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PLANO, Tex. — Saks Fifth Avenue celebrated its 80th anniversary Wednesday by opening a contemporary and bridge-focused store here as part of its drive to attract younger customers and reinvigorate the entire 64-store chain.

The 120,000-square-foot unit at the Shops at Willow Bend has few major designer labels and features several new design and display elements that will be rolled out to a majority of its other stores over the next 12 months.

It’s also a launchpad for a new service strategy that insists associates be friendly and inviting to all customers — regardless of their age or appearance — and encourages them to develop warm relationships with them.

Saks skipped designer merchandise in this Dallas suburb for two reasons, explained Andrew Jennings, the retailer’s president and chief merchandising officer. The Plano market is full of young families who are more interested in contemporary goods, and Saks didn’t want to cannibalize its upscale, larger store at the Galleria mall only seven miles away in north Dallas.

“We want to stay focused and can’t possibly have the same amount in 100,000 square feet that we have in 400,000 square feet on Fifth Avenue,” Jennings said. “This is a more contemporary store with a much bigger men’s and women’s contemporary department than in some other stores.”

But Saks has no plans to roll out the all-contemporary concept — yet. “It is something we may well look at in other branch stores,” Jennings said. “We certainly are focused very much on the designer concept, but it is different in different marketplaces, and we look at each market and say, ‘Where is the opportunity?’ You will certainly see less emphasis on traditional bridge and more on modern bridge, like Eli Tahari, Cynthia Steffe and Lafayette 148.”

The Plano store is aimed at customers with a contemporary flair, Jennings said. “If I were speaking purely demographically, which I’m not, but if I were, it would be a 30- to 45-year-old,” he said. “It is all about attitude and lifestyle, and somebody 70 can have the attitude of a 30-year-old.”

Jennings, who came from Holt Renfrew earlier this year as part of the new management team installed at Saks, said the company currently has no plans to build more stores and wants to improve the performance and look of its existing 64 units.

This story first appeared in the September 17, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We are looking at better productivity and upgrading the stores that we have,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is keeping our customers happy and satisfied, expertly delivering personalized style and being consistent with the best events and happenings in any market. These are very exciting times at Saks Fifth Avenue. There has never been a better time.”

He declined to project sales for the store.

Associates who are attentive and knowledgeable are cornerstones of the strategy, which some who have taken the training say is part of Saks’ drive to carve out its own identity distinct from Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. The company is experimenting with an intensive two-week training course for associates in Plano as well as in Boston and Boca Raton, Fla. That’s followed up by weekly product reviews and monthly sessions on service. Jennings plans to incorporate it throughout the organization.

“It’s about taking a client and making them a customer and then a friend,” Jennings said. “We are looking at new ways to get associates to connect with the customers. Time is the greatest currency, so we are saying, ‘How do we serve you better?’”

In the process, salespeople will earn accreditation to work first in a single department, then an entire floor and finally, the entire store, he noted.

The design of the new Saks takes a page from its competitive neighbor, Neiman Marcus, which opened a glamorous store here when Willow Bend mall debuted in August 2001. Both stores feature art by local artists, bright lighting, broad aisles and open vistas, as well as aligned escalators instead of the traditional crisscross, spiky chandeliers, organic decorative materials such as petrified wood and a predominantly pale, neutral palette of cream, beige and taupe.

“In this store, we’ve done a lot of things differently,” Carolyn Biggs, senior vice president of stores, pointed out. “We’ve always done very traditional stores, and this is a new trend for us.”

The store features more “living rooms” than any other store except Saks’ new unit in Raleigh, N.C. — four areas with sofas and chairs and flat-screen TVs where people can relax. The idea is being tested in those two stores before Saks decides whether to roll it out. The Plano store also has more than 100 mannequins — more than in other stores.

In cosmetics, cases are arranged in smaller clusters, lined with a bed of tumbled, crushed glass and filled with only a few products for a cleaner, more distinctive appearance. Fragrance testers are arrayed on a bar lit from within for better visibility and easy access.

“We are moving away from traditional case lines to a more open design that allows more one-on-one with the customer instead of the associate having to stay behind the counter,” Jennings explained.

Further refinement of the open-sell cosmetics design and the cleaner display will be incorporated in six flagships as part of remodels planned for next year, Jennings said, though he declined to reveal which stores. Remodeling the Fifth Avenue Club, which is already under way at the New York flagship, is another aspect of improving the look of Saks’ six biggest stores.

“The cosmetic upgrade is an evolutionary process,” he said. “When we open the revamps next year, we will be looking at a new concept that is more service-assisted and more open than even the Plano one.”

The contemporary area sports iconic blood red wall accents and a shiny silver display table made from the tip of an airplane wing. Both elements will be rolled out to most of the other stores in the first quarter of 2005.

The store has one of Saks’ largest contemporary departments for both men and women, noted Briggs. “Based on our experience across the country and particularly in Dallas, we think this is the real market for down here,” she said.

At about 15,000 square feet, the women’s contemporary department has an unusual adjacency next to the men’s contemporary department to foster cross-shopping. Saks’ other new store, which opened last week in Raleigh, is the only other unit that positions the two departments together. But the Raleigh store, which is the same size, carries more high-end designer labels.

Like the store’s other women’s departments, the contemporary area has a narrow mix of labels with deep inventory in each. The denim department features a handful of top labels such as Seven For All Mankind and Citizens of Humanity, while clothing labels focus on leading resources such as Nanette Lepore, Laundry, Juicy, Theory and Trina Turk.

Though none of the labels is exclusive, Saks works with key vendors to produce exclusive styles.

On the second level, the eveningwear department is stocked primarily with Carmen Marc Valvo, Chetta B, ABS, Sue Wong, Teri Jon and Laundry. Across the floor, bridge features heavyweights such as Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy, Lafayette 148 and DKNY. Saks also has a department for its own label, The Works.

The extremely bright lighting in Saks is a departure for the chain, an experiment with powerful 45- to 65-candle-power bulbs, additional accent lighting for hot spots, and up-lit ceilings.

“We want the merchandise to stand out,” noted Bill Herbst, vice president of visual merchandising.

Yet there is some question as to whether business will be as bright as the store is. Traffic has been so slow at Willow Bend that many in the local retail community were surprised when Saks broke ground at the mall.

“Real estate deals are done long in advance,” Briggs explained. “You make a commitment, and you stick to it. Sometimes stores or malls get built in markets before the community is there. This is a young community in terms of growth.”

An elegantly designed Taubman Centers’ property that first focused strictly on the high end, Willow Bend has suffered from poor customer traffic and a number of store and restaurant closings. The developer launched an ad campaign and made an effort to bring in less pricy retailers, such as Anthropologie, Ann Taylor Loft, Sam Goody music and Zales Jewelers.

Neiman Marcus, which is chock-full of designer goods, has been a bright spot at the center, partly because the store benefited from a built-in clientele that transferred from the Neiman’s in north Dallas that closed when Willow Bend opened.

Saks executives acknowledged the mall has had difficulty, but expressed confidence.

“We see this as a long-term business,” said Fred Wilson, chairman and chief executive officer. “In a few years, this will be a very successful shopping center.”

All but one of Saks’ five other stores in Texas are performing well, Briggs said. The exception is the unit in Hurst, a Dallas suburb, which she called “tough.” Asked whether Hurst would close as Saks puts its underperforming units under the microscope, Briggs gave an embarrassed shrug of her shoulders and said, “No comment.”

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