The Nordstrom tire return story is true

Photo: Getty Images/Fertnig
Aug 03, 2022

The Nordstrom tire return story, often thought of as a piece of fiction used to demonstrate the length the department store would go to serve its customers, is true.

Pete Nordstrom, president of the company that bears his family name, recently hosted an episode of “The Nordy Pod” to explore the story’s origins and its impact on the company. The show included an interview with Craig Trounce, the sales associate behind the story.

Mr. Trounce, who currently serves as the manager of the Phoenix contact centers, guest care services for Alaska Airlines, was a sales associate working at a Nordstrom store in Fairbanks in 1979 when a local “hermit” named Sam entered the store carrying two tires.

“I came up to ask him if I can help them and share that I think he’s in the wrong place,” said Mr. Trounce. “I did try to tell him that, you know, Northern Commercial [the previous tenant of the building] no longer exists. And as you can see, we’re a clothing retailer. We don’t carry tires and he said, ‘No, this is the building that I bought these in’ and I said, ‘How long ago did you buy them?’ And he said, ‘A couple of years ago, and they assured me that if they didn’t work out, I could bring them back. And here they are.’”

Mr. Trounce recounted the role his manager played in the interaction.

“My manager was actually standing at the curtain for the back stock for men’s shoes. And I could see him and at one point he was going to walk out but then as I started engaging with the customer, he halted and stopped and waited to see how I was going to follow through with it. And he kept kind of nodding like I was moving in the right direction. And so I figured if I was crossing any boundaries, he would step out because he was viewing the entire situation.”

Mr. Trounce called a local Firestone dealer to try and gauge the value ($25) of the tires that Sam was returning without a receipt. Sam got his refund.

Mr. Nordstrom shared that some of the retailer’s stores today have tires located near the employee entrances with signs that read “recreate the tire story or what’s your tires story or make a tire story today.” The legend lives on.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What role does storytelling around acts of service, like the tire story, play in creating a culture focused on customer happiness? Is it both possible and smart to build a retail customer service culture similar to Nordstrom in this day and age?

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"Storytelling creates the emotional glue your associates need to connect with your customers, as it facilitates your customers' engagement with your brand."
"Having a commitment to teaching associates these true stories helps create a foundation of pride in the organization..."
"Nordstrom’s culture of service is not easily replicated and many have tried. The reason is that service is embedded in the culture from day one at the company."

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21 Comments on "The Nordstrom tire return story is true"

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Neil Saunders

While not everyone will, or indeed can, replicate the tire story it is a good proverb for allowing staff to use their discretion in going above and beyond for customers. Such things can, if used correctly, create loyalty. When I worked at John Lewis there was a register code known as 904, it was commonly called goodwill. It was the code staff could use to offer refunds or expense small charges to help customers. It might be a grey area, such as a refund on a very old item, or a gesture such as sending flowers to someone who’d had their order delayed. It really empowered staff and it created a lot of good feeling among customers. And the generic code ensured that no department or division ever bore the expense (it went to a central marketing cost) so managers and heads of divisions were never overly reluctant to use it.

Bob Amster

It is much easier to tell the tire story successfully to already-engaged associates who, by their nature, are eager to serve. Short of being able to hire all of a retailer’s associates with that attitude, training and constant reinforcement of the culture are the other way to instill company values. It is certainly possible and definitely smart to build such a culture in all retail environments, regardless of what they sell.

Andrew Blatherwick

Storytelling is important in all business not just retail, especially when it shows the sort of behavior that you want to instill in the company culture. High levels of customer service are also important for all business so when these two come together it is very positive. I am not sure every retailer would want to follow the tire story and replace anything that is returned but it is a great story for setting the culture.

Steve Dennis

People often buy the story before they buy the product. Or, as Seth Godin reminds us, “people like us, do things like this.” Storytelling about brand promises is often what takes a retail relationship from transactional to emotional. Though it’s always nice if the story is true.

Georganne Bender

I was told by a Nordstrom employee that it was a woman who was returning tires. The “building used to be a tire store” was the same, but the Nordstrom associate, who worked in men’s shoe department, had been recently reprimanded for a customer service issue, so when presented with a tire return, he figured why not?

And that’s the beauty of legends. Every retailer has a legendary customer service story or two and it’s to their advantage to share them. Customer service is still the only thing that can truly separate one retailer from another. Legends keep great service top of the mind.

Zel Bianco

Storytelling is as old as listening to your grandparents recount stories of your parents and their siblings. It stays with you for years and allows you to pass the stories on to your children and grandchildren. Retail needs more storytelling as it allows the retailer to engage and in a way that is challenging to do online — regardless of influencers. Sometimes the old way of doing things seems to be the right way. It can give a warm and fuzzy feeling and, if done in a sincere way, can build the trust and loyalty that Nordstrom has become expert at.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

Storytelling is core to our humanity. It unleashes creativity and imagination and allows exploration and discovery, but most of all, it increases understanding and empathy. Storytelling brings your brand and what it stands for to life; it makes experiences tangible and predictable, it guides and instructs. Storytelling creates the emotional glue your associates need to connect with your customers, as it facilitates your customers’ engagement with your brand.

David Spear

Storytelling is critically important in so many aspects of life. Sales and customer service rank up there as two areas where it’s pivotal in making a deal or delivering exceptional customer service. I’m a fan of it and believe we need more of it in our enterprises.

Shelley E. Kohan

Nordstrom’s culture of service is not easily replicated and many have tried. The reason is that service is embedded in the culture from day one at the company. Countless stories are told each and every day at every store. Storytelling is a visualization easily understood by listeners. Employees aspire to be part of the story. Happy employees drive happy customers and higher profits. While customer service is easily copied, customer service culture is very difficult to copy. Just look at how many retailers have been able to successfully copy Nordstrom’s culture — exactly none.

Brad Halverson

Right on, Shelley. I’ll always remember once when I was hired at Nordstrom, I asked one of the co-Presidents how they train. The response was simple and powerful — “We just hire nice people who want to help other people. We encourage and give them room to take care of the customer.” And yes, they sure give latitude and support. I’m sure many more employee tools are available now than before.

As you say, this culture of all-in customer service is difficult to copy. Either you’re all-in or you’re not.

Bob Phibbs

An odd story from 40 years ago – “a hermit walks into a luxury department store carrying two worn out tires asks for refund,” doesn’t make the brand. What is truly the point of the story? “We took pity on a guy and gave him $25.” Not sure that resonates with anyone but inside corporate culture.

Lee Peterson

Stories go a long way, especially when a brand first enters a market. When Whole Foods came into this market, a woman shopping for pickles was helped by a manager who cracked five jars for her to test and when she found the one she liked, he said “this one’s on us.” That story circulated in the neighborhood then throughout the city for over a year, like an urban legend. But it worked. Whole Foods is massively popular here.

Stories will definitely aid in the success of a brand and will even develop a life of their own. But don’t forget, it works the same way with bad stories and those can happen at any time and just as easily.

Rich Kizer

Great and true legendary stories are always more powerful than the foundations that hold up the store.

Paula Rosenblum

Products are ubiquitous (usually). Service is the scarce commodity. And kindness. I don’t know how to explain to a retailer or other provider that outsourcing customer service to a foreign land, and providing CSRs with scripts is not service. How do we tell them that a five hour wait for a callback is unacceptable? How do we tell a chain drug store that just because you have robots filling prescriptions it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have respectful employees at the store?

Can it be replicated today? No one would call Costco a “service-centric” business model, yet it is. So yes, in your realm, if you meet or exceed a customer’s best expectations you will do well.

Shep Hyken

Every company needs its version of a Nordstrom tire story. It becomes the “North Star” of customer service. We have our clients go through a customer service exercise where everyone has to share their best example of when they created a great customer service experience. Taking the best of the best, you can use these examples to share with the rest of the organization. While they may not become as legendary as the tire story, they set the example of what a great service experience looks like.

Craig Sundstrom

I think there’s something missing here: IIRC Nordstrom had actually purchased Northern Commercial, they weren’t just “a previous tenant” … which is a crucial detail as to why there was some obligation, or at least a feeling that there might be one. And I also recall the legend became something of a problem later, as increasingly unrealistic expectation built up.

Back to the basic question: yes it’s still possible to develop and build upon a service culture … but each generation redefines what that means, so it’s not just a question of doing what our forbearers did.

Jeff Sward

A brand can only be great if it itself tells great stories — and — in return, the world tells great stories about the brand. Perfect case in point.

Brad Halverson

It’s always been my favorite story about Nordstrom, if not in all of retail. The other story when I was working for them was when a customer was allowed to return a chandelier (they didn’t sell home goods back then).

Not every brand or retailer has the courage or structure to allow sales people and front line folks to inspire and delight, to really help the customer with a long-term mindset. But the ones that do create an active, loyal customer base who will spread the news and stories like wildfire about your products and company. They become your marketing and your most ardent supporters.

The point isn’t to start accepting tires when you don’t sell them. It’s to show how easy it is to shop with you, to be part of the brand you are building.

Brian Cluster

Values and mission statements like “we put the customer first” fall flat for many customers. The key is to share the HOW and share an example in the form of a story. Having a commitment to teaching associates these true stories helps create a foundation of pride in the organization and allows the teams to share these stories with their customers in a consistent way. As many said, customer service is a key way to differentiate and these stories can be instructive to the retail team about the values and entertaining and memorable for the customers.

James Tenser

There have been any number of tomes published over the years in our industry that describe examples of excellent customer service. (Heck, I wrote one myself in 2004 for the NRF Foundation with 45 service stories.)
Nordstrom’s tire story is true, yet through repetition it becomes apocryphal. The gender of the customer switches. The amount of the refund is exaggerated. The returned item changes.

So what? The emotion of the story matters most. I don’t think we need to be cynical about that, but we should consider that the intended audience for this story is 10% customers and 90% retailers.

Nordstrom shrewdly propagates this story to inspire its team members and encourage buy in to its service culture.

Anil Patel

The key to forming a value proposition is holding a clear understanding of your Ideal Customer Profile. A brand must act in a way that best suits its target audiences. Moreover, there is a thin line between doing something for the customer and doing something right for the customer. Therefore,

  1. Definitely, sometimes going out of the way for customers is important;
  2. Again, there’s a fine line between conveying the brand’s culture and bragging.

Retailers must share their stories with an intention of communicating their culture and who they are. So I believe sharing stories is important, but the manner in which you communicate also holds significance.

"Storytelling creates the emotional glue your associates need to connect with your customers, as it facilitates your customers' engagement with your brand."
"Having a commitment to teaching associates these true stories helps create a foundation of pride in the organization..."
"Nordstrom’s culture of service is not easily replicated and many have tried. The reason is that service is embedded in the culture from day one at the company."

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