May 23, 2012, 4:45 PM

It’s action that matters, not the label

Jamie Nordstrom doesn’t use the term omnichannel, but the retail chain gets the concept.

We asked Jamie Nordstrom several years ago why the upscale retail chain that bears his name was spending hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure that, among other things, would let Nordstrom better manage its merchandise inventory and sales data regardless of whether customers bought products in its stores, online or through its catalog contact center. His answer was quite simple: It would let Nordstrom, a retailer known for customer service and merchandise selection, do a better job of keeping its customers happy however they liked to shop; and, by providing data on how its customers liked to shop, it would empower its merchandisers, marketers, store clerks and customer service reps to be more helpful to customers.

“Customer service is what makes us different,” he said back in 2007.  “It’s pervasive throughout everything we do.”

Today, Nordstrom is continuing to push ahead with its latest multi-year technology investment, spending in the billions. It’s building on its past infrastructure projects with more ways to serve customers, such as with mobile point-of-sale systems—which were placed in all of its 117 full-line stores by early last summer and are now in the process of rolling out to Nordstom Racks—that make it easier for customers to order products online as well as in a store, with orders fulfilled from the most appropriate distribution center or even from a store. Thanks to the company's foresight shown in its earlier projects, adding such services is quite doable. In an interview this week with Jamie Nordstrom, who is a corporate executive vice president and the president of Nordstrom Direct, we asked him what he thought of "omnichannel retailing," a trendy buzz term. "I'm not sure what 'omnichannel' means," he said.

He doesn't have to. Buzzwords can be helpful for technology vendors and commentators looking for a way to sum up a trend—in this case, serving consumers in any way they want to connect with a retailer. But when you already made great strides ahead of a trend, the reality is more important than the buzz.

And Nordstrom keeps striding ahead.With the sophisticated inventory management system it built years ago, for instance, it can now let store clerks shop side by side with store shoppers on tablets and order products directly from its fulfillment center if necessary, or even from other stores.Watch for more on what Nordstrom’s up to in a forthcoming issue of Internet Retailer.

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