All of those department stores seem similar, but only until you walk in and see the differences. The main difference is the clientele each one of them serves.
Nordstrom has never been a true department store. They are a specialty retailer and have been since 1960s when a local Seattle shoe store bought Best Apparel to become Nordstrom. The store has always had exclusive clientele in the Northwest and did not compete directly with Macy's or department stores that were later purchased by Macy's. Nordstrom and Macy's stayed out of each other's way by staying separated geographically – Macy's in California and Nordstrom in Northwest.
Macy's has always been a true department store. You were able to furnish your entire house with everything you need from the one-stop kind of store. You could by furniture, window treatments, bathroom essentials, sewing machines, fabric, toys, and visit shoe repair and hair salon on the way out. You could easily spend all day in Macy's. Some of the departments were minimized since then.
One of Macy's attraction points is the fact that Macy's are available in almost every mall, so you will always find one close to your home. You will find a great variety of products, but will have to deal with less space and smaller walkways.
Nordstrom caters to an idealized customer and thus created departments based on that notion. The store focuses on customer care and customer experience. No one designer is represented in any department, but rather a sophisticated mix that caters to the customer base. The store mix is fluid and is constantly changing.
Nordstrom has the best customer service because staff works for commissions. Their return policy is the best – you can bring unused items with receipt any time. You can price match there and sign up for loyalty card to collect points for hopping. The number of stores is a lot smaller than Macy's, so they have higher sales per square foot than other retailers.
Nordstrom directly competes with other specialty retailers, like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales. All of those retailers are known to be high-end stores with plenty of top designer labels.
This store is the epitome of a real department store. Penney sold really everything, starting with household appliances and ending with clothing, fabric, sewing machines, and complete suits. As JC Penney first started, its main competitor was Sears Roebuck and company. Penney had to create a decent size mail-order business to stay relevant in small towns, where most shopping was done by ordering from catalogs. Sears also had this model. More recently, JC Penney is experiencing a sharp decline and is racing to the bottom, kind of like Sears did before it.
Some people claim that JC Penney has the best sales and the best value. Others will say the same thing about Kohl's.
This department store started as a grocery store and went on form there. On the West coast its main competitor is Fred Meyer stores that also believe in one stop-shop kind of business model. They both stay open late in the evenings to accommodate working families that are their main customers. Kohl's has moved passed grocery store roots long ago and is now a low-end fashion retailer. You now have checkouts in the front and countless rows of clothing all the way to the back.
The store aims to serve working families with one-stop shopping for the smooth household run from day to day. Target is a stylish and inexpensive place to shop for clothing items, jewelry, baby gear, sporting goods, books, movies, kitchen and bath decorations and essentials, storage and cleaning supplies. Target cares about design and started opening smaller stores in urban locations to expand their reach. Some of their main goals are to stay relevant and to beat Costco, Walmart, and survive Amazon.
Target carries more household items than other department stores. For example, you will find cat food at Target and nowhere else. Target focuses on middle and upper middle class customers and provides great value. The store is clean and offers pleasant shopping experience from ambience to smooth carts. Target is easily beating Walmart when it comes to food item quality and check-out speed.