By the time you see highlighter-yellow shopping bags winking at you as you walk down Pine, you’re behind schedule: The Nordstrom Anniversary Sale begins long before merchandise hits the racks. Come summer devotees crunch numbers, make game plans, and even book trips around when the Seattle-based department store puts its brand-new fashions on a preseason discount. Especially here, where the flagship store boasts more square footage than any other Nordstrom location—and where the event has some serious local history.
Nordstrom got its start in Seattle in 1901 as Wallin and Nordstrom, a shoe store at Fourth and Pike. That shop’s exact opening date is lost to the annals of time, typical for those early days. But Nordstrom’s later adoption of the anniversary sale—which started out celebrating someone else’s anniversary entirely—helps explain how a little shoe shop that didn’t sell a single pair before noon its opening day eventually became one of the country’s top department stores.
Pre-television, the average Seattleite, separated from the nation’s fashion capitals by miles of land and culture, had little means of seeing the latest styles. When Boston-born Dorothy Cabot Best opened Best’s Apparel on Third Avenue in June 1925 and stocked it with finds from buying trips to the East Coast, she quickly cemented her role as a tastemaker: One 1933 Seattle Daily Times article called Best’s finds “as new as tomorrow, as fresh as a spring morning, for they all came direct from New York City.”
When Dorothy died in August 1958, Best’s Apparel closed for a day in her memory—but also perhaps because her husband and cofounder Ivan was lost without her discerning eye. He spent the ensuing years convincing a neighboring shoe store to absorb his womenswear company. In 1963, Nordstrom, Inc. acquired Best’s Apparel. “Had they not made that leap by purchasing Best’s,” says MOHAI fashion curator and historian Clara Berg, “they would not be where they are.”
They also probably wouldn’t have the anniversary sale—at least not in its current form. It wasn’t uncommon for local retailers to celebrate their anniversaries with discounts in the first half of the 1900s, though most were a way to clear the floor for the coming season. But in 1955 Best had gone all out for the store’s 30th anniversary—traveling the world for new fashions and selling them for prices an ad warned she was “unlikely to duplicate.” After the Nordstrom family purchased Best’s, they continued its tradition of annual discounts and institutionalized those preseason deals that still draw fans to the event today.
Retailers don’t generally introduce new merchandise to the floor at a cent lower than full price. “That truly is unheard of,” says Whitney Powell, a Seattleite who writes guides to making the most of each year’s deals on her blog, Whit Wanders. The preseason approach is an ingenious way to make a massive bargain event feel high-end. It’s also a way for merchandisers to test-drive future fashions: If a jacket does well, stock up for fall; if it flops, steer away. And it works. The anniversary sale boosts Nordstrom’s numbers to near-holiday levels during the notoriously slow days of summer.
Pre-online shopping—think the ’80s and ’90s—journalists would flock to Nordstrom just to report on the scene those markdowns created downtown. Now, there are more influencers extolling the virtues of Vince dresses than there are shoppers lined up at 7am for the cutest catsuit. Stores still see a rise in customers when savings roll around each July, but plenty peruse online—including cardmembers, who get early access. Is the magic lost without the chaos and camaraderie of a crowd?
Seattle store manager Adrienne Hixon remembers braving the Spokane sale with her mom and sister even before she started working at Nordstrom 28 years ago. “Everyone knew the date it was going to start, and you didn’t plan anything on that day.” Maybe it’s the longtime yellow branding. Maybe it’s Seattle pride. Maybe it’s the timeless power of a good deal. “But just the pure excitement of the anniversary sale, for me,” Hixon says, “still holds true.”