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Break ranks and conquer

Nordstrom is a name that is hardly known in Britain, but in the United States it is a legend, because of its reputation for amazing service.

There is a possibly apocryphal story of a person who took a set of tyres back to the company and was reimbursed - even though Nordstrom has never sold tyres.

More realistically, there are hundreds of other tales of how customers are served by people who help them to try on things, accompany them from one department to another, look after any alterations that need to be made, wrap things up, and deal with any returns. This clearly runs counter to current management thinking, if only because it involves employing more, not fewer, people. But according to a recently published book by Jean-Marie Dru, called Disruption, the company has increased sales sevenfold in the past 15 years.

Indeed, Nordstrom is cited as an example of how it pays to ignore conventions because that can can create a competitive edge. Maybe it is because we are just emerging from a period in which management appeared to be all about cutting costs, but a lot of the other cases cited by Mr Dru in Disruption (John Wiley & Sons, pounds 19.99) involve service.

There is, for example, Virgin, a brand that Richard Branson is stretching to cover almost anything from music sales and bridal wear to financial services and air travel largely on the basis of improved service. There is also The Gap, which, Mr Dru argues, has "got consumers to buy the idea that unobtrusive clothing actually enhances a person's own unique look".

He might have added that The Gap has broken free of the clothing retailer's traditional reliance on seasonal collections, which has the effect of encouraging shoppers to visit the shops more regularly. This is because customers never know what might be on sale there.

Mr Dru is a seasoned advertising executive - he is chairman of the BDDP Group in Paris and previously worked at Saatchi & Saatchi and Young & Rubicam - and much of the book is devoted to how advertising campaigns often succeed by breaking the mould. That may be true, although it is also fair to say that trends come and go in that world as much as in any other.

But it is quite another thing to implant this type of creative thinking into industries other than those involved in hi-tech areas, where companies such as 3M live or die by innovation.

Nevertheless, at a time when everybody is talking about the need to be able to transform oneself and to live with such dramatic change, many business people will find it useful to have set out for them a few tips on how they can take on a more creative approach.

The section that describes how creativity can be planned (rather than be purely a result of inspiration) is likely to prove especially helpful.