SEATTLE – Nordstrom is aiming to turn its downtown Seattle flagship and two other stores into snazzy international shopping destinations, a new twist for what has traditionally been an upper-middle-class retailer.
The extensive remodeling, also being done at stores in Chicago and San Francisco, targets the out-of-town crowd and those looking for a unique experience — a sign of the changing role of the brick-and-mortar retail store as a place for entertainment and awe, in addition to shopping.
At the downtown Seattle store, the third and fourth floor have been quietly remade into wider spaces with lots more light coming through the windows, exposed ductwork in some areas, an airy and minimalistic cafe, and a fancy cocktail and tapas bar called Habitant. The second phase of construction will finish next spring.
Jamie Nordstrom, the executive who oversees the company's stores, says the makeover aims to turn the flagship store into an "international destination" different from its suburban department stores — one that visitors from Beijing or Shanghai will be talking about when they go home.
Speaking to reporters during a tour of the two remodeled floors, Nordstrom cited as inspiration the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, London's Selfridges and other famous European department stores.
"We realize we should have higher ambitions," he said. "Seattle is a different city than it was 20 years ago."
But Seattle is not the only thing that has changed: The retail world has too, with consumers spending more time online. Out-of-town visitors have become an increasingly important constituency for big brick-and-mortar stores in large cities.
Some 40 percent of sales on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, one of the world's top shopping wonderlands, come from visitors to the city, according to Neil Stern, senior partner at McMillan Doolittle, a retail consultancy.
"Creating more of a destination experience makes a lot of sense," he said.
A makeover of Nordstrom's Michigan Avenue store will be complete this fall, in time for the holidays. Work on the San Francisco store will start in July and take about 18 months.
Jamie Nordstrom said the company is investing "a lot of capital" in the three stores but declined to say how much. The company is in the midst of a big ramp up in capital expenditures, expected to peak this year to the tune of $1.2 billion.
While a lot of the money is going into opening Nordstrom Rack discount stores and beefing up the e-commerce operation, the remodel makes clear that the flagship stores are not being left behind.
In fact, Nordstrom has been more successful than most other retailers at keeping people coming into its full-line stores. In the fourth quarter of 2014, the company reported a 0.5 percent increase in comparable sales there, even as similar figures for other retailers plummeted.
So far the remodel makes the old flagship look a lot more updated. It's more airy, with wood and terrazzo floors throughout. Unlike the typical department store, which can be as isolating from the environment as a Las Vegas casino, there's plenty of light coming through the windows.
Once the dust settles on the renovation next spring, all the windows around the first floor will look into the store — an update, but also a throwback to the original design of the Frederick & Nelson store that once occupied the location.
During the holidays, Santa will still be in his usual window, said Nordstrom spokeswoman Brooke White.
The remade Nordstrom flagship will have more space dedicated to retail than its previous incarnation — an addition of 20,000 square feet. How big of an increase that represents is unclear, however, because Nordstrom doesn't break down what percentage of its store belongs to the sales floor. Overall square footage will remain about 383,000 square feet.
A big part of the improved experience, Nordstrom executives say, will center on food and drink. At the Habitant lounge, thirsty shoppers will be able to order $10 craft cocktails such as the "Rent Check" (made with tequila, St. Germaine cordial, jalapeño syrup, lime and muddled watermelon), and nibble on items such as ricotta meatballs and cilantro lime chicken tacos.
Nordstrom is also experimenting with features that will make the store more useful to everyday shoppers.
Last month it began testing curbside pickup for goods purchased or reserved online. People who have ordered alterations in the men's department will be able to choose — via text, e-mail or phone — whether they want their clothes brought to the curb, tried on at the store or shipped home for free.
So far the curbside pickup system is working fine, said Jamie Nordstrom, but the holidays "might be trickier," he said.
Whether the Seattle remodel will succeed in making the store a magnet that draws people from across the country or the Pacific Ocean remains to be seen.
Even if it falls short in competing against world-famous emporia like London's Harrods and Berlin's KaDeWe, the work done here might help the core of Nordstrom's business stay with the times.
Stern, the retail consultant, says it's all part of Nordstrom's effort to be more relevant and hip. "They should be able to pull it off," he said.