Cabelas and Nordstrom "State of the Art"

FireTacks Booth at the KC Cabelas Grand Opening

Really, what more oxymoronic duo can you think of, than an elite high fashion store, and a hunting/outdoors retailer? On the one hand, we have Cabelas, the "World's Foremost Outfitter", with it's splendid taxidermy displays, astounding camo selection, archery and hunting toys galore, aquariums, upscale cabin furniture, and elk sandwiches. On the other hand is Nordstrom, the hoity-toity avant-garde purveyor of designer everything, clothes and shoes to die for, Hart Shafner and Marx suits, perfumes and makeup from around the world, Feragamo shoes, Dooney bags, St. John knits, live music on the grand piano and the best shoe shines on earth in the men's department. Nordstrom appeals to a predominantly female market, while typical Cabelas shoppers are male. Two worlds apart. Rustic versus polished. Rural versus urban. Sidney, Nebraska versus Seattle, Washington. But when it comes to Customer Service, they are blood brothers.

There are some other curious similarities between these two retail giants. Each sells "scents", for example. Nordstrom's, you wear on your person, while Cabelas you sprinkle in the woods to attract game animals in order to kill them. A person could get lost in each of their shoe departments, but for quite different reasons: Rocky or Danner versus Vitadini or Johnson & Murphy. Both have incredibly huge selections of high quality clothing appealing to niche target markets who will spend just about anything for the latest industry trends: Gortex versus cashmere. Both carry gloves, hats, coats, and pants, but you would be hard pressed to find a single brand overlap between the two stores: Browning versus Bill Burns & Hickey Freeman . Both have mail order catalogues and Internet commerce. Women's fashion clothes at Cabelas could best be described as "earth mother" or "cabin chic" while Nordstrom serves a mid to high income and decidedly prissy urban/suburban/executive demographic.

What these two stores have in common, that earns each of them "State of the Art" status, in this humble shopper's opinion again, is Customer Service.

I began seeing the common bond between the two retailers several years ago. I especially notice good or bad customer service since I am a small business owner and know that good customer service is as critical to my success, as it is to theirs. One only need go to Cabelas or Nordstrom's primary and secondary competitors to understand what I am talking about...whether Marshall Fields or Macy's. Whether Bass Pro or Gander Mountain. Now, I am not saying those competitors are bad by any means, but they are simply not as good as Cabelas or Nordstrom in the area of customer service. Most people I have interviewed would agree.

I have gone into many stores in my various "uniforms" to test the receptivity of personnel. By uniforms, I mean I have gone right from work dressed in a tailored banker suit, heels & carrying a Coach bag, or I've gone in right from bear baiting with patched faded jeans, hunting boots, pigtails, camo and smelling like meat scraps. I have looked like both an heiress, and a bag lady. In some hunting goods stores I was dismissed as a serious hunter when I wore my business suits and I practically had to stalk the clerks to get waited on. How could I buy a deer archery or bear hunting license if I was female and dressed like THAT? In other stores, clerks looked through me or averted their gaze because I resembled something the cat dragged in. I simply do not put on airs when I need to go purchase something. I go as I'm dressed at the moment, and the sales clerks get what they get. Only my demeanor remains the same: positive and gregarious. No matter what I looked or smelled like, both Cabelas and Nordstrom always make me feel like the most important customer in whole store.

So how do these two retail giants do it? Why are their people a cut above? Perhaps it goes back to the "rags to riches" history of each family owned company. When we look at the "About Us" statements on their web sites,

Cabelas includes:

"Cabelas is committed to providing quality products, value, service and guaranteed customer satisfaction to outdoorsmen and women throughout the world."

"Serving people who love the outdoors is our #1 priority."

Nordstrom is similar:

"Offer the customer the best possible service, selection, quality and value"

"We remain committed to the simple idea our company was founded on, earning the trust of our customers, one at a time".


Note the common words "commitment", "quality", "value" and the emphasis on doing whatever it takes to make customers happy. While other retailers may make similar claims, there are inconsistencies with how those claims play out in problematic situations like merchandise returns, special handling, rush orders or an unhappy customer. I have purchased hundreds of things from dozens of retailers over many years, and Cabelas and Nordstrom are the only two retailers who have a perfect customer service rating, in my experience.

 Cabela's Kansas City, KS Retail Showroom

I recently attended the grand opening of Cabelas Kansas City as a vendor, and asked employees about their training program, assuming that must be why their customer service is so excellent. I was told that the training program was not rocket science, but that the management's wisdom in choosing the perfect Cabelas employee was more the key factor than anything. As a vendor, I also decided to make a statement about their customer service by "marking" each employee who asked to help me, with a sample of our FireTape trail marking ribbon. After two days it seemed nearly half the store employees were sporting FireTape on their clothing somewhere. I also marveled at how Store Managers pitched in with menial work, never lording their position over those under them, but dovetailing with the team to get things done. While Nordstrom does have a more organized training program, the end result is the same: every employee makes every customer feel valuable and respected, no matter what.

Customer service. Many people say the words, but Cabelas and Nordstrom don't just play-act those words, they live them. Perhaps that stems from the humble beginnings of each company, or the fact that they are family run businesses. Regardless, it sets them above all others in the retailing fray. It today's highly competitive marketplace, you can have all the fancy merchandise in the world, but unless the customer feels important, retailers - large or small - will ultimately lose the game.

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© September 2002