Nordstrom's Mobile To Extend Into The Dressing Room?

By this fall, when a Nordstrom customer in a dressing room discovers that a shirt she grabbed from the rack is actually a size too big, she'll be able to pull out her cell phone and text—or call—an associate, who will bring in the proper size and maybe another color, too.

And the time-honored Nordstrom thank-you notes might be triggered when a phone is detected, even if there is no employee interaction. At least this is the scenario Nordstrom President Blake Nordstrom is painting, according to one report of his speech in Business News Daily.

Nordstrom officially is neither confirming nor denying that the son of its founder made such utterances. "I can't verify the accuracy of these quotes for you. The spirit of what's being reported here, though, reflects some of the ways we're trying to evolve with the customer," said Nordstrom spokesman Colin Johnson. "We are expanding our mobile capabilities and that includes exploring providing salespeople with better tools, which we hope to introduce on a broader scale sometime later this year."

Last month, Nordstrom seemed to confirm—sort of—that it is using its new chain-wide Wi-Fi deployment to enable mobile payments. A comment of "we'll see" is not one of your more robust denials.

(Update: This matter is now resolved. In a conference call to discuss earnings on Thursday (Feb. 17), Blake Nordstrom confirmed the chain is "testing mobile checkout," according to a transcript of that call.)

The latest apparent move by Nordstrom is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, although many retailers have been talking about dressing room efforts like this one for years, almost no chains have actually deployed them in the U.S.

If deployed, this technique would put Nordstrom at the head of the pack in sophisticated, retail mobile deployments. That's not usually a position occupied by the conservative Nordstrom, which has always emphasized intimate customer service with lots of human interactions. The Nordstrom culture has pushed more of an image of "pampered" and "being waited on" than being technologically advanced. Indeed, Nordstrom has often been touted as the quintessential example of a chain where kiosks would not be welcome.

The other reason this effort is noteworthy is the very fact that it would put Nordstrom at the top of the American mobile deployment world. It's scary, because this exact technique—allowing customers to phone associates from within a dressing room—has been done in other countries for years. We did a piece about Japanese department store chain Mitsukoshi using phones from dressing rooms five years ago. Granted, the Mitsukoshi move involved VoIP rather than mobile phones, but the concept is identical. And the 2006 effort in Japan went beyond what Nordstrom is discussing for the fall of 2011, with customers using RFID tags embedded in the clothing to be identified in the dressing rooms.

"The display details the same product in various sizes and colors as well as similar products, showing inventory status of all of the choices. A customer selects a preferred item, hits a button and the phone rings with the sales associate, who instantly can see the dressing room that is calling and the particulars of the products desired," was what Mitsukoshi did five years ago.

The U.S. retail community's embracing of mobile technology is powerful and encouraging. But compared with the rest of the world, we appear to be Neanderthals bragging about having upgraded from clubs to stone spears. That may be true. Still, at least they're better than clubs.