Thursday, July 17, 2003

Saks' new look a return to retailer's roots

City pitched in $6.6 million for renovations

By Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Saks general manager Ina Levinson looks over the beverages at the wet bar in the Men's Living Room in the newly remodeled store at Fifth and Race streets downtown.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
Saks Fifth Avenue has begun taking the wraps off the multimillion-dollar makeover of its downtown store, revealing glimpses of the golden age of retailing when tony department stores attracted customers with ambience and attentive service.

Complimentary cocktails are among the amenities offered in the plush new "Men's Living Room" - the lounge and fitting area in the Armani suit department on the main floor where Saks' customers can order liquor or beer from a wet bar, sit back and watch a Reds game on TV or read racked newspapers while they wait to be fitted.

Next door in the fine jewelry department, which has been expanded to almost three times its original size, the new estate jewelry display glitters with an air of exclusivity that's enhanced by the adjacent private viewing room.

"Saks has a pretty big store in Pittsburgh, where I'm from, but this is even nicer," said Kristopher Malone, 25, who was looking at men's watches in the fine jewelry department.

"I've always shopped at Saks because of the quality of their merchandise, but atmosphere is a big part of it, too."

The new features represent the first phase of the renovations at Saks, which were financed with $6.6 million in public money from the city of Cincinnati and are to be completed in October.

"Our goal is to provide our customers with the most inviting, luxurious shopping experience possible," said Ina Levinson, Saks' general manager.

In addition to new features, Saks hopes to enhance its customers' shopping experience with a variety of new services, including valet parking and the newly installed "Service First" desk on the main level.

Desk attendants can arrange appointments with personal shoppers, have packages delivered to the hotel rooms of out-of-town customers and even book theater reservations, among other things.

Saks has joined department stores across the country, including Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores, in reinventing itself with remodeling and new amenities in hopes of reversing the trend of declining patronage and stagnant sales.

Some department stores have focused on cutting costs, selling more private-label brands and operating more efficiently to compete with discounters such as J.C. Penney, Kohl's and Wal-Mart.

The discounters have gained from tough economic times that have resulted in consumer migration from pricey department stores.

But Saks, in keeping with its heritage as an exclusive destination for fashion-minded shoppers, has spared no expense with its remodeling.

In addition to new features and services, Saks also plans to expand its already daunting selection of pricey designer labels.

By early fall, Saks will unveil a new Louis Vuitton handbag department, which will include a full line of ladies shoes.

The new department will be a first for Saks, and the downtown Cincinnati store will be the only location in Ohio to have one, Levinson said.

Also coming in the fall will be a Chanel handbag and accessory boutique - another first for the downtown store, she said.

Kurt Barnard, chief economist and president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report, a New Jersey-based consulting company, said Saks' redesign is definitely not for the masses.

"Every department store is seeking its niche, something it calls its own and sets it apart from the rest of the competition," Barnard said. "Saks has done that by making shopping an activity of leisure and comfort, and offering merchandise that its target customer treasures."

Barnard said the department store industry's woes can be traced back to the decade-old trend of consolidation that has transformed once unique chains into nearly identical versions of one another, offering similar merchandise and services.

In the quest to boost profits, many department stores cut sales staff, allowed stores to fall into disrepair and rolled out lower-cost apparel and other goods.

Even Saks, which has continued to cater to the upper-echelon consumer, has lost some of its cachet over the years, Barnard said, and only time will tell if its return to better assortments, presentation and better-than-average service will restore Saks to its original luster.


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