How Nordstrom’s Anniversary Sale Made Retail History
By the time you see highlighter yellow shopping bags winking at you as you walk down Pine, you’re late: The Nordstrom Birthday Sale starts long before the merchandise hits the shelves. Come on, summer enthusiasts are crunching numbers, making game plans, and even booking trips when the Seattle-based department store offers a preseason discount to its all-new outfits. Especially here, where the flagship store has more square footage than any other location in Nordstrom, and the event has serious local history.
Nordstrom made its Seattle debut in 1901 as Wallin and Nordstrom, a shoe store in Fourth and Pike. The exact opening date of this store is lost in the annals of time, typical of those early days. But Nordstrom’s later adoption of the Anniversary Sale – which began to fully celebrate someone else’s birthday – helps explain how a small shoe store that didn’t sell a single pair by noon is opening day has finally become one of the best department stores in the country.
Before television, the average Seattleite, separated from national fashion capitals by miles of land and culture, had little means to see the latest styles. When Boston-born Dorothy Cabot Best opened Best’s Apparel on Third Avenue in June 1925 and filled it with finds from East Coast travel purchases, she quickly cemented her role as a taste designer: One 1933 Seattle Daily article titled Best’s finds “as new as tomorrow, as fresh as a spring morning, because they all came straight from New York”.
When Dorothy’s death in August 1958, Best’s Apparel closed for a day in her memory, but also possibly because her husband and co-founder Ivan was lost without her keen eye. He spent the next few years convincing a nearby shoe store to take over his womenswear business. In 1963, Nordstrom, Inc. acquired Best’s Apparel. “If they hadn’t taken the plunge by buying Best’s,” says Clara Berg, fashion curator and MOHAI historian, “they wouldn’t be where they are.
They probably wouldn’t have the anniversary sale either, at least not in its current form. It was not uncommon for local retailers to celebrate their birthdays with discounts in the first half of the 1900s, although most were a way to clear the ground for the coming season. But by 1955, Best had pulled out all the stops for the store’s 30th anniversary – scouring the world for new fashions and selling them cheaply, one ad warned it was “unlikely to reproduce.” After the Nordstrom family bought Best’s, they continued their tradition of annual discounts and institutionalized the preseason offers that still draw fans to the event today.
Retailers generally do not bring new merchandise to the market for a penny less than the full price. “This is truly unheard of,” says Whitney Powell, a Seattle resident who writes guides to making the most of each year’s offerings on her blog, Pentecost Wanders. The pre-season approach is a neat way to make a bargain event upscale. It’s also a way for merchants to test future fashions: if a jacket is doing well, stock up for fall; if it collapses, move away. And it works. The anniversary sale takes Nordstrom’s numbers to near vacation levels during the notoriously slow summer days.
Pre-online shopping – think back to the ’80s and’ 90s – reporters flocked to Nordstrom just to report these downtown markdowns to the scene. Now there are more influencers touting the virtues of Vince dresses than there are buyers lined up at 7am for the cutest catsuit. Stores are still seeing an increase in customer numbers when the savings are made every July, but there are plenty of people looking online, including cardholders, who get early access. Is magic lost without the chaos and camaraderie of a crowd?
Seattle store manager Adrienne Hixon remembers braving the sale of Spokane with her mom and sister even before she started working at Nordstrom 28 years ago. “Everyone knew when it was going to start and you didn’t plan anything that day. This may be the long-standing yellow mark. Perhaps this is the pride of Seattle. Perhaps this is the timeless power of a good deal. “But just the sheer excitement of the anniversary sale, for me,” Hixon said, “is still true.”