"Eww" or "ahhh"?

That's the question for shoppers who discover Nordstrom Rack sells previously worn shoes - at deeply discounted prices and labeled as used.

For more than a decade, the outlet has quietly resold shoes returned to the full-price department store. If needed, the shoes get sent for a buffing up first.

But recent criticism of the low-profile policy went viral when a producer at CNBC's "Squawk Box" posted an outraged blog comparing the Rack to a bowling alley that sprays shoes between wearings.

It's a far cry from that, said Nordstrom spokeswoman Tara Darrow. Shoes returned to the full-line department store with a slight blemish or appearance of wear are sent to an outside facility for refurbishing. "It has to be in near perfect refinished condition to be sent to the Rack or it goes to the Last Chance Clearance Store in Scottsdale," Darrow said.

The refurbs are labeled with a price tag stamped "worn and refinished," but they're not common. Only about 2 percent of the total stock is refurbished, Darrow said.

A brand expert says Nordstrom should think carefully about how the practice affects its image.

"It turns you into a secondhand-clothing store," said Robert Frankel, author of "The Revenge of Brand X: How to Build a Big Time Brand on the Web or Anywhere Else." "It calls into question Nordstrom's reputation as a high-end type of brand retailer."

Betsy Galenti of Stillwater thinks the controversy is ridiculous. "I get the best deals on refurbished shoes," she said while shopping at the Mall of America Rack.

Due to the yuck factor, refinished shoes get a hefty discount of 70 percent or more.

"I got a pair of Tory Burch boots that were $600 new for $100, and there wasn't a scratch on them," she said.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com