Keep the Customer Satisfied by
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Prompted By Customer Service

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♪ And I’m one step ahead of the shoe shine ♪♪ Two steps away from the county line ♫♪♪ Just trying to keep my customers satisfied, ♫♫ Satisfied. ♪
— Paul Simon

Nordstrom is famous for customer service, including taking back a pair of automobile tires even though they don't sell tires.

On October 20, 1989, Nordstrom, the Seattle-based department store, opened its first store in Sacramento. It was three days after the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake hit the Bay Area and shook up Sacramento a bit as well, so it was nice to have some good news. The Sacramento Bee covered the Nordstrom opening, saying “If there is indeed a heaven, and if it has a department store, it’s probably a Nordstrom.” There was a black-tie event the night before the official opening, where 2,000 people paid $100 each as a benefit for the Junior League of Sacramento. My husband and I, at home with a four-year-old and a one-year-old, were not part of that exclusive group, who “snacked on caviar and salmon and admired the shoe department’s 50,000 pair collection,” according to the Bee.

We were not familiar with the merchandise Nordstrom carried, since they hadn’t ever had stores anywhere that either of us had lived, but we quickly learned that they were famous for customer service. There was a legendary story about a customer who went into a Nordstrom store wanting to return a pair of automobile tires, and even though Nordstrom has never carried tires, they took them and gave the man a refund. I was never sure if this story was true or not, but now, thanks to the internet, I have confirmed that it is. Apparently the tires had been purchased at a different store that had previously occupied the same location, and when the man had bought the tires there, he was told that he could bring them back at any time. So the Nordstrom clerk called a tire company to find out how much they were worth, and paid him that amount.

We were following the news coverage about the Nordstrom opening pretty closely, and especially all the promotional offers they were making to entice customers to come to the store. One promotion, in the children’s department, was that you could get your children’s portrait taken for free by a famous photographer named Sorenson. (I haven’t been able to find him online while writing this story, but he was alleged to be famous at the time.) We dressed up our children in their nicest clothes, and drove to the shopping center where the Nordstrom store was. We didn’t even have to wait too long, and the photographer was wonderful, took lots of pictures, and didn’t ask for a dime, as promised. However, when we went back to look at the proofs, a week or so later, that’s when we learned the sad truth – the sitting was free, but the pictures were not. Of course that was our misunderstanding, and we couldn’t convince them that we should be entitled to a free picture based on their offer. We did get to keep all the proofs though. We only bought one picture, but we splurged on an 11″ x 14″, with a finish that made it look like a painting. We took it to an art store and had it matted and framed, which probably cost more than the photo itself. It was, and is, a work of art, and I still cherish it now, thirty-three years later.

Getting back to the customer service that Nordstrom is so famous for, I have taken back a pair of my daughter’s sandals a full year after buying them, when they had clearly been worn for an entire summer, and they still gave me a full refund. I have returned other shoes, and occasional articles of clothing, with no problem. So I have no complaint with their customer service. Sadly, the Sacramento store that opened in 1989 closed in 2020 because of Covid, and later announced that it would not be reopening, so I can’t shop with them any more unless I take a long drive.

Note: Many people mistakenly refer to the store as Nordstrom’s, with an apostrophe S, and that is incorrect. The store’s name is not a possessive like Macy’s. Just so you know, because you wouldn’t want to get it wrong if it ever comes up in conversation.

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Characterizations: well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Wonderful story of great customer service, Suzy. I’ve heard that story about the tire refund too. Nice to know that it is true. Amazing that they took back so many things from you, even months later with so much wear. Truly great customer service. A shame that they are gone now.

    And I did the same portrait “scam” with David, but at Sears (and they didn’t claim to have a “famous” photographer). The sitting was free, purchase of any photos cost something. Like you, I bought one portrait size photo, which I put into a frame and have displayed in my home (you can look back on Facebook – last July, David had Anna take a photo of him, holding the portrait of himself in one hand and Rosa in the other; they sent it to me and I posted it).

    • Suzy says:

      To be clear, Nordstrom is still in business (unlike so many others), they just closed the store near me. I’m pretty sure there is still one near Marian, so maybe I should meet her there! Also, there is a Nordstrom Rack near me, but that’s kind of like Filene’s Basement – pretty hit or miss as to whether you will find anything you like.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific story about Nordstrom and its customer service, Suzy — and note correct spelling. It is legendary for it and I have been quite pleased with it the times I have shopped there — including one time a few years ago when my wife “had” to buy a very expensive wedding dress. She was treated as if she were the bride herself — which she decidedly wasn’t — and, after we had sealed the deal, they even sent me down to the men’s department to pick out — for free — a sports jacket of my choice. Sure, they made a hefty profit on us (and, of course, my wife also had to do a bit more shopping and “accesorizing”), and they obviously wanted to introduce me to their men’s department for future business, but that was still one very generous move.

    That said, I do think their photo offer was a bit of a bait and switch on you. Who goes to a photo session expecting only to get the proofs?

    Finally, as usual, great choice of song title titles. I vaguely remembered that song as one of the lesser cuts from the “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” album.

    • Suzy says:

      Wow, John, that’s a great Nordstrom story! Who would imagine a store giving someone a free sports jacket, no matter how many other items they bought! I hope you found something wonderful!

      The ad may have said that it was a “free sitting,” and my husband and I were not savvy enough to realize that it didn’t mean the pictures were free. I would hate to think they were doing a bait and switch.

      I played that album so much that I didn’t consider any of the cuts to be “lesser.” I loved them all equally! Kind of like Carole King’s Tapestry album.

      • John Shutkin says:

        Yes, indeed. I got a very nice dark blue and black wool jacket — much nicer than I would have gotten myself. Of course, then I worried that I might have misread where the decimal point and comma were in my wife’s bill.

        Great comparison to “Tapestry.” I would add “Let It Bleed,” “Abbey Road” and, of course, “Sgt. Pepper” to that list. And probably C, S & N’s debut album.

  3. Marian says:

    I’m glad you were able to get such a lovely photo at Nordstrom, Suzy. Your story made me remember the Nordstrom incident with my wedding shoes in 1987. Because I was wearing a tea-length dress, I bought some beautiful silk pumps with lace, which were white. I needed to have them dyed ivory to match the dress. Two days before the wedding, when I went to pick them up, they were clearly a dark blush color. Yuck! Somehow the store found another pair of 7-1/2 AA shoes at a different store (a task in itself), dyed them that night, and had them ready the next day. I do miss that kind of service.

    • Suzy says:

      Mare, thanks for another great story about Nordstrom customer service! I love it that in one day they found another pair of the same shoes and dyed them the right color. As I just said to Betsy, I think there is still a Nordstrom near you, so maybe I should come visit you and we could shop there!

  4. That did sound like Nordstrom pulled a bait-and-switch Suzy, but all was worth it for that beautiful photo of your kids!

    • Suzy says:

      As I said to John, I don’t really think it was a bait and switch, I think we just thought free sitting meant free portrait too. I’m so glad to have it now, it was worth however much we paid for it, which I’ve long forgotten.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    Lots of good Nordstrom stories here. Even if you had to buy it, you got a beautiful portrait of your children–thanks for posting that!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    We still have a Nordstrom not too far away (for now, anyhow). They are wonderful about shoes, which is important for folks like me who have trouble finding shoes that I can tolerate. Your photo is worth whatever you paid and more — priceless.

    • Suzy says:

      Yes, their shoe department is definitely a big reason to go there. Both for the merchandise they have, and for their generous return policy, because you can’t tell if a pair of shoes is any good until you have walked around in them for a while!

  7. Risa Nye says:

    We have a Nordstrom on Walnut Creek–not too far away from me–which is where my story happened. Back in my working days, I utilized the services of a personal shopper, which were the best shopping experiences of my life! Before a trip to Paris, the shopper brought in a short black trench coat that was beyond my budget, but I bought it anyway. Still have it decades later!

  8. Susan Bennet says:

    What makes this so unacceptable, Suzy, is that the deception was so intentional. You weren’t to blame for not intuiting the deal beforehand.
    But, you have a lovely picture and, most importantly, lovely children.

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