It was my third week on the job. My back ached, my feet were sore, and we were in the middle of a busy pre-Christmas day of sales in the men's shoe department at the Nordstrom Inc. store in Hillsdale, Calif. I was fitting a pair of burgundy tassel loafers on a white-haired, well-dressed man in his mid-70s. The department rule is to fit shoes on both feet, but the customer had offered only his right foot for measurement, and once he was satisfied with the fit, said he'd take them. "Let's check the left foot, too," I suggested. "Left one's wooden," he said, rapping it. "If the shoe slips, I'll just nail it on."

Had I offered to tack the shoe onto his artificial foot, it probably would have been O.K. with Nordstrom. "Nordy's," as customers call it, is the Seattle-based specialty retail chain founded as a shoe store in 1901 by John W. Nordstrom. He insisted that bend-over-backward service was the key to building long-term business. Today, his grandsons, John N. and James F. Nordstrom, oversee operations and continue to emphasize service in the chain's 57 department stores, located principally on the West Coast.

The company made its first foray out of Oregon and Washington in 1978, when it opened a store in Costa Mesa, Calif. Today, with stores border-to-border along the Pacific Coast, it is expanding eastward because it believes it has saturated the West Coast market.

Service--and the company's no-questions-asked return policy--were often volunteered by customers at the Hillsdale store as chief reasons they shop there. Nordstrom figures that 90% of its business comes from 10% of its hard-core, repeat customers. Says shoe-department manager Thomas Reeves: "Anybody can be a shoe clerk. We provide service."

Nordstrom remained a shoe store until the early 1960s, when it began adding men's, women's, and children's apparel. But shoes remain an important business, accounting for 20% of the company's $3.6 billion in 1993 revenues.

JUDGMENT DAY. I took a job at Nordstrom because a new job I had thought I had sewed up fell through. Nice place to work, I thought. I'm a people person, the kind Nordstrom says it likes to hire. My decision was reinforced at the end of a two-day orientation for new hires, when we received the employee manual--a single 5 x 7 card that said simply: "Use your best judgment."

I was eager. I was ready. What could be so tough? Plenty, it turned out, for someone who had spent the past 20 years essentially doing nonmanual labor from behind a desk. What I had seen of selling shoes in the past had been from the customer's perspective, and that was just the wing tip of the iceberg.

High-quality service aside, the business is selling shoes, and the inducement is an 8.5% commission--the highest in any of the store's departments. My colleagues said $40,000 to $50,000 a year isn't unusual, and they spoke of a few legends who gross up to $75,000. Whether it's 40 grand or twice that, says Reeves: "The commissions are higher because the work is harder."

For openers, a work day can last up to 10 hours, so a sturdy, comfortable pair of shoes is a necessity. You also need to remember to stand without locking your knees, which, veteran sales staffers will tell you, makes your back hurt. Finally, you need to follow some basic rules. Nordstrom insists that each customer be greeted within 10 seconds of entering the department but forbids the standard "May I help you?" believing it invites a "No." Instead, you are urged to ask: "Are there any questions I can answer for you?" In practice, you do get fewer "No thanks" answers, but you can also be asked questions that have nothing to do with shoes.

Nordstrom also requires that customers have both feet measured (assuming they're both real) and be shown four pair of shoes, including the "shoe of the day." In my first week, a casually dressed woman pointed to a pair of men's $300 Bally dress boots and bought a pair in black and a pair in brown for her boyfriend--a quick and easy $600 sale. I was feeling pretty smug. "Nice sale for a rookie, but you need to remember to show four pair," Reeves said.

For several weeks, I had trouble finding the one pair customers asked for, let alone the three they didn't know they wanted. The level of inventory was intimidating. The Hillsdale store stocked about 13,000 pairs from 50 different vendors in sizes from 6 up to 13EEEE, roughly the equivalent of a water ski.

Shoes are stored in the back-room "wall," two dozen narrow aisles of shoes on two levels, packed floor-to-ceiling with inventory arranged by make, model, color, and size. For the most part, manufacturers give model numbers rather than names, and often change only the last digit of the code to denote color.

While veteran salespeople were in and out of the stockroom in seconds with their four pair, in the first weeks, it seemed I spent an eternity locating my boxes and then struggling out onto the sales floor worrying that I'd drop the whole load in my customer's lap. There were also times when, after trying on five or six pair of shoes, a man would say he needed to go find his wife, shopping elsewhere in the store, to get her opinion. Shoe people call this a "soft walk." The customer really didn't want to buy but didn't want to say so.

A variation on the soft walk, I decided, was the "no-international-trade hard walk." I encountered it three times, when customers looked inside a shoe, saw where it was made, and refused to buy it, even though they said they liked it. China-made shoes were spurned twice, Spanish-made once. One woman complained to me that it seemed all the shoes were from overseas, which wasn't the case. "Even those expensive Italian shoes come from somewhere else," she observed. She bought two pair of slippers, made in Maine.

SNEAK SHOP. To monitor the quality of its staff, Nordstrom "shops" its own stores with anonymous employees who evaluate service. Sales staff scoring a perfect 100 during these maneuvers receive cash awards. The company says it's a great way to maintain morale while assuring high-quality service. During a morning sales meeting, Reeves cautioned: "A `shop' could happen any time, so be on your toes." This got our attention, with some staffers smelling opportunity. I spent the rest of the day eyeing each customer suspiciously, staying alert, and going by the book.

An important step is "shanking" a shoe at purchase with a code written on the sole, near the heel, that tells who sold it, at what store, and for how much. This way, the company can take back any shoe without a receipt and know which sales commission to debit in case of a cash refund. It's a crucial rule that keeps most customers happy.

But not all. One day, a middle-aged man strode into the department irate because I'd written on the bottom of a pair of upscale saddle shoes he bought the previous day. I spent 10 minutes in the back room scrubbing the code off the red crepe sole, and he left, apparently satisfied. I don't think he was a mystery shopper.

A good salesperson would sell $2,500 a day, sometimes more, and make it look easy. That's roughly $55,000 a year gross income for the salesclerk. Most of the staff sold around $2,000, but my best day was about $1,600. Had I maintained that pace every day, and I didn't, I would have grossed around $700 for a five-day week--considerably less than 50 grand a year. By week six, I had concluded that shoe-selling wasn't my calling. Fortunately, I found a job behind a desk, and Nordstrom, no doubt, has found a service-oriented replacement with good judgment.

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