Starting at Nordstrom as a stockperson when he was 15, Chris Wanlass began his journey at Nordstrom as a summer job on his path to college and eventually medical school…but life had other plans. Chris’s summer job turned into a successful career and a longstanding tenure with the company.
Today Chris is the VP of Nordstrom's New York Flagship and helping to pave the brand’s way in the Big Apple. Throughout his 30-year career at Nordstrom, Wanlass has been responsible for numerous regional store openings in cities including Vancouver, Atlanta and New York; and has made great strides for the corporation to represent diversity, belonging, and inclusion.
Though retail is not an industry known for talent retention, Chris and his Nordstrom colleagues are an exception to the rule. What keeps them around? Chris attributes it to Nordstrom’s strong culture, tight-knit team, their shared commitment to uplifting community-based brands, and the entrepreneurial, take-action spirit that permeates throughout the enterprise as a whole.
Chris is responsible for many initiatives, projects and activations; however, his main responsibility is to his people. As the VP and General Manager, Chris sits at the foundation of Nordstrom’s “inverted pyramid,” answering to managers, associates and sales representatives all working harmoniously to give customers the best experience possible.
We sat down with Chris to learn more about his role in the company and current Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIB) initiatives but also to dive deeper into what makes Nordstrom employees so passionate and devoted.
Tell us about your journey to get to where you are today.
Growing up in a small Midwest town, I wanted difference and diversity in my life. I had the opportunity to move to Atlanta in 1997 and help open our first store in the southeast. I took the leap and moved there. That’s what started the trajectory for me. Growing up in a small town in Utah I knew I wanted more diversity and change in my life, but I didn’t know that Nordstrom would be the catalyst I needed.
Since joining the company I've had 17 different roles, and I've moved nine different times. I even met my partner in Atlanta after my job at Nordstrom landed me there, and we now have two kids. I realized my favorite part about my job was the people. I loved visiting stores and leading people, so I shifted to the store side of the business. I helped open our first flagship store in Vancouver, which eventually led me here. I traveled all over the world looking at the best department stores throughout Asia, Europe and the Middle East. We wanted to bring a world class experience. New York didn't need another department store, it needed a Nordstrom.
After a long history as an established brand, Nordstrom opened its New York City Flagship in 2019. Can you tell us about this journey?
We broke the ground ten years ago. New York City is the area where we have the least recognition. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but definitely have a need and desire to amplify our voice. It’s beneficial for us everywhere but especially here in New York.
If you had to describe how the NYC Flagship feels, what would you say?
It’s inclusive and exciting. There’s some great energy. It’s extremely fresh and friendly. Our service is also super engaging. Nordstrom leans into that in a big way. People bring so much energy, and I can't wait to get back to the time and space where we can capitalize on that again once the pandemic goes away.
Can you talk about what DIB means specifically for Nordstrom as an organization?
We care about our people. The most important person is the customer, but the next most important person is our salesperson. They’re really more important than I am. There’s a huge culture around recognition - even daily recognition. It’s truly part of our DNA, and it’s not something you have to force. I think we work in such an incredible area where it’s not hard to find great, diverse talent. New York City is definitely a conduit to that. I think the biggest opportunity for me is just ensuring we have representation among our leadership. I'm the executive sponsor for the LGBTQ Resource Group. One of the first things I did was put pronouns on all our nametags, which sounds pretty simple but made a big difference for our employees and our customers.
Your team is doing a lot of work to increase diversity, inclusion, and belonging across the board. Can you tell us what you have in store for Black History Month, Women’s History Month and Pride Month?
There’s both a commercial and consumer facing aspect, but I’m proud of the inclusive work Nordstrom does 12 months a year. I think we’re being very strategic about growing our business in the black founded space through our commitment to the 15% pledge to growing black-founded brands and our involvement in the LGBTQ community. This year our Black History Month activation is a partnership with Black Owned Brooklyn, a marketplace with eight local vendors. It’s not just tokenism during February, March or during June.
Commercially, we’re starting something in the middle of the month to lift up a lot of small, community-based brands. Internally, we seized issues of civil unrest and brought the conversation in-house with our corporate employee resource groups. We’ve started an open forum with shop talks. It’s like going to church or a therapy session. It’s becoming a model for us, and we’re using it in various ways. I’m equally proud of what we’re doing for our customers and our internal staff. We always say you can't make it a good place to shop if you can't make it a good place to work.
How have customers interacted with your DIB initiatives and how do you think it’s impacted their shopping experience?
We get lots of positive feedback about the openness that we’ve created because luxury can be super intimidating and exclusive. We’ve tried to make it inclusive. We’ve always prided ourselves on our product mix – the fact that you can buy a Valentino gown and a pair of Vans. But at the core, inclusivity comes from kindness and just welcoming everybody. The energy and store feel different and look different. We’ve got people being themselves and you can truly sense that. It feels fresh. We’re on the path to figuring out our identity but with a relevant, New York City twist.
What does the work you do to amplify underrepresented voices mean to you, and what do you think it means to younger audiences?
It means a lot to me. It feels like my responsibility. Just looking at Black History Month, I think our work was the best in class. The platform we gave to founders and creatives was incredible. It was more than just a moment in time or a sign that goes up for the month of February. It didn't feel performative. I’m thrilled about the plans we have to launch this year on the 14th for Black History Month. We need to show up appropriately for everyone and use our platform to do good. Our NYC Instagram page is really standout. When you look at the diversity of the team it feels fresh, and it feels modern. I think that really represents who we are and speaks to those younger audiences. I think they can really see themselves reflected in our employees, our brands and stores.
What's in store for the future?
We’re just getting started in New York. We learned and identified some things we can do better, and need to figure out what our play is here and where we fit in with the customer. We’re really just in our infancy. We don't have decades of baseline to work from like a lot of our competitors, but we know we want to focus on curated experiences and hospitality. I’m excited to get back to these basics and not lose sight of what our initiative was when we got here.