Nordstrom Uses Influencers to Promote Safety and Draw Anxious Shoppers

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Wendy Nguyen, a fashionable Instagram personality with 1.1 million followers, is regularly tapped by retailers like Macy’s and Banana Republic to promote their wares on social media. They typically want her to take a stylish photo in their apparel and enthuse about their brand and any upcoming sale or product line.

But Ms. Nguyen recently fielded what she considered an unusual and “very careful” inquiry from Nordstrom. It wanted to gauge her interest in a campaign that would require visiting the company’s seven-story flagship store in New York to highlight Nordstrom’s new safety measures and “encourage people to experience what they built,” she said.

The subsequent Instagram posts from Ms. Nguyen and a handful of other influencers were shared in the last two weeks and offer a glimpse into pandemic-era retailing and the ways stores are trying to bring shoppers back in person. The women, clad in trendy clothing and masks, were photographed in unusual and notably spacious parts of the store like the Nordstrom x Nike sneaker boutique, the so-called personalization studio and a section dubbed the “Beauty Haven.” (There was one on an escalator.) The posts all praised Nordstrom’s safety measures, like mandatory masks, abundant hand sanitizer and adherence to social distancing.

Multiple posts mentioned being able to shop “with peace of mind.” One poster urged her followers to “come explore an escape from the city,” while Ms. Nguyen, who is known on Instagram as @wendyslookbook, wrote that she hadn’t been out in months and that the visit “was so refreshing.”

“In times of uncertainty, people are going to find the people that they trust the most to provide validation for the things that they’ve loved doing in the past,” said Krishna Subramanian, a founder of the influencer marketing firm Captiv8. He oversaw the Nordstrom campaign and said that other companies are also planning influencer campaigns focused on store safety.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, retailers were struggling to get more people into stores. Now foot traffic to malls, including outdoor shopping centers, is down about 30 percent from last year, according to aggregated data from the location analysis company Cuebiq, which tracks about 15 million cellphone users nationwide daily. It was down as much as 57 percent earlier this year, as widespread shutdowns essentially ended in-person shopping in many areas of the country.

By hiring influencers to highlight safety measures, retailers, especially those that sell apparel and other discretionary goods, are trying to restore a sense of normalcy to activities like in-store shopping that were utterly banal six months ago but now may seem dangerous to many customers.

Influencers are offering a reintroduction of sorts with their posts, Mr. Subramanian said.

“Remember that experience you used to have on a weekly basis? Here’s how you do that again,” he said in describing the message of the posts. “We’re not all the way back to normal, but here’s a step to that.”

The Nordstrom promotions appeared to be unique to the New York flagship store, a colossus that opened its doors less than a year ago. The pandemic forced it to close in March, but it opened again on June 24. Mr. Subramanian said he anticipated that influencer marketing around safety would remain local or regional because of the unpredictable nature of the virus and the differing infection rates across the country.

Scott Meden, Nordstrom’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement that working with influencers was an important part of the retailer’s marketing program and that many of its customers look to them for fashion and lifestyle tips.

“The health and safety of our customers and employees is our most important priority, and more than anything, we want customers to feel safe and comfortable shopping with us,” he said. “For this campaign, partnering with influencers is a way to share their perspective on steps we’ve taken in the way we serve customers to help keep everyone healthy.”

Ms. Nguyen, who also owns a CBD shop in New York’s West Village, said her followers appreciated her posts. Many said they hadn’t realized the store was open again and they were glad to see it was still operating, given the number of stores around the country that have been forced to close permanently.

As a retail store owner herself, Ms. Nguyen said working with Nordstrom had left her cautiously optimistic.

“The store openings can work if we are all active participants in how to protect others and ourselves,” she said.

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