by Brian Lipton

Saks Fifth AvenueJust its name, Saks Fifth Avenue, conjures up visions of shopping on one of the world’s most celebrated streets, with customers reveling among the finest and most fashionable goods in the world. While the mission of this global retailer, whose 40 full-line stores stretch across 22 states and Canada, remains firmly committed to luxury, what customers will find, both now and in the coming years, is a new definition of luxury, one that fits the 21st century perfectly.

“Luxury doesn’t just have to do with price,” says Marc Metrick, the retailer’s president. “It has so many meanings. And while people have always thought luxury meant buying something expensive, what it means above all is offering quality.”

As Metrick stresses, in Saks’s case, the idea of quality extends far beyond the brand names that Saks carries, which in the menswear world includes such top-tier makers as Ermengildo Zegna, Kiton, Isaia, Ralph Lauren, and Brunello Cucinelli to name a few. In part, that’s because Metrick knows as well as anyone that Saks is not only the store in the world where today’s man can find those brands.

“The first thing we have to do is tease out the challenges we can effect,” he says. “Speed to market is getting faster and customers are more informed than ever. This makes the ever-present need for news, exclusivity and uniqueness more important. Today’s consumer is shopping more broadly, has more information, and has less patience. You need to overcome someone’s urge to go someplace else to shop.”
SHeadshot - Marc Metrick Lo.jpgCalvin-Klein-MarcMetrick knows that words and good intentions are not enough to accomplish his mission. “Our goal is to become the hero, and by that, I mean connecting to the customer. We want the customer to have a relationship with our stylists and associates, just the way they might with their hairstylist. I want people to feel special when they walk in the door and after they leave. We can do that through data; it’s a lot easier than ever before to know your customer and offer them personalized service.”

Still, it’s the people selling the clothes who are the true key players in this equation. “We are concentrating on giving our customers world-class service every day,” says Tom Ott, the company’s SVP and GMM, Men’s. “We take sales training very seriously. We meet six times a year with associates in different parts of the country and make them experts in products, wardrobing and every facet of a customer’s needs. We want them to understand our customers’ lifestyles and be able to cater to them.”

Speaking of product, Ott is determined that Saks keeps up with the men of 2016 – a far different breed of shopper than the one he encountered when he joined Saks over 20 years ago. “We keep saying around here that men are the new women. They are very well-read, very well-educated men, and you can never underestimate their knowledge,” says Ott, who joined Saks in 1996.

“We really need to be the first to market. We have one buyer who travels extensively to Northern Europe, the UK and Paris, looking for new brands,” he continues. “Every generation has their own idea of what’s fashionable, but what’s also true is that the Saks customer has always wanted fashion and product with a modern edge, whether the look is advanced designer, classic or contemporary, or whether they’re a young consumer of an older one who just thinks young.”

Indeed, Ott makes sure that customers will constantly find new offerings in the stores every season. “We have a great portfolio of brands that we’ve been with forever, but the one constant in retail is change, so there is a constant churn,” he says. “Coming soon we’ll have new players in the athleisure sector; that is definitely becoming a bigger portion of our buy,” he notes. (Saks is also debuting a celebrity-driven brand this summer;  more details are still to come.)

Saks Fifth Avenue HoustonOne other thing that has changed in recent years is the assortment of product a man can find at Saks, from shoes to socks, jewelry and sunglasses. “What we’re seeing is, more and more, that guys are coming in and want to maximize their shopping experience here. Male shoppers are no longer hunter-gatherers just looking for one dress shirt.  “They want to be able to find the right accessories to go with whatever outfit they just bought,” Ott says. “It’s about lifestyle dressing. In the smaller stores, it can be harder to completely merchandise the way we do at the flagship, but we always try to maintain a lifestyle point of view, so there’s both workday and weekend apparel wherever you go.”

In fact, Saks no longer buys categories the way it did some years back. “There’s no specific suit buyer anymore, it’s no longer about clothing versus sportswear,” notes Ott. “We have one person in charge of luxury, and another in charge of designer, and so on, and that person buys all categories.”

Moreover, private label has become Saks’ biggest business. “In some cases, our private label merchandise has a higher opening price point than some of the brands we carry, but it’s all part of a value equation. It’s all made in Italy using top-quality fabrics. We have the finest manufacturers and a wonderful design team in the U.S.,” says Ott. “We’re especially proud of our SFA Classic line, and we recently added Madison Supply, which is a more contemporary, denim-friendly collection. It’s really exciting to be so relevant.”

Product, of course, is only part of the story. One of the biggest changes customers are seeing in Saks’ world are the actual stores. The Fifth Avenue flagship is undergoing a $250 million, three-year renovation which will result in updated common areas and fitting rooms, a new Fifth Avenue Club, where customers and associates can meet to do consultations and custom fittings (one of Saks’ strongest-growing sectors), and the addition of a branch of the famed Parisian restaurant L’Avenue.

Across the country, some customers are already seeing big changes in their shopping environments. “We recently opened our new Houston store just doors away from our old one, and it really makes you feel at home,” says Metrick. “Our older store is full of marble and dark wood and gorgeous chandeliers, all the things that screamed luxury in 1997. Our old store was cavernous. This new store is truly representative of the new luxury. It is not ornate. It’s calming and welcoming and bright. And it’s open. You know how when you used to go to a fine restaurant 20 years, and it was forbidden to see the kitchen. Today, it’s all about the open kitchen. And at the new Saks, it’s also about the openness. There are great sightlines around the whole store.”
Tom Ott Saks Fifth AvenueCalvin-Klein-Quote-3There are also new stores planned for downtown New York, Hawaii, Greenwich, Connecticut, and New Jersey’s American Dream Mall, an expansion of Saks existing store at Miami’s Brickell Center Store, among other retail developments. It’s all thanks in part to Saks being part of the giant Hudson’s Bay Company family since 2013. “Saks Fifth Avenue’s entrepreneurial spirit has been reignited since we’ve become a member of HBC,” says Metrick (who worked as HBC’s EVP Chief Marketing Officer and then EVP and Chief Administrative Officer before taking the reins at Saks in 2015). “These expansion plans simply wouldn’t have been possible without the strong capital structure, foundation, and vision of HBC.”

Being part of HBC, however, also means the Saks customer can sometimes be found at the conglomerate’s off-price stores, notably Saks OFF 5th (which recently opened its first NYC store just a few blocks from the flagship on East 57th Street). Is he worried? Not in the slightest.

“If off-price is causing us to up our game and forcing designers and brands to elevate their core offerings, it’s all good. You can’t survive without newness or evolution,” says Metrick. “Also, I think off-price introduces some of the best brands to the aspirational consumer, who will grow into the mainstream Saks consumer. And to be honest, I’d rather see product to go to one of our 100 OFF 5th locations than having it left over and sold cheaply at our full-line stores.”

The bottom line is that the new Saks will always come out on top, says Metrick. “I want people to come to Saks because it has great brands, great service, and an environment in which they are comfortable. Ultimately, my goal is to make Saks what the consumer wants. What should be great about Saks Fifth Avenue is that it’s just Saks Fifth Avenue.”