nordstrom.'"

"I think that New York doesn't need another department store," said Cohen. "I don't think the United States needs another department store. And we'll have to wait and see how all this turns out."

But you could say, for the Nordstoms, it's turned out pretty well so far.

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Nordstrom

The Seattle-based company was founded in 1901 by a Swedish immigrant, John W. Nordstrom, and his business partner, Carl Wallin. Nordstrom quickly became a chain of go-to shoe stores in the Northwest: the latest styles in nearly every size, and best service, through good times and bad. But by the 1970s, when then-president Bruce Nordstrom wanted to open a store in California, some financial analysts called him crazy.

"I told him, 'We're gonna go down to California.' He says, 'You're gonna get your head handed to you,'" Bruce recalled. "'Down there everybody's hip, and you're just a bunch of dumb Swedes selling to a bunch of other dumb Swedes.'"

"He literally said, 'You're a bunch of dumb Swedes'?" asked Smith.

"It was a joke. But I'll remember that to the day I die!" 

And he proved them wrong; the company's California stores are among the most profitable. 

It's worth mentioning that, like most Nordstrom leaders, Bruce had started out as a shoe salesman – or, as they say down on the floor, a shoe dog. And he still calls himself one. The same was true of his oldest son, Blake, who went on to lead the company for nearly 20 years, and his two other boys, Pete and Erik, who are the current Nordstrom co-presidents.

According to Pete, there was no skipping the "shoe dog"' step.

Erik said, "Well, there weren't a lot of other job offers at age 12, so we kind took what we could get!"

Smith asked, "Is there something to being literally down on your knees at someone's foot that teaches you about service?"

"You must have talked to our dad, 'cause that's the line we heard a lot growing up," Pete replied, "and those are lessons that, you know, we've taken with us to this day."

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CBS News

Another lesson might be perseverance: Blake Nordstrom and his family had dreamed of a New York store for decades, but even as it was finally being built, the family was rocked by some horrific news: Just before Christmas last year, Blake announced that he'd been diagnosed with lymphoma.

He was optimistic, and said he planned to keep working through treatment, but on January 2, Blake Nordstrom unexpectedly passed away. He was 58. 

Smith asked, "How much of a hole does that leave, not having him around?"

"Oh, it left a big hole," said Bruce. "I mean, there's somebody that you love so much, you can't just dry your eye, and do it. It sticks with you."

Pete said, "He was really good at his job. He had good instincts about the business. But, I'll tell you this: As good as he was at his job, he was a better brother. He was a great, great brother, and we really miss him."

The Nordstrom family built a simple tribute to Blake in the New York store: his footprints cast in bronze, forever watching over the shoe department he'd worked so hard to build.

Smith asked, "What do you think he'd think [of that]?"

Though Erik was noncommittal, Pete said, "He'd love it. I don't know if he'd love the footprints thing, but he'd love the store."

And now they're hoping shoppers will love the store – and maybe give the Nordstrom crew a real reason to celebrate.

When asked to describe the future for Nordstrom, Bruce Nordstrom said, "I think we're going to do great. Now we took a slump like every other department store. It's been a battle, and so now, I think we've got it going. So, we're not there yet, but we're gonna be, I think."

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CBS News

       
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Story produced by John D'Amelio.