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Welcome to Manhattan, Nordie's!

By the time Nordstrom's reached New York City it had lost a lot of the old Seattle brand.

Nordstrom is opening its first, beachhead store in Manhattan, a discount Rack store. This comes after years of trying to find a prominent location for a full-line store. Instead, the Nordstrom Rack will open near a Filene's Basement store in Union Square. Even at that, this Rack is 3,000 square feet smaller than the average Rack store.

I remember the days when Nordstrom's forays outside the Northwest were regarded as big news, and a big risk. Could the stodgy, Scandinavian shoe store make it in fashion capitals? It sure could, and the launching of the Seattle brand in retailing was under way. In turn, the Nordstrom style has had a lot of influence on other "muscle brands" coming from Seattle, particularly the emphasis on good service (Starbucks, REI), value (Costco), and customer-focus (Amazon).

A story in The New York Times makes clear that this Nordstrom invasion is not carrying a lot of the Northwest brand. Service is only a minor factor at these stores. Instead the emphasis will be on New Yorkers' love of speedy shopping. At most Racks, for instance, there is only one shoe in each box on the shelf, so you go go a "mate window" to get the other shoe. Not in New York, where impatient shoppers would rebel: Both shoes are in the box, enabling a grab-and-go mentality. Check-out stands are also speeded up, imitating Whole Foods' system.

The emphasis on low prices is catching on with other retailers, with high-end stores such as Saks, Neiman Marcus, and Bloomingdale's also introducing discount stores. The Manhattan Rack will be Nordstrom's 76th such store.

The new Nordstrom image seems to be designer brands at discount prices. That's a shift from the way, years ago, Bruce Nordstrom once described the Nordstrom brand. He told a story in which he imagined a business meeting somewhere in America. In walks a smartly dressed businessman, with all present noting the fine suit, but none actually saying, "Where'd you get that suit?" If the Nordstrom suit stands out enough to elicit a verbal remark, it's too regional or extreme, Nordstrom explained. The goal was a tacit approval, no matter where the meeting was held.

That once epitomized to me the Seattle image: fitting in anywhere, generic but upscale, totally shorn of regional accent. Starbucks and Amazon would approve.

David Brewster is founder of Crosscut and editor-at-large. You can e-mail him at david.brewster@crosscut.com.


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