By  on September 2, 2014

NEW YORK — The $250 million renovation of Saks Fifth Avenue’s New York flagship is still a few years away, but, in the meantime, Marigay McKee is executing other initiatives to move the retailer in a more fashion-forward and elevated direction.

“We want to live the legacy of Saks Fifth Avenue — to celebrate its heritage but refresh the iconic brand,” said McKee, who is president of Saks. “It was such an iconic brand with so much heritage and history. We’re going back to the heritage with a deep nod to modernism. In bringing this mantra to life, we’re dramatically elevating all the touch points, from product selection to customer service to store environment. When you enter our stores, you see tangible changes…our fashion offerings are more visible and up-front, with more dramatic visual statements. We’ve highlighted service with our new uniformed doormen welcoming customers into our flagship. My first goal was to work on the look and feel of the brand, the image, the values and the experiences.”

For example, something as simple as lighting or a lack thereof can make a big difference. “On the main floor [of the flagship], a woman couldn’t see herself to put on makeup,” McKee said. “Sales associates were taking women to the front doors. We had all of the first floor repainted and put uplighting on all the columns. The atmosphere changed in that environment. The light level tripled. There’s a totally different buzz.” McKee called such obvious fixes “the low-hanging fruit.”

Of course, the changes are only minor, so far. The retailer reportedly plans to create a bigger and more powerful cosmetics presentation at the Fifth Avenue flagship when it undertakes a major renovation “in a couple of years,” McKee said. In many ways, Saks is trying to catch up to the competition — the main floors of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s have undergone extensive renewal in recent years — while the company’s sales per square foot and overall financial performance lag far behind that of competitors such as Neiman Marcus. When Saks’ parent Hudson’s Bay Co. reported first-quarter results in June, it said Saks Fifth Avenue’s same-store sales rose 2.6 percent.

For now, packaging was another relatively easy upgrade. “The logo was only on the sides of the old bag, and the paper stock wasn’t that great,” said Mark Briggs, chief marketing officer. “Before, you didn’t know where the bag was from.” New black shopping bags have white squares with the SFA logo in the center and a wide black-and-white bow on the front. Referring to the cost of producing the new bag, McKee said, “We thought long and hard about it. We felt we couldn’t live without the black-and-white grosgrain ribbon.”

McKee, a big fan of the elegance of black and white, keeps in her office a jar with black and white M&Ms. Black-and-white photos of the Saks flagship from the Fifties line the office walls. Archival shots of Grace Kelly trying on a gown in one of Saks’ personal shopping suites and Jacqueline Kennedy applying lipstick on the main floor were sources of inspiration. “You can’t buy that sort of heritage,” McKee said. “We should not be doing anything to re-create the brand. We should bring it back to the forefront of fashion.” Beyond the physical space and marketing, McKee is putting her stamp on the merchandise assortment. “There was a lot of opportunity to put in more fashion-forward brands and add to the evening matrix,” she said. “We had a big demand for Balmain and Givenchy. We embraced Agent Provocateur with a new shop that has exceeded our expectations. Agent Provocateur and Christian Louboutin Beaute drive our customers into a frenzy. These are the kinds of experiential lifestyle brands our customers anticipate and we will continue to offer.”

Traveling around the country to SFA branch stores, McKee said, “The callout was, ‘We want more fashion. We want more glamour. Just because we’re here in Ohio, please don’t forget us.’ ”

Saks is selling new brands such as Faith Connexion, Hannah Coffin’s evening wear and Needle & Thread line as well as Yves Salomon, Army by Yves Salomon, Ethan K and Marco de Vincenzo.

“We have a lot of new brands — 80 new vendors — and will get a lot more in 2015,” McKee said. “One always needs variety. We’re being more editorial, and that allows us to juxtapose a furry jumper by Salomon with something more classically exotic, like Ethan K’s colorful clutches. But there is a common thread, whether it’s haute Parisian rock like Balmain or artful, mixed-media [rtw] creations like Marco de Vincenzo — both are elevated, chic and deliver a sense of luxury. You’ll see these common sensibilities extending into our stores and online.”

Saks took its catalogue in a decidedly editorial direction for fall. From the cover lines — “186 Revelations From the Fall Runway” and “Daytime Drama: Everyday Styles Recast in Showstopping Fabrics” — to fashion stories styled by top talent such as Lori Goldstein, Jenny Capitain, Kate Young and Giovanna Battaglia, the perfect-bound volume has more luxury offerings than ever, McKee said, including Dennis Basso’s natural lynx hooded tunic for $200,000, Christian Dior’s astrakhan lamb coat for $64,000 and Fendi’s galaxy mink coat with fox and lamb trim for $42,000.

“We’re doing an extensive marketing push online,” said Briggs. “We’ll have a click-to-shop feature from these books.”

A men’s catalogue takes a similar editorial approach. “Men’s itself is having a fashion moment, and we’ve brought in significant newness — close to 40 brands — for our customer,” McKee said. “We’ve added Billy Reid, The Kooples, Simon Spurr’s new Kent & Curwen, Public School, Diesel Black Gold, and Baldwin Denim…and Givenchy is very strong.”

The magalogues mark a departure for Saks. “They’re more fashion-forward without being alienating,” McKee said. “We have a good-better-best strategy. We have elevated price points. We won’t be abandoning the $200 dress, but we will be embracing the $200,000 Dennis Basso coat.”

A new advertising campaign with a “cleaner, elevated approach” will appear in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and W. “We replicated [the look of the magalogue] in the windows,” Briggs said. “We’re bringing the books to life in the store and in our windows.”

McKee’s focus on service extends to an internal ad campaign for sales associates. A stickler for detail, she sent a fresh orchid to everybody on staff during her first week on the job, although the buying staff and other departments have seen significant turnover since then. “The orchid is beautiful outside and very strong inside,” she said. “One of the key things we needed was a consistent message and consistency delivered throughout the whole country.” An internal branding campaign features inspirational messages and some of McKee’s favorite sayings, such as “Experience is everything” and “Clearly we want customers, but we also want rock stars and royalty.”

Saks’ new Personal Shopping Experience van makes house calls and office calls and goes anywhere customers may be. The eight-seat Mercedes van targets everyone from high-powered executives to time-starved moms and is outfitted with everything a Fifth Avenue Club associate would need, including tools for doing alterations and finishing services. “We want to take the fashion to them, at night, in the morning, on weekends,” said McKee. “It was doing the rounds in Greenwich, Connecticut, yesterday and is on the Upper East Side today.” Vans will soon launch in Beverly Hills and Miami, with other markets to follow. “We know customers’ favorite brands, size and shoe size. The more information we have, the better the delivery. It’s enhancing the experience of bricks-and-mortar. It’s about thinking globally but acting locally.”

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