Customer Service – Best and Worst: Department Stores

A few months ago (while in the midst of taxes), I was combing through all the large purchases made on my credit cards over the past few years and noticed that many of them were from the same few establishments, over and over. I thought this was interesting as even maybe five or ten years ago, my statements would have had a much larger diversity of merchants. I realized that over the years, I’ve had some either great customer experiences, or poor ones – and that these experiences have really driven my purchasing habits and captured my brand loyalty.

Since customer service experiences can have such an impact over what we buy and where we buy it, I thought I would share an example of one of my best, and one of my worst customer service encounters. For this post, I decided to focus on department stores.

Best: Nordstrom



I know that it’s almost become a little cliche to cite Nordstrom as a good customer service example, but hey, I’m a believer! I’ve never been let down by service twice there – which means, in the rare occasions, I haven’t had a good experience with a front line associate, a manager has always fixed it.

My first Nordstrom customer service story: In high school, I splurged on a pair of Kate Spade sunglasses, with a gradient lens. I was so proud of these glasses! They were something like $150 which meant it equated to at least 30 hours of waitressing drudgery. I wore them all the time, and especially on my head. Unfortunately, this must have stretched them out over time (I have a big head too – Mr. Feather affectionately calls me “The Bobble”). One day they fell off the kitchen counter, and broke into two pieces on the ground.

I went back to Nordstrom the next day to go shop for a replacement, and pulled out my broken pair in front of the sales associate . To my surprise, she whipped out a small eyeglasses screwdriver and tried to put the two pieces back together. “Should be easy,” she said, even though five minutes later it definitely appeared that it wouldn’t be.

“Well, in that case, we’ll just have to get you a new pair!” she said. I explained that the break was entirely my fault, but she simply shook her head. “We want you to be satisfied.” And I left that day with a replacement pair of sunglasses, gratis. Since then, I’ve always tried to make my designer purchases at Nordstrom whenever possible. I don’t expect a free item when things go wrong, especially when it’s my fault – but I do have the confidence that the store will “do the right thing” by the customer.


Worst: Barney’s Online. 

Screen shot 2014-04-20 at 5.26.07 PM

I was recently told that Barney’s has been making concerted efforts to improve its online experience, but I’m not sure if I’ll be venturing back into those waters. I’ve made both full price and sale priced purchases on Barney’s over the past few years, and below are some of my experiences:

Example #1: Manolo BB pumps. Five days to process, then summarily cancelled and told “out of stock”. A week later, pumps still show as in my size, available and in stock, on the website. Customer service agent does not know, and doesn’t care to find out, if they are actually in stock.

Example #2: Sale Zanotti shoes. Order from Barney’s as $40 cheaper on sale than on Neiman Marcus’ site. Informed that the order is cancelled 8 days later. In the meantime, of course my size has sold out at Neiman Marcus.

Example #3: Balenciaga leather jacket. Purchased online, delivered in wrong size. Exchange in store, easy peasy. But what’s the point of buying online if I have to go to the store anyway? In the meanwhile, an email I sent customer service after I realized the wrong size was sent, is never answered.

Example #4: (This takes the cake!). Order a pair of Kirkwood booties. They are even on sale, and yet are fulfilled and shipped, and arrive in a timely fashion. Finally! I open the box, and realize that the shoes are two different sizes: 6.5 and 7. Online customer service suggests I call the Vegas store, where the shoes were shipped from, to see if I can find the missing 6.5 I need. Call the store, where they can’t find the 6.5, but the sales associate begs me to send back the shoes directly to her as her client wants the other 7. And she gives me a tip: “Don’t shop at Barney’s online. It’s awful.”

Enough said. What are some of your best, and worst, customer service experiences in department stores?

You Might Also Like

  • save. spend. splurge.
    May 12, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Your Barney’s experiences are incredible.. in a bad way. Goes to show that high end stores don’t necessarily know business.

    I can only really shop online at these stores and so far I am loving ShopBop a lot.

  • thehoustongirl
    May 12, 2014 at 8:26 am

    I have to admit, I agree! Nordstrom is the best (I like getting shoes that I’m not sure about)! I don’t have any experience with Barney’s online, but generally my experience is that department stores go out of their way before boutique stores. So if there’s a Chanel or Louis Vuitton or any other brand name that sells at department store, I go there because you get the department store guarantee PLUS the brand guarantee!

  • a
    May 12, 2014 at 8:47 am

    Even though I can get gift cards (maybe at least 1-2k a year) from Neiman Marcus, I choose to shop at the Chanel boutique instead of the one in NM. The Chanel boutique staff recognize me when I go in and treat me with a lot of respect. I was even sent flowers on my birthday.

    Neiman can offer gift cards but their service is horrible. No staff was available for Chanel during *sale* time – irresponsible. They found somebody to “help” me from another department and she basically yelled at me for asking if other items are available. NM does have some lovely sales staff in the fine jewelry department.

    I wouldn’t rule any place out though if I see something that’s well-priced for what it is.

    Saks in San Francisco doesn’t have the best inventory and thus I rarely find anything, but the staff has always been wonderful. From the jewelry section to cosmetics to lingerie, they’ve been professional.

    Barneys in SF – nobody goes there. It’s like a ghost town. Empty mostly.

    If I see something I’m sure I will buy, I’ll order from Bergdorf online – no sales tax for California residents.

  • Petti
    May 12, 2014 at 10:58 am

    For my online shopping experience I often shop at Nordstrom or Saks Fifth Avenue. Neiman’s price is not as good (may be just the item I was looking for). But both Nordstrom and Saks are good-ship fast and I’m able to get hold of the customer service. No complain so far.

  • Annessa @ Seeking Sunshine
    May 12, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    Nordstrom is awesome! I really wish we had one where I live. By far my worst customer experience with a dept. store was Bloomingdale’s online. I placed a birthday gift order for my sister, and they cancelled my order because the shipping and billing address were different. I had to contact them to have my order re-placed, and they called me three times after to confirm the shipping address. So frustrating!

    • Katherine
      May 12, 2014 at 5:00 pm

      That is super frustrating – if the system doesn’t allow them to be different, it should make the process intuitive when placing the order.

  • Joyce
    May 12, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    I love Nordstrom and think they are best of the best. Years ago I bought a fragrance gift set (80ml fragrance & body lotion) there. One day the fragrance nozzle was stuck so I took it to Nordstrom with the hope that it could be fixed. No one could fix it. But then the SA said he would just give me a replacement. 80ml is a gift set version that can’t be replaced so he gave me the large 100ml bottle. He mentioned that it is “the magic of shopping at Nordstrom” and I truly believe that it is.
    Since then, Nordstrom has been my go-to department store. I *choose* to buy there whenever I can. It is hard to find loyal customers these days but Nordstrom has successfully turned me into one. I appreciate how Nordstrom has nurtured its relationship with its customers and makes shopping a pleasant experience for everyone. 🙂

    • Katherine
      May 12, 2014 at 4:59 pm

      That’s a great story and a perfect example of what makes Nordstrom great. Thanks for sharing Joyce!

  • Tia
    May 12, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    I bought a patent leather Jimmy Choo clutch from Saks around the holidays, and had it shipped to my parents’ house in Atlanta since I was going to be there instead of home in Chicago. I realized that it was almost Christmas and the order hadn’t shipped, so I asked if I could switch the shipping address to Chicago. The customer service rep said no, but I continued inquiring about other options and he hung up on me! The clutch ended up arriving in Atlanta, and it was completely covered with fingerprints and overall just looked dirty. Disappointing.

  • Kelly
    May 13, 2014 at 9:10 am

    I couldn’t agree more about Nordstrom!!! Sometimes I wonder how they turn a profit. I mainly shop for shoes, bags, and cosmetics there. I would shop for clothes there too but I find it hard to in person and online for some reason.

    Regarding Barneys online, my experiences haven’t been as bad but I have received a completely wrong pair of shoes and there was no apology it was their mistake and I had to go to the trouble of returning them. However, I have had every one of my emails answered and every rep I have interacted with has been very courteous and helpful. I go to Barneys primarily because they carry things other premier retailers do not.

    • Katherine
      May 13, 2014 at 11:56 am

      For me I often will pay full price at Nordstroms for items I wouldn’t otherwise, just because I’m happy shopping there. I think there are lots like me 🙂

  • Cecilia
    May 13, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    Thanks for another great post Kat. I have to chime in about the greatness of Nordstrom. In the early 90s quite some US beauty brands were not available in Hong Kong, but being an avid reader of Vogue and Bazzar I was desperate to own some of the items introduced in the mags. THE one product that I ‘had to have’ was Creme de la Mer. After some research, I decided to try e-mail order, and was pleasantly surprised by what Nordstorm could offer! Thanks to Nordstrom, I’m pretty sure I was among those who first tried Benefit, Khiel’s, Stila… here. Plus, the SAs were so generous with samples, which was (and is) unseen among SAs in Asia. Funnily enough, as the Internet became more popular and Nordstrom started to introduce online shopping, I had to stop – because the online store didn’t ship to Hong Kong! The shipping policy has recently changed, so I will be back. Hi again, Nordstrom!

  • a
    May 13, 2014 at 8:14 pm

    Wow, I’m so happy to hear many of you ladies have had good experiences with Nordstrom! I rarely make it “that far,” because the shops close to Union Square usually decimates my wallet beforehand 😉 I wear larger bra sizes, and while Macys has them, it is a labyrinth to look through. Saks doesn’t have my model. I was told by a lady who also wears larger bra sizes that Nordstrom has the best service and selection. I’ll be sure to visit Nordstrom more often. The customer service was quite good when I went to get a gift.

  • Anonymous
    May 14, 2014 at 9:37 am

    Good morning – I have weird experience with Barney’s in store and online, I don’t know why I keep coming back.
    I was trying to order boots that I saw in the store in LA but they sold out before I made my mind. The SA at the Grove location said that he can check to see which stores might still have them but he won’t call them to see if they can ship to me. It was a little unusual (and I hate the phones so a little inconvenient:)) so I started calling. I keep receiving mixed messages from different stores as it was during the snow storms in Dec-Jan – one day they have it in stock, the other day they don’t but this other store does, next day I’m told I should order online again. Just a complete mess:) I really liked those boots so I kept trying. Eventually got a hold of a SA in Manh store who says that he has them and will ship. I’m confirming the price with him and ordering. 2 days later I see the charge on my card and the delivery fee is on top of what was discussed over the phone. And this is when Barney is advertising complimentary delivery for all US orders and he never mentioned once anything about delivery fee;) Honestly, at this point I gave up and just enjoy the boots. I didn’t have energy or any desire to talk to any Barney’s rep ever again. And I probably will never shop there again which is a shame as I like their selection. Oh well.
    Enjoy your day, Kat!

  • blue
    May 14, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    I had a bad experience with service at the Frye flagship store in Soho NYC. I wanted the Engineer boots in the 12R shaft height. They didn’t have my size in black, so the SA took down my credit card info and ordered it from another store to be delivered to my hotel. So far so good. But when the boots arrived, one boot was the 12R height, and the other was the 8R height. I called the store that I bought the boots from and the SA’s attitude was so off-putting. Not once did she apologize for the error and inconvenience. Instead she acted annoyed that I was bothering her with this problem, and insisted there was nothing she could do to help me, I would have to call the other store myself to work it out. She kept saying, “It wasn’t our mistake.” I asked if I could come back (taking time out of my holiday to make the trip all the way back to Soho) and return the boots, and she said no! She said that it would be impossible for her store to refund me the money since it was the other store that charged my card. At this point I was about to flip out. I told her this was unacceptable, and I wanted to speak to a manager and she completely changed her tune. She said she would figure something out and got off the phone. I didn’t hear from her again that day or the next day, so I finally hauled the boots back to the Soho store to speak to someone in person. When I got to the counter, the SA remembered me from my first visit and said she had my boots. They had been rush-ordered from another store after my complaint, but nobody thought to call me and tell me. It was a pleasant surprise and happy ending to a frustrating shopping experience.

    • Katherine
      May 15, 2014 at 8:47 am

      OMG that is such a horrible experience! It souonds like at least the rest of the SAs were good though…one bad apple can definitely ruin the whole thing!

      • blue
        May 16, 2014 at 7:40 pm

        Yes, very true! The SA that I dealt with in-store both times was great.

  • Ava Lon
    May 17, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    Dear Katherine,

    This is so interesting as it seems, aside from Nordstrom, one’s experience is in direct correlation to their relationship with the boutique/store. For me the best service I have received was where I was closest with the SA’s I shopped exclusively with. I don’t shop a lot, however, I do make it a point to show my appreciation and having worked in retail (luxury, too, no less) decades ago, I know how unpleasant it can be at times; the competition, the commission and commission returns are not fun. I also learned that “thank you notes” that are handwritten are the utmost.

    The worst experiences:
    1) being looked over, frowned at, and ignored the minute I stepped in the door (this has happened MANY times to me, not only in high end department stores, boutiques, but also in a public library once!)
    2) being hung up on by the store when I had called to inquire about a the status of an item I had paid for and was waiting to be delivered (late)
    3) see number (1) as this still happens

    The best experiences:
    1) being sent a huge box from a store you and I both adore with a small leather item inside wrapped gorgeously with a very thoughtful and kind card with handwritten wishes — as a birthday gift. “Gobsmacked” wouldn’t justify my emotion.
    2) picking up a purchase of cosmetics (from another large department store we mutually like) to find upon unpacking it at home that it was filled with deluxe samples (around 15) and extra gifts (brand makeup bag, limited edition porcelain perfume rosette, limited edition branded post-it-notes set, limited edition bookmark, etc.)
    3) being sent a huge box with a gift wrapped, hard cover book of the head designer’s art created for a collection with a handwritten note
    4) being called up/texted that the item that was “no longer in stock” or “sold out” was suddenly in, in my size and ON SALE!
    5) being called and sent a text image of a Birkin I had casually mentioned a friend-of-a-friend was interested in and arranging for that f-o-f to pick it up the next day without any crazy wait/attitude (said friend had no relationship with the boutique)
    6) being given a deluxe gift bag with gorgeous deluxe samples of makeup while randomly browsing the jewelry section of a particular boutique because they were having a makeup event which I did not know about nor sign up for, and then when pushing my luck and asking for a second gift bag (hey, the worst they can do is say “no”) for my M-I-L, getting it
    8) being gifted a deluxe fragrance set for “her” and another for “him” by my favorite House of Pancake SA during the holidays
    9) being allowed to shop the sample sale (of quite possibly our favorite store) the day before the VIPs and PRESS (which usually occurs a day or two before it opens “officially”) in a private room, before even the employees could shop it…that was priceless; then being the first person given the option to purchase the “old jewelry” that was still in stock in stores (just harder to find) and being told it was 50% off the old (these are years-old tickets) whatever the ticket price was…fashion-“Le-Petit-Mort” to put it delicately.

    The “best experiences” part is over the course of two years And to repeat myself, having worked in retail in the past, I do regularly show my gratitude (not only in the form of purchasing) to my SA’s and I loyally seek them out and ONLY shop/visit when they are there as well as refer them to others.

    Hope that helps!

    Long winded, yet again,
    Ava ;-D

    • Katherine
      May 18, 2014 at 7:23 pm

      Dear Ava, I’ve been hung up on too! And whenever I call back they never acknowledge it. Sigh.

      I love reading about all your GREAT experiences – the jewelry/presale one had me rolling with envy too! You are very right that patronizing the same SA gets you much better treatment, thats why it is so sad when your favorite leaves as well.

      • Ava Lon
        May 19, 2014 at 4:23 pm

        Dearest Katherine,

        Please let me know of any items you are interested in in your specific size and please also include where you can the SKU and I will be sure to pass it along to my SA (at our various favorite boutiques) that my “sister” wants the following items.

        Anytime for a friend who holds such a wonderful forum for females to help each other — much like Oprah.

        Big Harpo fan,
        Ava 😀

        • Katherine
          May 20, 2014 at 7:54 am

          Dear Ava, you are way too kind 🙂 Thank you and I think your Oprah comment is the best compliment I’ve received in YEARS!

  • Celina
    May 18, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Coming from a sales background at a high end jewellery store, I can tell you that some associates definitely have opinions about their customers,which in turn affects the service the customer receives. Definitely not nice and not something I would want to happen to me.

    • Katherine
      May 18, 2014 at 7:21 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience Celina. I’ve seen salespeople unfortunately mistreated by customers as well, it’s definitely a two way street!

  • Amy
    May 26, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    I’m such a huge fan of Nordstroms! I don’t shop there enough, but when I do, it’s always a great customer experience. They’ve always done well at making me feel welcome, take my returns with grace, and never make me feel out of place if I’m in their slightly more expensive areas (can’t say the same about Saks and Neimans…)

    Neiman’s, in my opinion, has one of the worst. I always feel like I’ve committed an atrocious crime when I’ve returned something (and God forbid if it was a sale item!). I’ve been shipped men’s clothing, clothing that was way overdue, wrong shoe sizes and mismatched colors – and they’ve always made me explain the mishaps! Sheesh.