Best Buyers 2012: Peter Harris, Saks Fifth Avenue

by Harry Sheff

Theatrical manager: Veteran Saks buyer Peter Harris knows how to move the needle.

Peter Harris, senior buyer for dress and personal furnishings and outerwear at Saks Fifth Avenue, came to retail from his first job out of college, in advertising. Retail, he says, gave him the full spectrum of marketing, along with clear feedback.

“My first retail job was at Macy’s East,” Harris recalls. “Ed Finkelstein was running the company and really believed in retail as theater. I got into the training program and worked there for about six years, mostly in women’s. As soon as I started to work in retail, I loved it, and that never changed.”

After 21 years at Saks, his favorite part of the job remains special projects: “About a year ago, Tom Ott challenged our office to do a Father’s Day event for neckwear,” says Harris. “When I started here, the neckwear department had a lot of energy: it was full of color. People used ties to express themselves more then; we were trying to regain some of that energy and vitality.”

For the two weeks before Father’s Day, the Saks flagship in Manhattan (and other select doors) featured lavish displays and weekend events, promoted in ads and social media, along with traffic-stopping store windows. “We featured a display on Fifth Avenue with 90 shirt and tie looks in each window!” Harris says proudly.

“We had a charity tie-in and the New York store had involvement from top management all the way down to the associates. We invited an artist come from Italy to demonstrate how a tie is designed; David Hart made ties in the front of the department; we had numerous vendors there for both Saturdays. It was a big boost to neckwear business but most importantly, it helped elevate all of menswear.”

According to Harris, dress shirts have been slimming down for years. “Over the six years that I’ve been buying furnishings here, it moved from full to tapered and tailored, and now it’s going the next step to slim.” Patterns are selling, particularly smaller checks. Solid ties do well, paired with patterned shirts. However, “our biggest growth in neckwear is pocket squares, and to a lesser extent, bow ties.”

Socks are a standout, particularly patterned and peds, which “We aggressively went after for spring and it was explosive. Patterned socks allow the customer to inject personality into a look.”

In outerwear, the hot trend is mixed media: “Wools with leather trim or cashmere blends with suede,” Harris says. “It takes elements of dress and mixes it with casual, which infuses added value.”

The target customer for Saks seems to be evolving, from “primarily international classic and modern” to a more contemporary guy. In Harris’s bailiwick, that means a more contemporary approach to dress furnishings.

“We identified contemporary as an opportunity almost two years ago and focused on certain labels that we felt resonated with our customer. Sometimes they had furnishings already, and we presented them in a different space, not in our neckwear department. Sometimes contemporary labels didn’t offer furnishings, so we encouraged the vendors to get into it. It’s been pretty successful, mostly with shirts; ties are a much smaller part of the business but we keep trying to make it work.”

Harris lives on the Jersey Shore with his wife (their 18-year-old daughter is in college), and he seems to relish his commute. “It’s two hours on the train and then a half hour walk up from Penn Station. I’ve met only two people in 11 years who weren’t shocked to hear that!”

As a senior Saks buyer, Harris enjoys the collaboration his work entails. “I’m creative, but I realize I’m not an artist so I try to be collaborative. A good buy is not based on what one person thinks. It’s getting opinions from whoever’s in the room, kicking it around, having some creative friction and reaching a conclusion. That’s what creates great product and presentation.”