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Nordstrom bids farewell to in-store piano players

April 15, 2011 |  6:00 am


Most people pay scant attention to the lilting elevator music that wafts through most department stores. Intended to be soothing, unobtrusive and barely there, the music functions more or less as aural wallpaper. One of the big exceptions has been Nordstrom, the high-end department store that has traditionally employed piano players to perform live for shoppers — a modest touch of class in a world of soulless muzak.

But Nordstrom has been gradually cutting back on its in-store pianists in recent years. The Nordstrom store at Brea recently laid off many if not all of its piano players — an in-store manager declined to comment — while the store at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa also has terminated a number of people from its musical team.  Some newer Nordstrom stores lack pianos altogether. Last year, the Orange County Register reported that the new Nordstrom at Fashion Island in Newport Beach opened without a piano.

Ron Kobayashi, who was a pianist at the Nordstrom at South Coast Plaza and Brea, said in an email that he was laid off from both locations after more than 20 years of service. He said that he was called into a meeting this week and was given the boot with no notice.

"The piano is one of the things that sets Norstrom apart. To get rid of that branding is baffling," he said by phone.

Stephan Haager, a pianist at the Brea store for nearly 20 years, said that all of the pianists at his location were laid off as part of a staff reduction. "It's such a small price that they pay," he said. "They're not thinking about their brand name."

Nordstrom has traditionally hired its pianists part time, with many performing one or two days a week. The repertoire is varied, but pianists tend to perform a mix of jazz, Broadway tunes and pop.

Joaquin Nunez, a manager at the Nordstrom at South Coast Plaza, said that the reduction in piano players at his location was a practical matter. He said that the company operates in a decentralized way and that it is up to individual stores to decide whether to employ pianists.

The Nordstrom at South Coast Plaza continues to employ pianists, but they will appear mainly for special occasions.

A spokesman for Nordstrom said in a statement that the company has "learned that most customers like the energy and environment that a more contemporary, recorded music offering helps create."

The spokesman also said the company is "not getting rid of pianos in our stores completely, but the fact is that most of our stores across the country don't feature a piano... We’re really sorry if some of these changes may disappoint some of our customers."


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— David Ng

Photo (top): A Nordstrom store in the Los Angeles area. Credit: Associated Press.

Photo credit (bottom): Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times.

Comments () | Archives (67)

Sounds so much like an "accounting" move. No offense to accountants, but it sounds so similar to a huge corporation that decides to get rid of the free coffee for its employees after having it for 20+ years, while increasing the Lear Jet fleet budget for it top executives.

I play and appreciate piano music and personally, like one other commentor stated: "If I want to go to Target, I'll go to Target." Nordstrom making themselves all that less personal and less differentiated from their competition with this decision. I thought they wanted to be "set apart" from and well "above" the norm. Disappointing.

I was one of the pianists at Nordy's ( They insisted we call the store Nordstom) when the Santa Barbara store opened. I asked whether I could play original music and they discouraged it because they wanted music that was recognizable. After a few days playing a few of my pieces, customers would request them. The fact that new music could be heard there was refreshing to the customers and several people came up to me at the piano and asked if i was really playing? I would then skip a few notes to let them see I was! We were a very small but tight-knit group of pianists who separately published our music on indy labels but the fact that we did that, was testament to the quality of the music that Nordstrom was proud to have us play. I even got to sell my CD's in the local soCal stores and Nordstrom chipped in the tax to my account. RIP the best part of the Nordstrom experience. Wouldn't have happened if Mr. John were still alive.

This is what has set Nordstroms apart from the rest. It is a nice tasteful touch.....shame on upper management.

This is such a travesty. I called the Corporate Office to voice my objections to Nordstorms dropping the Piano players. The woman I spoke with was very pleasant and told me it was up to the individual store managers to keep or get rid of them. She said she would forward my opinion up in Corporate and have someone get back to me. That was yesterday and she was surprised that they had already received complaints from others as well. I then called the Brea store and talked with the manager, voicing my complaint. She said the salespersons are responsible for customer loyalty and they didn't foresee any objections. Furthermore it is not Muzak they plan to play, rather the CD's they sell in-store.
Bravo to you at the Times for not letting them slip away unnoticed! Id love to see this Poll or survey or whatever they say they have that customers don't care about the Live music.

This was a penny-wise and pound foolish action... Nordstrom's could't of had a more cost-effective form of branding... Now they are just another department store.

As someone who regularly uses printable coupons or "Printapons" I think that the show Extreme couponing was not a true reading of how the regular shopper uses coupons. It appears to have been frightening to someone who does not use coupons at all

What a pity!!The best thing about music is to listen to the magic and power of the human hand run its fingers in whisper tone softness. I recall the Chicago store where I could lounge and listen to the pianist play the blues dedicated to late jazz master James Moody, plus a dazzling solo improvisation to old favourites like Moon River and La Mer.

Channel music can never ever belong to the genre of performing masterfully, of course. But a visual best summarized is that of the vital importance of the pianist in person.In an age of recession,pianists need to be celebrated: And the sight of those embered hands playing in passion,of the darkened man seated beside the piano, and delighting at his choice of complex chords and how the keys was accenting them.Time has its own destiny.

I'm in sync with virtually all the reactions listed (below/above). However, one key point that's gone unmentioned is their salary! And I'm surprised that the Times writer didn't comment on this; were they paid an hourly rate or a flat fee for their time? If any of the pianists were members of a musicians union, Nordstom was probably held to a contract minimum. Then there's the flip-side: minimum wage!

Considering the number of Nordstom employees that I see with their backs turned and on their cell phones (the Glendale store is notorious and one I avoid altogether), I think customers would be better served with staff grateful to have a job. The bonus of an in-store pianist is one of those nice touches that set Nordstom apart from all other department stores, providing a soulful lift to our spirits during what is most certainly a trying time.

What a crock! Nordstrom sales are up 5.1% last month and increased its revenue 10%. This is just greed from the money grubbers at the top. I never ever heard anyone say, the piano is nice, but I prefer muzak.

Greedy morons with no taste. Its bad enough that no one tips anymore, now they eliminate the best part of theyre stores. I will no longer buy anything fom u nordstrom

For one who works in a mall with this store, this is great news. Finally an oasis to take breaks and lunch in without the fear of mall rent a cops harassing us.

This is very sad news. Click on http://signalhillvoices.blogspot.com/ to read my blog post on the issue. Also search on Twitter "Nordstrom Music" to read more buzz.

It really saddens me to see Nordstrom doing away with something so special. I always has added such an elegant and special touch to shopping there.

I'm a professional pianist in NYC .How demoralizing...to watch something unique and special such as musical talent devolve into something extraneous and expendable.

I enjoyed performing for Nordstrom from 1991 to 1997 - in two locations! The Midwest welcomed Nordstrom to Oak Brook, a sensational hit with customers! Later - I transferred to the Woodfield/Schaumburg location - and , again, piano was ALWAYS the subject of endless customer compliments/letters. The Steinway offered an element of class/good taste and was always touted as soothing music - so pleasant and conducive to shopping. It was one of the founding Grandfathers who loved piano and insisted it be the focal point of Nordstrom. Times change. End of an era -- for Nordstrom. But, we at the beautiful VON MAUR ... are playing, regularly!! Come and enjoy some great shopping and beautiful PIANO MUSIC!! ;-) Our newest Midwest store will open in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Stay tuned!!!

Very sad and short sighted. This is a classic example of "Bean Counters" driving the ship. In the budget of an entire department store, the pianist budget has to be just dust. If not, then Nordstrom is in trouble; lost culture, lost clients, lost revenue.

It nice while it lasted -

But if they were really serious, they would have kept the pianos in tune.

Incredibly disappointing. At times such as these where live music can uplift the soul and give that feel good essence in ones existence, which in turn can reflect in sales- bad move. You are no different than other stores at this point.

Now if we can just get rid of the obscenely high prices Nordstrom's charges its customers, that would be something to write about!

This is sad news! One reason I walk through Nordstrom even if I'm going to another store is to be soothed or jazzed up by the piano music. I don't pay any attention to background recordings.

Speaking as a professional violinist, this is saddening. I see no reason why Nordstrom has foregone musicians, especially since they can be had for a fraction of what a Versace scarf would cost.
They just lost a unique touch of class which every generation should be able to experience.

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