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His Undivided Attention

February 28, 2010

As we were walking away from the kids shoe department at Nordstrom today, I looked at my husband and said, “You could not pay me enough to work there.”

It wasn’t a nice thing to say, but it was how I felt after spending 20 minutes trying to get the attention of a Nordstrom employee who was up to his eyeballs in shoe boxes and had five other families vying for his time. It must be really difficult to get all dressed up every day to go and schlep six, eight, ten pairs of shoes per kid to demanding parents. It has to take enormous patience not to tell every one of those parents to get their kids down off the chairs and to tell them to stop tapping on the glass at the fish.

I’ve never been behind the register where they disappear to grab all the different sizes and styles of sneakers and sandals, but if it were me, I’d be hiding back there as long as I could. I wonder if they sling the unwanted boxes back there in a frantic rush to return to the never-ending crowd of customers or if they take their own sweet time, carefully replacing each pair back in its allotted space just to give themselves the extra seconds to breathe.

Sundays are always bad in the kids shoe department at Nordstrom, yet somehow we always forget this, and apparently we’re not the only ones. Today, one of my son’s classmates was there with his dad, replacing a pair of Converse that still looked to be brand new. That’s the thing about kids and shoes – they outgrow them so darn fast. This time we needed to go back for a new pair even before the handy reminder postcard we’d filled out last time we made a purchase came back to us in the mail.

Keeping employees like our friendly shoe gatherer engaged must not be easy. It is a demanding job serving demanding customers, and keeping them happy so they return in three months when they need another pair is really important. The plight of the kids shoe section employee is not shared by any of his other Nordstrom co-workers, so there are few among his colleagues with whom he can comisserate.

Every other department at Nordstrom is an oasis of calm in an otherwise mad sea of mall-goers. Today, just outside the store, heading into another retailer, there was this bizarre group of overly stylish baby-boomers and their 30-something girlfriends being followed around by a camera crew. All of them had fastidiously groomed dogs smaller than my cat at the end of gold leashes, perfectly pressed designer outfits and sunglasses even in the shade. Inside Nordstrom, however, there was a soothing live piano player, plenty of space between racks to consider your purchases, and unobtrusive assistance available at every turn. All of which made the chaos in the kids shoe department and the apparent dishevelment of the employees all the more pitiable to behold.

Yet, I keep coming back, and it is not even because of the selection; today we didn’t even end up buying anything. When we finally flagged down our harried friend, he was amazingly able to make us feel that no matter how many pairs of somebody else’s rejected Crocs he had piled up in his arms, his undivided attention was on us. He was completely unphased when we told him we just wanted him to size our son’s feet so we could go online and purchase the pair we wanted.

He knelt down, squeezed our son’s toe a bit, and let us know he was a 10 in Merrells and a 9 1/2 in Stride Rite. The fact that he had been able to balance more than a couple pairs of New Balance on his left knee had been impressive, but his calm smile and confident, precise analysis – with the movie Cars playing just inches from his ear to a not-so-rapt audience of preschoolers – were truly awe-inspiring indeed.

It was proof to me that despite appearances, the Nordstrom corporate culture is strong enough to survive and keep its employees engaged and its customers returning – even in the kids shoe department.

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