I had only been in Nordstrom’s New York flagship for five minutes before A-Ha’s “Take on Me,” a staple of suburban mall soundtracks, began to play. That song would be the first of many reminders that while the department store may physically sit on 57th Street in midtown Manhattan, its soul rests somewhere in Paramus, New Jersey.
There are many ways Nordstrom, which opened last week and is the Seattle retailer’s first post in the city, caters to New Yorkers, or the idea of them.
Because New Yorkers are practical, designer sneakers take up much of the shoe department.
Because New Yorkers ride the subway, Fjällräven Kånken backpacks are given just as much first-floor real estate as Chloé handbags.
Because New York is a proudly liberal and diversity-celebrating city, one gender-fluid mannequin stands on the third floor, power posing underneath the Marlene Dietrich quote, “I am at heart a gentleman.”
Refinery29 reported that the store is filled with 100,000 pairs of shoes and 10,000 tubes of lipstick. I imagine whoever was responsible for those figures as a 14-year-old from Omaha who just watched the first season of Sex and the City and believes that’s what life is like on this island.
Everything about the store is oversized and built to impress, from the project’s total budget ($500 million) to its location (the tallest residential building in the world). In total, the space takes up 320,000 square feet.
So, it’s big. It’s packed wall-to-wall with enough sequins, feathers, and pleated skirts to outfit the entire cast of a Miss Texas Teen USA beauty pageant. If you are a woman who wears clothes, there is no doubt you’ll find something to keep you from being naked.
But doing so means embarking on a forced march over marbled floors. Once you go in, you may never be seen again.
“It’s nuts,” Ella Desmond, a 29-year-old artist perusing party dresses on the fifth floor, told The Daily Beast. “It feels really big, but also kind of empty at the same time. There is a lot of space, and so many places to sit and put your coffee—they want you to spend time here.”
Desmond said she “probably wouldn’t” buy anything during an early afternoon on her day off. “I thought I’d be a tourist for a bit,” she explained. “My mom and I used to go to department stores back when I didn’t live in New York, and this is kind of a ritual for me.”
Carole Zabar, whose family owns the famed Upper West Side grocery chain, also appeared unnerved by the amount of space she had to cover just to find a winter coat. “This is New York,” Zabar said. “We don’t like acres and acres of things. We want stuff that’s curated. This is very pretty but to me, it’s a little overwhelming and big. It’s spacious, but to what end? My mind just swims.”
Zabar described the store’s decor: “It feels like it would like to be chic. I’m a bad person to ask because I only shop at Bergdorf. I love anything new, and I love the idea that somebody attempted this when the received wisdom is that department stores are dying and dead.”
When Zabar moved to New York in 1965, she became a lifelong fan of Bergdorf Goodman, located just a few blocks east of Nordstrom. “I had no money at all,” Zabar recalled. “I started shopping at Bergdorf’s on the fifth floor, it was their cheaper floor. A woman said to me, ‘I’m sorry we don’t take returns. We want to teach young ladies to make a decision wisely.’”
Now, Nordstrom will take returns, and their famously friendly employees will also ship purchases made in-store to tourists’ homes. It’s a perk two friends named Joyce and Jill took advantage of when visiting New York from Pittsburgh and Dallas, respectively.
“This store is real nice, nicer than the one we have in Dallas,” Jill said. “I don’t do Nordstrom so much because it used to be I could go in and find things. But as I’ve gotten older, the styles have gotten younger. It doesn’t work for me.”
Nordstrom’s isn’t entirely new to the city—its discount spinoff, Nordstrom Rack, opened nine years ago in Union Square. Because of this, New Yorkers have come to associate the brand with bargain basements.
“Nordstrom has had growth driven by Nordstrom Rack,” David Weiss, a partner at the retail consulting firm McMillanDoolittle, told The Daily Beast. “Their growth has been minimal in terms of full price stores. To me, opening a flagship is a positive and strong statement saying they have grown based on their outlets but want to refocus on the core and go about winning again.”
“When we first made the entry into New York, Nordstrom Rack was where we wanted to enter the market,” said Chris Wanlass, vice president and general manager of the new store. “It served us well, and we got to learn who the city’s shoppers are.”
And while a physical post of the chain may have just opened, Wanlass is quick to remind that Nordstrom has operated in the surrounding tristate area since the late ’80s. “We do more business in New York City online than we do in any other market even without a store,” he said. “So people aren’t blindly coming in not knowing us, because we have been here.”
Maybe a Nordstrom is a Nordstrom, no matter the location, from sea to shining sea. Plus, with Barney’s imminent demise and the closure of Lord & Taylor earlier this year, perhaps it’s a positive thing if the department store lacks a uniquely New York perspective.
“I don’t know if the New York-ness of a store matters anymore, because so much of what influences us is national and global,” Scott A. Lux, an assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, said. “Maybe 10 years ago when we all didn’t have access to fashion trends, we relied on the quintessential department store. Now Instagram can bring New York, London, Paris, and Milan fashion weeks anywhere.”
Still, nothing can replace the rush that comes with hearing a salesperson with glowing skin yell “yaaaaas” in your direction after you try on a leather jacket and look good, or the cheesy, but life-affirming feeling delivered with every play of “Take On Me.”