Byline: Kristin Young

LOS ANGELES — Blake Nordstrom had more than a new store to celebrate at last Wednesday night’s gala opening for the first Nordstrom to bow in this city in 17 years.
The door marks the second of eight Nordstrom stores slated to open in 2002, when four Nordstrom Rack units will also debut. The 122,000-square-foot anchor officially opens today as part of The Grove at Farmers Market, a $160 million complex in the city’s heavily traveled Fairfax District.
After 18 months as the president of the store founded by his great-grandfather, John, 101 years ago, Blake Nordstrom now can point to some signs of progress.
The retailer last month reported that fourth-quarter earnings shot up 87.8 percent to $50.7 million, due to rigid expense and inventory controls and sales declines that were lower than expected. Sales rose 2.9 percent during the year to $5.63 billion but were down 2.9 percent on a same-store basis. Anecdotally, vendors are noticing an increasing number of Nordstrom buyers writing orders for more goods.
Yet, the fourth-generation Nordstrom president remains cautious. Although circumstances have improved since he and other family members ousted Jack Whitacre and resumed control of the Seattle-based company in August 2000, there’s plenty of work left to do, he pointed out.
“It’s a slow journey,” he said during a brief interview before Wednesday’s party and fashion show got under way.
For starters, January comps were down, declining 2.4 percent.
Nordstrom will put the brakes on expansion next year, with only four new units, Nordstrom noted. The Grove unit is the chain’s 132nd store. One week ago, a full-line Nordstrom opened in Durham, N.C. “We’re still looking at growth opportunities, but we’re evaluating our criteria to open new stores.”
Nordstrom attributed progress to a singular practice: talking to his sales force. The chain had suffered from a spate of same-store sales and earnings declines, in part due to not reaching a broad enough customer base, he said.
“Our jobs are not sitting at our desks or behind the computer. It’s being on the floor and listening to the troops and supporting them.” So far, he said, he’s talked to some 5,000 employees.
The conversations he has with his floor staff involve everything from customer service to the fashion direction.
“We believe in an inverted pyramid where management is on the bottom and sales people and customers are on the top,” he said. “When business is tough, the pyramid starts to tip to where managers start to say, ‘I’m the boss and I have the answers.’ Then we don’t do as well.”
He readily admitted that the retailer was “a little guilty of looking at fashion in terms of age. So our buyers are working hard within each department for a balanced approach. We swung the pendulum and we alienated some. [But] we are in the fashion business and fashion means different things to different people.”
Nordstrom is currently beefing up its designer business, and the executive observed the stores are “seeing great gains.”
For years, Los Angelenos have had to drive to the westside to shop Nordstrom. The challenge, he said, was securing enough land in a concentrated urban area like Los Angeles for a two-level store. “It wasn’t from a lack of desire on our part,” he said.
Neither he nor company representatives would discuss first-year sales projections.