After his wife died, Ted DiNunzio needed something to do, so he spent his days at Nordstrom.
The elderly shopper browsed the aisles for silk neckties and chatted up the employees over coffee. He came in so often, the store manager decided to offer the 86-year-old a job. That was 13 years ago.
DiNunzio’s role at Nordstrom is to greet customers and he's still going strong — even though in late December, he’ll turn 100.
He clutches his wooden cane and high-fives young children. He smiles and waves to shoppers. And if a woman passes by, no matter what age she is, he’ll say “Hello young lady, thank you for shopping at Nordstrom.”
“Some of them hug me. Some of them say, ‘It’s nice to see you here. That’s why we come - to see you.’” DiNunzio said. “That’s a big help for me.”
DiNunzio spent his career working in the service industry. He grew up in Providence, Rhode Island where he worked as a waiter for 22 years. He left Rhode Island in December of 1949 because his mother-in-law wanted to move to Southern California. The family settled in Burbank and DiNunzio became a meat cutter. He butchered lamb for customers in Hollywood for 19 years and then retired when his wife fell ill. After she passed away, he started his daily visits to the local Nordstrom store.
These days, DiNunzio says he wakes up at 6 a.m. and goes to church. Then, he drives himself to work on Fridays and Saturdays. At Nordstrom, he dons a black suit with a swanky purple tie. He says all of his work clothes are from Nordstrom - even his underwear.
“I got to keep working. I got to do something,” he said. “I can’t stay home and watch TV. I got to stay active all the time.”
The decline of store greeters
DiNunzio is Nordstrom’s only greeter out of 252 stores nationwide, and he is the chain’s oldest employee. He declined to say how much he gets paid, saying "that's personal."
Back in the 1950s and '60s, it was common to see greeters at department stores, said Britt Beemer, CEO of America’s Research Group. The stores would pride themselves on customer service and even called customers when they had a big sale scheduled. But as retailers looked for ways to cut costs, some of the greeters and long-time staffers went away. Beemer believes that has led to less customer loyalty.
"When somebody at the front door knows you by name or they recognize you, you immediately have this higher comfort level, that this is a store that is going to take care of you," Beemer said. "It's not like the guy down the street where you're number 28 for the day."
Beemer said in his survey of customers, many expressed that they don't feel loyal to stores because they don't know anyone that works there for more than a few months.
"It's hard to build loyalty to a building," Beemer said. "You build loyalty to a person that is working there."
Marcille Hughes, store manager for the Nordstrom store at Santa Anita Mall in Arcadia, said DiNunzio is one-of-a-kind.
"We told him he's not allowed to retire," Hughes said. "I think Ted's warmth, his genuine nature and sincerity and his ability to really connect with people was unquestionable. Having Ted here is very much in line with what we do as a company and that's build relationships with customers."
She said store employees look up to DiNunzio and learn from the way he interacts with customers. Shoppers at the Nordstrom who went there as teenagers come back as young mothers and bring their children to greet DiNunzio, she said.
Andrea Leos, 35, is one of them. She is studying to become a physical trainer, but used to be a Nordstrom employee 15 years ago. When DiNunzio said hello to her as she walked into the store last month, it was the first time a stranger had greeted her that day.
"I learned to always be happy and always have a good attitude regardless of what's going on," Leos said. "Now that he's 99, that's inspiration to me."
The key to longevity
For DiNunzio, greeting people is part of his philosophy of living longer.
“If you start worrying about things, you’re going to get sick and breakdown and everything,” DiNunzio said. “This way - keep smiling and saying hello to everybody - you keep going. That’s your longevity.”
His job at Nordstrom really could be helping DiNunzio live longer, said Tara Gruenewald, an assistant professor in gerontology at USC. She pointed to a study that showed older adults in their 80s and 90s who felt they weren't useful to others were three times as likely to have physical disabilities and four times as likely to die.
DiNunzio is getting older. These days, when he gets tired, he leans on a chair or sits down when during his greeting shift. But he has no plans to retire. He has a job to do.
“I think it’s nice for the store when you greet people, make them feel at home when they come here,” DiNunzio said. “A lot of (people) say 'we come to see you.' I say, ‘Thank you. I appreciate that.’”