NRF 2021: Learning from Nordstrom, Target and Others’ Best-in-Class Customer Experiences

The power of connected commerce became even more apparent over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak, with buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) and curbside services exploding in popularity. This phenomenon helped large, digitally savvy retailers like Target, Home Depot and Walmart thrive and earned them spots among the top 10 retailers in CI&T’s Connected Retail Report, which was presented during Chapter 1 of the 2021 NRF Big Show.

Even retailers earning high marks for omnichannel enablement remain far from invincible, however, and others can build and even improve on what has already been done. For instance, while Walmart’s massive war chest is imposing, the retail giant still came in at No. 5, below Nordstrom, Target, Home Depot and Staples, due to mixed results in key areas. Any retailer can stand out by meeting shoppers’ needs across channels, especially in aspects where others are falling short.

“Each retailer kind of runs the gamut — no retailer was perfectly strong across all categories,” said Melissa Minkow, Retail Lead at CI&T in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “Certain parts of the path to purchase are 100% good to go, and then other aspects or touch points within the path to purchase still need work. Usually when you’re looking at the key players they’re winning across the board and they’re doing it all well, but here what you’re seeing is that retailers have strength in one part of the path to purchase but others are outshining them on a different touch point.”

Some of the top takeaways for retailers in this report include:


  • Learn from Nordstrom’s omnichannel mix: Nordstrom emerged as the top-ranked retailer in the study thanks to years of investment and experimentation, and while few retailers can match its customer-first approach, anyone can adapt its overall strategy for melding online and in-store commerce;
  • Customer support starts at shoppers’ initial search: When most retailers think about “omnichannel” they think about the direct integration between website and physical store, but providing customer support right from the initial recommendation phase is just as important to the overall journey; and
  • Take advantage of new shopper routines: The retail industry will soon adapt to new shopping habits developed in a post-COVID world, driven by a newfound appreciation of the convenience driven by connected experiences — making this the perfect time for retailers to invest in (or even kick off) their omnichannel operations.

CI&T determined the top 10 connected retailers through a multi-step process. The firm started with a list of 75 of the largest retailers in the U.S. and narrowed it down to 28 and then 12 outstanding omnichannel companies. From there, the firm surveyed 530 consumers and leveraged a team of five UX designers to give each retailer a score out of 100 in seven relevant categories: overall experience, search, shop, cart, buy, fulfillment and returns.

Nordstrom Puts Ecommerce First Without Jettisoning Brick-and-Mortar

The pandemic is weighing heavily on department stores, and Nordstrom is no exception, but the retailer’s top-notch approach to omnichannel commerce is helping it keep afloat while others file for bankruptcy. The company garnered perfect marks in search, buy, fulfill and returns along with a 99% score in cart, earning a total rating of 96%. Nordstrom succeeds by being among the first retailers to utilize its stores to support the ecommerce experience, instead of vice-versa.

“For so long we’ve been thinking the other way around, where brick-and-mortar was the flagship and then ecommerce was support, but I think what Nordstrom has done is started figuring out how to update brick-and-mortar to accommodate ecommerce without making it just a fulfillment spot,” said Minkow. “That’s what I would say others can learn from them: how to evolve and adapt your brick-and-mortar strategy to accommodate all this enthusiasm and increased sales in ecommerce. This isn’t the end of brick-and-mortar, it’s just the beginning of a new kind of brick-and-mortar.”

The key to Nordstrom’s balance is its connected retail experience, which is both seamless and user-friendly thanks to a strong connected loyalty program and sales floors that have been optimized for click-and-collect. Omnichannel convenience starts right on the product page, where Nordstrom not only shows delivery and pickup windows but the number of other people browsing the same page — an excellent way to help shoppers understand if they’re trying to buy a hot (and therefore potentially delayed) item.

On the brick-and-mortar side, Nordstrom stores aren’t just curbside pickup sites. The retailer offers a nearly unparalleled shopping experience no matter how its customers choose to shop, and minor omnichannel optimizations like putting pickup counters at the front of the store maximize convenience for online shoppers without alienating those who prefer to browse in-store.

Retailers Should Be Partners Along the Journey, Not Pushy Salespeople

Customer service is an important part of retail overall, and connected experiences are no different: 85% of respondents said great customer support/help was important when choosing a retailer, according to CI&T. Customer service was among the top three aspects of a shopping experience that would bring consumers back, beaten only by price and quality.

It’s easy to think of customer service in terms of handling returns and correcting mistakes, but even the algorithms that power the search bar can empower this facet of retail, according to Minkow. Honing algorithms and developing chatbots with personalized, more human-like responses are important developments in this area, where they can make retailers feel more like a trusted friend than a faceless corporation.

“It’s so important that consumers don’t get taken out of that shopping mode,” said Minkow. “You don’t want to be distracting, you want minimal advertisements and minimal shifts in focus. If you make the wrong suggestions that can definitely be frustrating, and make the shopper feel like they’re being pushed and pulled rather than having a strategic partner along the path to purchase.”

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that five of the top seven retailers in the report (Nordstrom, Target, Home Depot, Walmart and Gap) earned perfect marks for their search experience, while the remaining two (Staples and Foot Locker) still scored a respectable 94%. Retailers seeking to raise up their search game shouldn’t be afraid to look outside the retail industry when searching for ways to improve their own search capabilities, Minkow noted.

Netflix is really becoming our pacemaker these days because it’s not only making smart suggestions, but creating new content based on what it’s learning about consumers,” said Minkow. “I think we should expect to see more of that in retail, so that you’re not taking consumers out of shopping mode but being a valued partner.”

New Shopping Routines in 2021 Call for New Approaches to Connected Retail

The top 10 retailers in the study all have a history of innovation, but Minkow stressed that now is an excellent time for other retailers to try and catch up. Many people have just discovered the convenience of a connected shopping experience, meaning virtually every retailer has an opportunity to make their stores part of customers’ everyday routine once vaccines roll out and brick-and-mortar starts its slow but steady comeback.

“The reason these connected retail experiences have been successful and so significant is that it took us so long to embrace online pick up in-store and curbside pickup,” said Minkow. “I used to do consumer surveys all the time when I was at Gartner, asking ‘How excited would you be about ordering something online and then going to pick it up in a physical store?’ Consumers were confused as to what value that type of experience provided. Now we see the point of it, we understand the value and we are figuring out how this fits so nicely into our routines. This is a great launching-off point for a lot of retailers to understand where their role is within shoppers’ lifestyles.”

This continuous evolution offers retailers a golden opportunity to adjust their physical operations to accommodate shoppers’ new routines. Stores can round out a journey that began online by providing the human touch — combining the convenience of ecommerce and the engaging nature of an in-store shopping trip into a single connected experience. As the study shows, even the standouts in connected commerce aren’t untouchable, and any retailer willing to put in the work can benefit from a stronger omnichannel presence.

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