Hey Nordy’s, you’re losing me

Nordstrom’s loyalty program used to be simple and friendly. Every 2,000 points earned, a “Nordstrom Note” in $20 increments would show up in the mail. A few times a year, Nordstrom would let members earn double or triple points on their purchases.

Then, in 2018, Nordstrom introduced The Nordy Club, with a number of changes which are best described by The Points Guy. TPG hails the changes as “spend more get more,” and airline and hotel program-like: positives, for him. The program certainly got more complex which for TPG might be good news.

For me? I don’t want to be in another loyalty program rat race. I put up with United’s and Marriott’s points systems and their myriad rules because I am a frequent traveler. Travel has many frictions, and keeping up with the U’s and M’s status tiers means smoother travel and better odds of flexibility and support when things go wrong. That said, I have a certain feeling of dread when I consider U and M. The programs are clearly designed to optimize U’s and M’s revenue, to benefit the company. They’re not designed for me.

That’s why when I received from The Nordy Club an announcement on changes to its program, I had a sinking feeling. Here are the top benefits they listed as changing:

These must be thought to inspire a sense of excitement upon receipt. Instead, my eyes glazed over:

  • I don’t know how I became an “Influencer” member, nor what that means. I imagine there’s probably a spending tier involved. (Having not shopped at Nordstrom for more than a year, I would be surprised if “Influencer” was higher than the bottom tier.)
  • I’m not sure what a “Spend & Get” is. I have a vague notion, but no real clue.
  • Three personal double point days vs. two personal triple point days clearly is not a benefit designed for the shopper. The logic is so obvious it’s a little embarrassing for the designers of these program changes. Clearly they want me to come in three times instead of two times, and they want to give me two points per dollar spent rather than three points. Sorry — that doesn’t sound like a good deal!
  • $10 notes instead of $20 notes is also painfully obvious. I suppose if people get $10, then it’s an easy way to lure people into a Nordstrom store where most undoubtedly they’ll spend more than the effective $10 coupon.

Sorry, but these benefits don’t benefit me; they benefit you, Nordy’s.

A winning retailer’s value proposition is to provide attractive goods at an opportune time and at a price that the shopper is willing to pay. These days, American shoppers of fashion and accessories have so much choice. There are attractive goods seemingly everywhere. And so it seems retailers are focusing on increasing ‘usage’ as they say: getting people who are already shopping at their stores to come in one more time then they otherwise would. That’s not a value proposition, and it’s anti-competitive. It’s what you do when you don’t feel good about your value prop.

I’m particularly sad about this because Nordstrom has historically done an excellent job of finding good products and presenting them in insightful groupings — not by brand, but by shopper themes such as Point of View and Via C. The company had a real commitment to its merchant organization, which worked to match product selection with local demand at each of its mainline stores. Its decision to manage its floor its own way rather than putting in brand shops meant that if a brand didn’t have a good season, it could pare back. It could also introduce new brands easily, since it managed the floor rather than turning over floors to various brands. (For other cool aspects of the historical Nordstrom way, read my HBS case.)

Walking around a Nordstrom was and is more fun than walking around a Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s, even as it hasn’t changed its floors that much. The reason is that its competition has largely embraced branded floors. Walk into a Bloomie’s women’s fashion floor like this newly built one. The store has seemingly become a mall of typical branded goods, each with dedicated space. Yawn.

So what? you might ask. So sadly, American shoppers don’t get to experience the wonder that great department stores still are. I wonder what would happen if The Hyundai in Korea decided to open a US location in a high density city. Hyundai is super exciting, full of fascinating products and with the dynamic energy that engaged shoppers bring. Just look:

Wanderer over a sea of shoppers

It really is a modern “Ladies’ Paradise,” to take the dated and gendered expression from Zola. And because it has real strengths in its core value proposition, it doesn’t have to double down on a loyalty program with stupid benefits.


Helping a fellow shopper (Bed Bath & Beyond)

Yesterday morning, I got an email from Bed Bath & Beyond asking me to answer a question a customer had asked about an item I bought.


I have never received a request like this from a site I shop, and felt somewhat intrigued. I clicked the “Answer this question” link, which popped up this window from a BazaarVoice URL.


The asked question was a bit of a head scratcher. First, there are three sizes, not just one. And the sizes are found right on the product page, here:


The product page also shows some pictures of the product in use…


So the question seems borne of careless reading, and maybe results in a little bit of wasted time for everyone. Offering a question box often results in people going there first, rather than the product description. While this generates some useless activity, it probably also results in good SEO activity for Google/Bing to track.

But I can also see why “Bernard” was confused about the sizing. Frankly, I was too.

For starters, the sizes aren’t stated right at the top of the description. The description overall seems a bit thrown together, rather than thoughtfully composed. For example, why not combine “Machine wash” with “Reusable, withstands 300-500 washes,” and also eliminate “reusable” since something that is washable is presumably reusable?

The photos also don’t indicate which size is being shown, which is not good.

Out of curiosity, I decided to look up the same product on Amazon.com. There’s a lot more going on in this picture, what with the Visa Card plug and the Prime trial. But it successfully answers the question that brought me down this path in the first place: “What is [the] size?”


I’m not a fan of Amazon the company, but I think this product page is superior to Bed Bath and Beyond’s. Why? Because it enables the shopper to make an informed decision with almost all the relevant information provided right up front (some bullet points are cut off in my above snip). As an added plus, Amazon offers five colors — nice!

So maybe Bed Bath and Beyond could upgrade their page to be more helpful in the purchase decision. I presume that in the time it took to wait for an answer to his question, “Bernard” likely found the same product on another site — like Amazon. Or maybe Bed Bath and Beyond is going for SEO value with the prominent question center.

If they are, I’d strongly recommend focusing more on building a better product page. Better to make the actual sale than rank higher on Google…

Wait, you WANT me to go to Amazon? (Williams-Sonoma)

I have been trying to shop bricks and mortar retail more. Honestly, when the store is well curated, well organized, and staffed with well trained people, it’s a wonderful experience. I’m also trying to not shop on Amazon.com when I have good alternatives. Some reasons are found in this rather long first hand account.

At the same time, shopping American retail can be a trying experience. Today’s trip to Williams-Sonoma ranks among the worst I have recently had. It wasn’t a disaster, and I ultimately walked out with what I intended to buy. But it still managed to be a 2/5 star visit. Here’s why:

  1. My online order was not ready at the store, apparently because ‘the system’ was down at the store. It’s nice that the option to pick up at the store is available. When it works. I estimate the visit took about 30 minutes, in large part due to the IT issue. I’m not sure where the responsibility lies — maybe with the systemwide IT support?
  2. The store staff couldn’t locate what I bought. Because the store couldn’t access my order on their ‘system,’ I showed my emailed receipt. There were two items I had bought. One was readily found. The other… took some waiting. And waiting… And some more. Then the woman searching gave up and the other woman involved said I would receive a refund. So the latter wrote down my order information, i.e., since the system was down. The former then suggested that I go to Amazon. (!?!?) At this point, I thought perhaps the website didn’t have the correct store inventory position.
  3. On the way out, I found the missing item. A pile of them, neatly organized on a shelf. (Frankly they were where I would stock them, if I were in charge of the store.) Both women took note of where it was, seemingly for future reference. I was surprised though that neither seemed sorry nor embarrassed. (Maybe it isn’t their job to know the store?) This one rests completely with store-level management.
  4. An LTO I wanted to use was deemed not applicable to a third item that I chose while waiting. Williams-Sonoma had emailed me a one-day offer of 20% off everything except for a list of big brands. I chose a small consumable that I had forgotten to purchase in my online-to-store purchase. At the register, one woman informed me that the offer was not valid on my purchase. But when I looked on the website, it was. We cancelled the purchase, and the other woman re-rang it up. Again, no apology or even an oops… No awareness of the limited time offer itself either. Maybe the central marketing organization did not tell the store about the offer? Or maybe they did but the store staff didn’t read the notice? Hard to tell.

Williams-Sonoma, I noticed that you are suing Amazon for copying you. I doubt you are going to sue your employees too for sending your shoppers to buy stuff that you have inside your stores at Amazon instead. But maybe you should train them better. If I may, here’s what I hope all store associates know beyond knowing how to ring up sales:

  1. Knowing your merchandise, and where it is. A simple weekly quiz would suffice, I’d imagine. It could be fun — top scores could receive treats or special discounts. The point is to inspire some curiosity about the wares you/they sell.
  2. Knowing your promotional offers, and where they apply. This could be easy. Before an employee hits the shop floor, a quick bulletin they can scan with their eyes so they are not caught unawares.
  3. Knowing when to mea culpa. When I leave, I’d like to feel like the store staff cares that I had a good experience. Ultimately, I think that’s what store teams are responsible for. If I don’t, like today, I’d like to be acknowledged. Otherwise, why would I feel the desire to go back? …I could just shop at Amazon.

As I left Williams-Sonoma, I had the thought that the service I received could well have been replaced by a self-checkout terminal. And that is a terrifying prospect for the 16 million retail workers in the U.S. To protect and grow their jobs, I believe retail workers should demand better training — especially training on things that only people can do.

Training is never easy, especially in a low wage, high turnover environment. But good store level training is perhaps the best defense against Amazon. It’s also the best proprietary way that I know to organically increase revenue.

Well Williams-Sonoma, I’m not sure when I’ll be back. Good luck and good night.

I received a customer experience survey from Williams-Sonoma by email later in the evening. I summarized the above and sent it in, and I received the following response the next day:

Hello [me],

Thank you for contacting Williams-Sonoma.

Please allow me to sincerely apologize for the experience you’ve had when visiting our [location] retail store location.  Because your concerns involve one of our retail stores, we are forwarding this information to the attention of our Retail Store Management.  They will ensure that this information is forwarded to the appropriate leadership individuals for their review and follow-up.

Please know that Williams-Sonoma, Inc. is committed to providing our customers with superior products and world class service.  We truly appreciate the time you took to share this feedback, and you can expect to receive a response to your concerns in a timely manner.  Thank you again, and please feel free to contact us with any other questions.

Warm regards,
[name withheld]

Not bad. The nature of the problems at the store makes me think that they won’t be fixed easily, but it’s nice to know that they do read and respond to feedback. And a sincere sounding apology is always nice. 4/5 in my view.

Where has my RPU gone? (United 1K travails)

United has an increasing array of rules for passengers and people who are part of their MileagePlus program. I get the impression that sometimes, they’re a little too hard for the various teams at United to keep up with.

In this instance, I found that using one 1K benefit (the ability to change flights free of charge within 24 hours of takeoff) through the United app caused another benefit (an upgrade request using a Regional Premier Upgrade RPU certificate) to fall off my reservation and disappear. And nobody could help prior to takeoff.

Here’s my exchange with United’s 1K desk, submitted through the comment intake page at United.com.

This evening I boarded a 5pm flight from EWR to SFO. I was originally booked on the 6, and it’s nice that the app enabled me to switch so easily, as my business concluded early in NYC. Less nice is that the RPU upgrade that I had requested somehow fell off my reservation. It remained deducted from my account, but was no longer attached to my itinerary. I hope your IT team fixes this. The ability to change flights without charge within 24 hours is an elite benefit, as are RPUs and GPUs grants. Why does the system force me to give up the uncleared upgrade request when switching a flight? I’ll never know whether mine would or would not have cleared. But two passengers’ requests did clear and I wonder if one would have been mine. Secondly, when I called the 1K desk about 20 hours before boarding, the woman I spoke with told me that the lost RPU could be reattached by the attendant at boarding. The gate agent was not be able to do anything. How disappointing.

United wrote back the next morning. Pretty good response time, I’d say.

Dear (me):

I appreciate you taking the time to share your comments with us.  We work hard to consistently provide superior service.

Your constructive comments give us an opportunity to correct problems that may not have otherwise come to our attention.  Because we value your concerns, they have been forwarded to our management team to assist them as we continue to make positive changes within our company.

Again, we always welcome your comments, questions or ideas at united.com/feedback . As a Premier 1K member, thank you for choosing United and MileagePlus.


(name withheld)

MileagePlus® Service Center

I was wondering how they’d handle my message, as nobody in the Service Center would have any power over the back end system or the takeoff process at the gate. I think this is a 4/5 star reply.

For a while the Service Center used to hand out what I call ‘I’m sorry miles’ if I offered similar kinds of feedback. It was interesting to see what remarks merited how many miles. I think this note works better.

What would make this an outstanding experience is if someone got back to me and told me that the problem was fixed. And what would totally floor me is if at that point, United offered a thank-you gift — maybe another RPU cert, especially one that actually clears before takeoff!

A girl can wish.

Farewell Shipt

Last week, I quit Shipt.

In the end, what did it in were the same order accuracy issues that plagued my tests of Google Shopping Express and Instacart circa 2016. Amazon Prime Now circa 2016 did not have this problem, although their inventory range was challengingly limited.

I strongly believe that one-off shoppers as an overall labor force will never achieve a high level of accuracy. Some are really good; the bad ones make for (in my case) no peanut butter and jelly for my kiddo’s lunch.

In the future, I won’t use any delivery service that isn’t using a dedicated order picker (i.e., who really knows the store or stockroom).

I try to write the companies I quit to leave them with constructive feedback. Here’s my letter to Shipt and their response back.

Hi folks,

After having experienced Shipt seven times, I would like to cancel my membership and ask for a refund. Fortunately, I have not given my gift membership yet.

Here is my feedback for my ‘exit interview,’ so to speak:

My main reason for quitting is that the quality of your service varies too much from time to time.

Most people who are working as your shoppers are not familiar enough with the store in order to be able to locate the products I order. It’s simply not believable that commonly available items (such as the peanut butter and the strawberry jam that I ordered but did not receive today) are out of stock. It’s far more likely that the shopper could not locate it within the store.

In one instance, a shopper told me that something I ordered wasn’t available, and took a picture of the alternatives available to me. When I pointed out that in the picture was the item that I actually ordered, the fellow sheepishly agreed and brought the right item.

Only one shopper (name withheld) was someone I would use again. She was stellar — she even checked for expiration dates, and only brought items that would not go bad quickly. I would pay for her separately, rather than rolling the dice and getting whomever picked up the gig.

All in all, the intermittent time and attention I have to spend responding to people who are running around looking for the items I ordered, and not finding them, negates the time that I could just go to the store myself.

I am assuming that it isn’t possible to have my orders route only to (name), which is too bad because I would stay your customer if that were possible. For me, order accuracy is the most important attribute by a wide margin. If you could guarantee that my order would be right, and that only the truly out of stock items would be omitted, I wouldn’t even care what time the order arrived.

Thanks for listening, and for timely processing my cancellation and refund.

Best wishes,


Four hours later the reply came. Kudos to Shipt on their reply time!

We value you as a member, and we’re sorry to see you go! We have cancelled your membership as you requested, and we appreciate you giving Shipt a try. Your refund will take a few business days to process back to your account. We would love to hear any feedback you have about our service. If you have a few moments, please take this brief survey: (link omitted)

If you would like to join Shipt in the future, log back into your account via shipt.com/shop or on the app and click ‘Get Started’ to select a new membership plan. We would love to shop for you in the future should your needs change!

While I did quit Shipt, I appreciate their friendly sendoff. They also processed my refund (prorated) quickly. If they ever change their model to have a vastly improved order picking quality, I’m glad to try them again.

5/5 star exchange. Good luck team!

My last trip to Toys’R’Us – RIP

I paid for my purchases – a large box of overnight Huggies for my toddler, and two large Lego Duplo sets we don’t need – with $110 from a gift card, and $15 from a credit card. I felt a little relieved to use up the gift card before the 30-day deadline, when gift cards would lose their value.
As the clerk accepted my payments, my husband and I continued our running debate about the Toys’R’Us bankruptcy. What assets would be valuable to a company like Amazon. What could have been done to save TRU. As we collected our three boxes and turned to leave, the clerk quietly asked a question: “Why don’t people come in to shop anymore? I don’t get it.”
I felt immediately sympathetic and a little bad. The most I had to lose in the TRU bankruptcy was $110 of unused gift card currency and some nostalgic value. This poor woman was about a month away from losing her job. “It’s convenient,” I said somewhat apologetically. “It all just shows up on your doorstep.”
She looked genuinely confused. “But how can you buy everything without seeing it first? Like I once ordered shoes online and when they came I didn’t like them so I took them back to the store.”
She had a point. Most things that we have not already selected are better purchased in person or at least not on Amazon.com. A good buyer and merchant team can provide an excellent selection of tempting options at retail – although US retail has only a few fleeting examples where this happens at scale.
I wished her good luck, and we left the store – the whole chain – for ever.
I am regretful. I accepted the woman’s premise that Amazon is the reason for TRU’s demise. That’s not the whole story though. Amazon was clearly a formidable competitor that TRU wasn’t able to effectively counter. But TRU had its hands tied long before Amazon became a powerful seller of toys. TRU was saddled with a tremendous debt load so that it could be a cash machine for its new owners. There was little room for reinvestment or change under private equity owners Bain Capital, KKR, and Vornado, even if TRU had had good leadership (which unfortunately, large retail chains often do not). So when the tides of change in mass retail came in more quickly in recent years, TRU could not respond. That’s why it is dying.
That’s also why Nine West filed for bankruptcy on April 6. And Claire’s in March. The list goes on.
I get why private equity bought these large retail chains, and why the banks let them put so much debt on them. It’s easy to view retail stores as cash machines. They generate lots of cash. If management is skilled at optimizing their inventory and cash, retail companies can benefit from paying their bills after they have already collected payment from customers. But like most organizations, for profit or not, they have to keep up with the times to remain strong. Saddling them with huge debt and taking all their cash makes it hard for them to change and grow.
That’s the story that I wish I could have told our cashier.
But if I had, I doubt it would actually have been very helpful. Virtually nobody can reverse the tide. There are many more bankruptcies to come. And the folks who are causing them get to walk away while the folks at the registers lose their jobs.
That’s just not right.
For further reference, Business Insider provides good overviews: http://www.businessinsider.com/why-toys-r-us-is-closing-stores-2018-3

“Your Platinum Elite Benefits Have Arrived”

Marriott International mailed out Elite tier notices for 2018. I’m short of the 75 nights required for Platinum, but was granted the level anyhow. I appreciate it, Marriott!Marriott

The perks of Platinum Elite level are listed under the heading “Benefits You’ll Love.” Wow, that’s ambitious. Let’s see how much I do love them.

There are four added Benefits for Platinum Elites that aren’t available for Gold Elites:

1/ Complimentary United MileagePlus Premier Silver Status
2/ Platinum arrival gift
3/ 48-hour reservation guarantee
4/ Dedicated Platinum reservation line

In addition, Platinum Elites get a 50% bonus on Rewards base points (vs. 25% for Golds), and Five Star status on Hertz Gold Plus Rewards (vs. Gold for, well, Golds).

Of these, I think I value most the incremental 25% bonus on Rewards points. But I find Rewards points to be a bit confusing, and I don’t ever do the math on what 50% is vs. 25%. I think if I ever went back and added up the bonus points I got as a Platinum vs. if I were a Gold, it wouldn’t add up to a free night at a property I frequent. I guess this is a perk that just sounds good to me.

The others…don’t even sound good.

1/ I have MileagePlus 1K status, thanks mostly to my home airport being a United hub, so Silver is hardly a sweetener.
2/ The Platinum arrival gift is 500 points or a bottled beverage (or similar treat). Some properties give one or the other, some give both. It’s not consistent. Some desk agents look totally unimpressed when they offer the benefit, which further diminishes the experience of getting the “Benefit.”
3/ I’ve never been able to not get a reservation, inside or outside of 48 hours. I guess it’s because I’m not tied to a particular property at a destination. Most cities offer many good options, and I’m fine not staying at a Marriott.
4/ I think a dedicated reservation line would be valuable if I called in my bookings, but with one exception, I always use the website. So that’s another miss.

As for the Hertz tier, that’s potentially useful, but I’m not brand loyal when it comes to rental car companies. Maybe it is useful? Sounds like it’ll require some work to determine – i.e., time that I’m not eager to spend.

Marriott is perhaps the only business that I frequent whose top loyalty tier isn’t particularly better than the second tier. That’s too bad. If it were better, I’d try harder to actually stay 75 nights.

The image is my own photograph of the brochure I received by mail.

Happy Birthday, John the Elder

John Cawthorne
John Cawthorne

On August 14, 2012, I lost a friend and mentor to complications from cancer. John E. Cawthorne not only saw me safely through my late teens and all of my twenties, but he also understood me well and encouraged me to be who I am. I didn’t always know who I am. I was shaped throughout college by my various run-ins with the establishment, the Black Student Forum in particular. I always said what I thought, and when I got in trouble for it, John would stand by me and help me feel rooted in my own perspective. I am deeply thankful for his influence. I would not have had the courage to be me in those days without his loving and active presence.

I also benefited in numerous material ways from John’s guidance. He told me to wait before declaring my advanced standing in college so I would not lose out on valuable scholarship dollars. He let me overload my schedule without charge so I could graduate early, and helped me secure a valuable and scarce residential on campus parking permit by letting me pick up a practicum ‘course.’ He even told me that the best place to park during home football games, when there was no student parking allowed, was a little side street called Chestnut Hill Rd. off Beacon St.

And oh the books. Over the years during and after college, he sent me a small stockpile of good books, both fiction and non. Among my favorites is the very first book John presented me after reading and grading my class journal for a seminar he taught: Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris. I also benefited from John’s longtime subscription to the Boston Symphony. I saw Seiji Ozawa conduct many times from John’s orchestra seats, and was enthralled to see one night that the soloist was none other than the great and now late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. It was an unforgettable night. John used to say that someone would have to die before he would have a shot at a more central pair of subscription seats (his were off to the far left). Now, someone else will have a shot at his.

Ever since John passed away, there’s been a recurring memory I have had. In 2002, I had a fleeting summer romance with a young fellow across the river at another college, mostly long distance as I was in Boston and he in Atlanta. One day as I went about my business at the research center where I was interning (a center founded by John), my young lover sent me an email declaring that he no longer deemed it appropriate to speak to me. He would devote himself to God, he wrote, and eliminate my affections as they presented a distraction.

I was stung and yet delayed in my reaction. In a trance-like state, I managed to forward the email to John, perhaps with a romantic quip about the end of an affair. And after casting about for a minute or two, I made my way down from the third floor of Campion Hall to his office suite on the first floor. I had scarcely set foot into his lobby when I saw him rushing out of his private office, hurriedly putting on his signature tweed blazer with elbow patches. Seeing me, he gave me a look of utter compassion, gripped me tightly in his arms, and led me into his office as the tears started to flow.

I didn’t know I needed to cry until John’s reaction showed me it was ok. I didn’t know I wanted anyone’s support until I saw him already coming to get me and was touched by his pressing concern. I didn’t know how I would get past it all but he would always say “It’s ok” — with a certain intonation on the oh-Kay — and an emphasis on one’s darker emotions being perfectly admissible in the conscious world. The world wasn’t what was ok, and the people around us were often less than ok, but what we felt and thought, however inappropriate and unformed for public consumption — those were always oh-Kay to John. And they thus became oh-Kay to me. Later, it turned out that my young boyfriend’s jealous mother had conducted the hurtful email charade and not him, but we broke up just the same and all was, indeed, oh-Kay.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that tight hug in the two weeks since John died. When I closed my eyes, I could feel it. I remember everything about that moment in such sharp relief. I feel small and helpless, and abandoned — just as I felt when I went wandering down to John’s office that hot and fateful day in August 2002. It hurts me deeply to know that he will not, this time, come rushing out en route to find and comfort me. This one is for me alone. And I owe it to John to, at last, be oh-Kay.

Happy Birthday, John. I love you, and I miss you. I hope you are free from pain, and shooting the shit and chain smoking with your black, female God. Bottoms up.

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