Rapid startup: Incubating @ Internet speed

By David Hakala, Sm@rt PartnerFebruary 2, 2000 2:54 PM PTFew people would expect innovative e-commerce strategies from a 99-year-old fashion retailer. But the venerable Nordstrom Inc.

By David Hakala, Sm@rt Partner
February 2, 2000 2:54 PM PT

Few people would expect innovative e-commerce strategies from a 99-year-old fashion retailer. But the venerable Nordstrom Inc. has a few lessons to teach today's upstart dot-coms, thanks to an assist from Web specialist Adjacency (acquired by Sapient in 1999).

For most of its history, Nordstrom was not exactly a fast-paced company; 22 years passed between the opening of its first store and the acquisition of its second. The company did not get into mail-order sales until 1994. But then the Internet generation took over the helm. In 1995, six Nordstrom scions, all in their mid-30s, succeeded the generation that had run the company since 1968. These Gen-X-ers were attuned to the potential of e-commerce.

Nordstrom had the rudiments of an e-commerce system in its client/server catalog ordering system. But it supported only 500 internal users. Management wanted a system that could support tens of thousands of users connecting from anywhere.

The Web was the obvious medium. But the message was equally important: Management knew it had to deliver the same comfortable, effortless shopping experience online that it did in its brick-and-mortar emporia.

After interviewing 27 firms in 1997, Nordstrom selected Adjacency, a San Francisco-based Web-design boutique noted for building e-commerce brands. Chris DeVore, Adjacency's director of business development, spearheaded Nordstrom's first online project and still works closely with the client. One of his first challenges was to overcome a bit of departmental myopia.

"The catalog people thought online was just an extension of catalog sales," he recalls. "Actually, it's more a hybrid of catalog and store sales," combining the efficiency of catalogs with close interaction between customer and employee.