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Originally published August 20, 2010 at 7:15 PM | Page modified August 24, 2010 at 9:40 AM

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Nordstrom's website gets new design, makes social networking a focal point

Known for going out of its way to help customers in stores, Nordstrom now wants to up its game on the Internet. Saturday, the Seattle-based retailer will introduce a newly designed website that it hopes will give it an edge with online shoppers.

Seattle Times business reporter

Known for going out of its way to help customers in stores, Nordstrom now wants to up its game on the Internet.

Saturday, the Seattle-based retailer will introduce a newly designed website that it hopes will give it an edge with online shoppers.

Three years in the making, the new site promises easier navigation, bigger photos and a prominent place where people can express their thoughts about the latest trends.

It's the most significant upgrade of the site in a decade, said Executive Vice President Jamie Nordstrom, who oversees the company's direct division.

"There's not been a tremendous amount of innovation in online apparel retailing, us included," he said. "If you look at most of our competitors' websites, they all look the same, which is fine."

As with many retailers, Nordstrom has seen its online business grow despite a tough economy.

The company's direct division, which includes its website and catalog, took in $144 million for the first quarter, a 38 percent increase from a year ago to give it a 7.2 percent share of total sales. The momentum continued in the second quarter, with direct sales up 34 percent from a year ago — nearly triple the growth rate for overall sales.

With more shoppers going online, Nordstrom must try to set itself apart from other multichannel retailers, said retail consultant Kate Newlin.

"You know you're shopping in a Nordstrom store vs. somewhere else because of their customer service," Newlin said. "The challenge now is how do you deliver that high-touch experience in a high-tech environment."

Nordstrom, which operates 193 stores in 28 states, has been making changes to its online business for a while, though mostly behind the scenes.

In 2007, it doubled the size of its Cedar Rapids, Iowa, warehouse to handle more Internet orders. In 2008, it introduced a "buy online, pickup in store" option. And in 2009, it launched a shared-inventory platform so that it could fill Internet orders with merchandise from a store when the warehouse was out of stock on a desired item.

Recently, it started shipping online orders seven days a week. Shipments had been Monday through Friday.

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"There is no finish line on this. Every time we launch a new function, the next day we have 10 more ideas," said Jamie Nordstrom, who estimates a couple hundred employees in Seattle focus on the website. "This is what retailing is about for the next 10 years."

He said he envisions salespeople someday using small wireless devices to help customers find merchandise and complete transactions, similar to Apple stores.

In fact, with its simpler navigation and cleaner look, Nordstrom's new website probably was designed with mobile devices in mind, said marketing professor Mary Ann Odegaard, who directs the Retail Management Program at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business.

"One reason for more simplicity and ease of navigation is the spread of mobile apps that allow customers to shop online with their smartphones," Odegaard said. "Nordstrom has to follow what customers are looking for, and increasingly, we want the information we need in an efficient way — make it easy for us!"

Jamie Nordstrom, who did not disclose the costs of the website overhaul, agreed that the Internet is changing people's definition of customer service.

"When I was growing up selling shoes, customer service meant walking a bag around the counter to a customer and maybe helping a customer to a car," he said.

While those things remain important, he said, today's 20-something customer might think of service in terms of "access to information, or interacting with Nordstrom and friends via Facebook."

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

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