At Nordstrom, vp of creative projects Olivia Kim is in charge of knowing what’s cool and incorporating it into the department store’s mix of merchandise.
Her latest achievement: Pulling together a three-part series of in-store pop-ups with Korean fashion and beauty brands. The series, titled KPOP-In@Nordstrom, kicked off with a collaboration with Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster at the beginning of January. The cult brand set up in-store shops at seven Nordstrom locations that included virtual reality activations and six new styles of sunglasses exclusive to Nordstrom. Kim, who is Korean, said she saw the brand’s status spike after being worn in Korean films.
“I’ve been really into everything that’s been happening around Korean fashion, culture, style. It’s hard to ignore the buzz around it,” said Kim. “Gentle Monster has never really done this kind of partnership with another retailer or department store. When we talk about what we’re doing for our stores, it’s really about creating these unique, fun, offshoot experiences.”
The Gentle Monster Pop-In at Nordstrom
KPOP-In@Nordstrom is the most recent iteration of Kim’s ongoing work to invigorate Nordstrom’s offerings with hip up-and-comers that often fly below the radar of corporate bigwigs. Previous “Pop-Ins” between Nordstrom and other brands include partnerships with Topshop, Madewell, New Classics, Warby Parker and Bow & Drape. Other variations of the series aren’t brand-specific, but rather themed around something like beach and surf wear, incorporating several new brands at a time.
For Nordstrom, the benefits of the monthly Pop-In series include the street cred granted by Kim, who was poached by Nordstrom’s designer fashion director Jeffrey Kalinsky from her position as Opening Ceremony’s top buyer in 2013. As department stores, including Nordstrom, Macy’s and Kohl’s, all face slipping sales in an increasingly competitive retail environment, Nordstrom’s Pop-In strategy focuses on winning over millennial customers while spicing up sales floors with buzzy partnerships.
Other department stores have begun thinking outside the traditional box in their own ways that include inviting in outsider brands and retailers to excite shoppers and drive new foot traffic. Bergdorf Goodman has begun working with streetwear brands like Kith, Neiman Marcus is opening up Rent the Runway stores within their department stores, and JCPenney will open close to 600 Sephora and Nike stores-within-stores in the future.
“What unifies the strategy here is the focus on the different experience,” said Malinda Sanna, founder of the agency Spark. “Everyone’s trying something different, because the comfort zone for department stores is the assortment, the edit, the brands. It’s so much more than that for a millennial consumer. They want an experience.”
At Nordstrom, the Pop-Ins have included an element of experience meant to catch customer attention. Gentle Monster’s virtual reality experiences let users explore stores in Shanghai, China, and Nonhyeon-dong and Bukchon in Seoul, South Korea. According to Kim, the experiential aspect of the Pop-Ins, which drives engagement, is about more than sales.
“Pop-In has always wanted to be a platform where we could launch new brands and test things for our own stores and for our customers so we can get a quick read,” said Kim. “Like, does this work, and is this something our customer is responding to? If so, can we continue that relationship, and can we partner in another way once the shop is over? It’s way more than just a sales number at the end of the month.”
For the department store, the Pop-In is an outlet for it to act upon trends quickly, while reacting more nimbly to customer interests. “We see Pop-Ins as a testing ground to introduce our customers to new things, and along with that comes exposure to potentially new customers who may not have taken notice before,” said Kim.
And it also leads to real relationships. Thanks to a Pop-In with Nike, there’s now a continuous relationship with the brand to offer an exclusive collection of footwear at Nordstrom. At the Seattle flagship, luxury brand Hermès operates an ongoing concept store.
Bow & Drape, an online retailer that makes customized sweatshirts, tees and accessories, partnered with Nordstrom to bring its personalized products to stores at scale. For Bow & Drape, the benefit of the partnership was that it could test brick-and-mortar in a safe setting, with Nordstrom’s expertise on its side. For Nordstrom, customers were invited to try something novel (creating a customized sweatshirt, for example), which also brought them in store for longer periods of time.
“It’s always a tradeoff [with collaborations],” said Aubrie Pagano, Bow & Drape’s founder, who mentioned that Bow & Drape had to trust Nordstrom to pull off a proper customer experience for newcomers. “But we had Nordstrom’s credibility, and they were able to offer something that’s attractive to millennials, keep people in stores longer and associate themselves with a modern, trend-driven brand.”
Bow & Drape has since been pulled in to an ongoing partnership with Nordstrom to set up customizable activations during the holidays at 18 stores. Ready-to-wear items are on sale throughout the year online.
Through working with Kim to curate the Pop-Ins, Nordstrom has extended her reach to include the introduction of SPACE, its boutique fixture in all stores that sells collections from emerging designer brands like Simone Rocha, Vetements and Ellery.
With Kim at the creative wheel, Nordstrom is betting on relevancy. In November, the retailer reported positive same-store quarterly results at a 2.4 percent climb, beating out competitors like Macy’s, who saw sales drop 3 percent.