By  on August 18, 2005

ATLANTA — Amid speculation that Saks Fifth Avenue might be on the block, president and chief operating officer Andrew Jennings on Wednesday unveiled a $25 million renovation plan for the store here, a prototype that showcases the retailer's efforts to compete with Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.

"We're making substantial investments," Jennings told reporters during an in-store breakfast at the Phipps Plaza shopping center. "This [Atlanta] store opened 37 years ago, and we'd like to be around for another 100 years."

The presentation came after retail and financial sources said last week that next Monday was a new deadline for bids, either for the northern department store group or all of Saks Inc., including Saks Fifth Avenue. Officially, the northern department store group, which includes Carson Pirie Scott, Bergner's and The Boston Store, and the Club Libby Lu specialty chain, is for sale.

Bon-Ton Stores Inc. and Cerberus Capital Management were expected to present a joint bid for SFA and the northern department store group, and other private-equity firms are said to be interested, including Bain Capital Partners, Thomas H. Lee Partners and Apollo Management, or combinations of groups.

Jennings declined to comment on any sale or on the investigations of Saks' chargeback and accounting procedures that have been undertaken by the Securities and Exchange Commission and federal prosecutors in Manhattan.

Instead, he focused on how Saks can take its case to consumers through service initiatives, and efforts to capitalize on hot areas: designer, contemporary, shoes and cosmetics.

The chain will "pursue a younger contemporary customer, but never abandon its core customer," Jennings said.

He stressed Saks' commitment to fashion by continuing to add exclusive product. Recent additions include Marni, Akris and Valentino, and the cosmetics lines Armani and Shu Uemura, housed in in-store shops. Saks also has retooled its private label, Real Clothes, from a collection business to a focus on key items.

The 164,050-square-foot Atlanta store has been revamped for a much bigger contemporary area, with concrete floors, red accents and a huge chandelier and a water bar. Jennings said shoes, Saks' single biggest growth area, have doubled in square footage and product. Cosmetics departments have been reinvented in an interactive, open-sell format, with sinks and tools for makeup application. In accessories, product is often suspended or displayed at eye-level, rather than hidden in cases.The Atlanta store, one of the top five performers for the chain, will be renovated first and followed this year by the units in San Antonio and Boca Raton, Fla.

Jennings said building customer relationships through better service is as important as product. About 6,000 employees have been retrained, along with all new hires, to cross sell in all departments. Other service features include enhanced personal shopping, plush sitting areas and fitting rooms, and a new concierge desk that can arrange restaurant or theater tickets. A restaurant is being tested in the Manhattan flagship on Fifth Avenue.

"For consumers, time is the most important currency, even more important than money," Jennings said. "We have to build relationships with customers, make them become friends, and then ambassadors for the store."

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