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Originally published May 10, 2010 at 9:56 PM | Page modified August 16, 2010 at 1:41 PM

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Nordstrom opens first store — a Rack — in Big Apple

New York City met its first Nordie's Tuesday morning when Nordstrom opened its first store in the city, a Nordstrom Rack. President Blake W. Nordstrom called it a "great" opening, a more low-key event than the opening of Rack stores in other cities.

Seattle Times staff reporter

NEW YORK — New York City met its first Nordie's Tuesday morning when Nordstrom opened its first store in the city, a Nordstrom Rack.

At 9 a.m., store employees applauded as a crowd of 200 people streamed down the escalator into the new basement store at Union Square.

President Blake W. Nordstrom called it a "great" opening, a more low-key event than the opening of Rack stores in other cities.

"We usually open hard on a Friday," he said, calling Tuesday's event a soft opening. "By choosing Tuesday, we wanted to offer the best service we could."

About 50 people were lined up outside the store by 15 minutes to opening.

"I've been waiting for two years," Karen Flexer said, since moving from San Diego to New York for graduate studies. Flexer was third in line when the store opened. "I don't know why there isn't a Nordstrom in the city."

In the city that loves a bargain, Nordstrom launched its 76th discount store, selling lower-priced lines from designers and the high-priced clothes, marked down, that didn't sell from the full-line Nordstrom stores.

"We've been in this part of the business for 35 years," said Blake Nordstrom during a media tour of the store Monday. "It's not new to us but it is new to Manhattan."

Hayley Champoux, a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, was at the front of the line. "Everything I'm wearing [today] is thrifted," she said, wearing lace-up black leather boots, denim and a silk scarf wrapped around her head. "It's why I like Nordstrom. Because it's better [clothes], but reasonably priced."

The store felt more generously staffed Tuesday than other Rack stores. Many employees walked the store floor as Gwen Stefani played over the speakers, helping customers find the right size of a spring dress and asking them to join a store mailing list and to apply for a rewards card.

Several employees straightened up the shoe racks and customers tried on rhinestone sandals and sky-high heels.

Most notably, there was no wait for a dressing room.

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When the company will open full-line Nordstrom in the Big Apple remains unclear. It appears New Yorkers will have to wait a little longer for the full Nordstrom experience as the company struggles with finding the right location, space and price for a Nordstrom department store.

The new 32,000-square-foot Nordstrom Rack opened across the street from Union Square in the old Virgin Records space.

"I think it's going to be absolutely enormous for them," said Ken Stumphauzer, senior research analyst for investment bank Sterne Agee. "Whatever their internal projections are, I wouldn't be surprised if they just blow them out of the water."

Blake Nordstrom says he has "high expectations" for the store. For Tuesday, the staff opened 28 registers, and expects to keep 19 open after the rush of opening day. A flat-screen TV monitor over the line directed people to the next open register, similar to the checkout system used at Whole Foods grocery stores in New York.

"We talked a lot about the customer experience in Manhattan and how people are used to things being quick," said Geevy Thomas, president of Nordstrom Rack.

The area has heavy foot traffic. Several subway lines converge under Union Square, and the open-air plaza hosts a Greenmarket, an open-air farmers market four days a week. Next door is a Best Buy. The next block over has a Babies R Us.

Cross the street, and there's a three-story Filene's Basement and a DSW discount shoe store.

In the city of supermodels, the Nordstrom Rack does not carry petite or plus-sized clothing. The store carries no children's clothing. But it does accommodate big feet, stocking women's shoes up to size 14 and men's up to size 18.

The most direct competitors, Loehmann's and Century 21, are in different neighborhoods. The multistory Century 21 was packed Monday with a hoard of international bargain shoppers. It looked like it was the big sale day after Thanksgiving for most stores.

"The Rack is built around making it easy for customers to use. It's clean, it's clutter free," Thomas said.

Shoes — both of them — are displayed in boxes. Many Rack stores display only one mate; customers check out the other from a counter to try on.

Thomas said they are switching over to the full-box display as they remodel stores.

During the economic downturn, the Rack chain performed well compared with the full-line stores as consumers sought bargains. Same-store sales at the Rack increased 1.9 percent in the first fiscal quarter of 2010. The company will report earnings Thursday.

The opening has made many wonder when the city can expect the full Nordstrom experience in the Big Apple. The company has 114 full-line Nordstrom stores.

"Gosh, it's too bad they couldn't have opened full line first," said Patricia Edwards, chief investment officer for Storehouse Partners in Bellevue. "My concern is New Yorkers may not understand what is so wonderful about Nordstrom just based on the clothing there because they are not going to get that the full experience."

Blake Nordstrom said there's "no progress" on opening a full-line store in New York. "We wish there was progress. Unfortunately, we're not close to anything."

He said there are already 20,000 Nordstrom cardholders in New York. The company has stores in suburban White Plains, Long Island and New Jersey. Many New Yorkers also know Nordstrom from traveling to other cities, Thomas said.

"It's not going to be cheap to get in there, but I think it would be very worth it" to open a full Nordstrom store in New York, Edwards said.

The company would get New York clients, international customers and Wall Street attention. "It would be good even for the stock for them to have a store in New York," Edwards said.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

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