Marc Metrick, the president of Saks Fifth Avenue, wants to clear up some confusion.

“We want to elevate Saks, but when someone in my position says ‘elevate,’ immediately people think what brands are you getting in,” Metrick says. “Are you getting Hermès? Are you expanding your luxury leather goods business? Are your price points going up? Are you exiting your entry businesses?

“This is a different type of elevation. This is really about taking Saks and placing it into the minds and hearts of consumers, and doing everything you possibly can to put it there.”

For the first time since he became president of Saks Fifth Avenue last April, Metrick is talking strategy.

He stresses consistency, a holistic approach to service that goes way beyond the sales associates’ meet and greet; feeding data from Web transactions into the clienteling database for stores; developing product strategies around category dominance so “Saks wins and Saks is the story,” and creating magalogs with richer editorial around products so Saks becomes a greater fashion authority.

A remade magalog, with 272 pages and a circulation of 500,000, drops Sept. 1. “There is editorial in it, bringing [products and brands] to life. It’s a very, very new approach to how Saks is marketing,” Metrick says.

Metrick will be leading several store openings next year — Brookfield Place in lower Manhattan; Waikiki, Hawaii; a replacement store in the Houston Galleria; Brickell City Centre in Miami, and the first Saks Fifth Avenue opening in Canada, on Toronto’s Queen Street, which will be followed by Saks opening in Sherway Gardens on the west side of Toronto. Up to seven Saks stores are seen opening in Canada over time.

Saks is also opening next year a freestanding shoe store in Greenwich, Conn., which is being modeled after the 10022-Shoe concept on the eighth floor of the New York flagship and could be replicated in other locations.

Metrick says the Queen Street store will have a designer assortment worthy of Saks at its best, despite Holt Renfrew’s efforts to fortify its luxury dominance in Canada. “I feel really good about the brand lineup that we are going to have at the Queen Street store,” he says. “It’s pretty much set. Our designer ready-to-wear lineup is flagship level, as is leather goods. It represents what Saks stands for.” He says it’s premature to disclose the labels.

“From a branding stand-point, it’s a big step,” Metrick says of the store. “This is a 170,000-square-foot store that’s going to be at volume levels similar to our flagship stores” in Bal Harbour, Fla., Boston, Beverly Hills and Chicago.

The Saks store is being carved out of the one million-square-foot Hudson’s Bay flagship, which Metrick characterizes as “a mall for all intents and purposes. It’s not like we are putting a Saks store inside a Hudson’s Bay store.” Saks, he says, “will look and feel big, separate and with its own environment.”

“We know we need to develop our stores, make them different, make them exciting. We are laying them out differently. We have to de-departmentalize the department store, and we want to future-proof all of our new stores, while we don’t necessarily know [exactly] what’s on the horizon, or what’s going to stick, we need to be malleable and be able to anticipate.” To some extent, that entails powering them up with beacon and mobile-enabling technology.

Pricing is a sensitive subject, considering the industry’s tendency to be desperately promotional and designers’ disdain for the practice. Metrick says his objective is to sell more products at full-price, but he is careful to explain that doing so doesn’t necessarily mean reducing the level of promotions.

“We need to be more reliant on selling product at full-price,” he says. “We need to evoke a certain feeling among the consumer of scarcity, of quality, and urgency for limited luxury product, and it’s not a contradiction to say I’m not going to pull out of promotions but I am going to do more full-price. I am going to be doing more total business and that business is going to be done in a way that matches or levels off with how Saks is elevating itself. It’s a volume increase and a volume increase that’s sustainable and done in a way that makes everyone feel comfortable.”

Prior to his becoming president, there was lots of buzz about Saks getting more luxurious, but Metrick presents a somewhat different point of view.

“Elevating product doesn’t mean going back to the old nine-box grid, and doesn’t mean focusing on the top of the pyramid. It means delivering fashion. It means delivering quality. It means delivering the product people want.” Over the years, that’s been challenging for Saks because it has stores of varying sizes, demographics and merchandise needs, and it is competing against the stronger and more profitable Neiman Marcus as well as the much larger Nordstrom.

“Elevation is all the way around — 360 degrees. It talks about product. It talks about marketing, service, environment and all this is underpinned by a digital experience that encases everything else because of this new expectation of the consumer that everything is seamless.”

The program Metrick presents isn’t exactly new. He’s been in on the strategizing since long before he took the helm at Saks last spring. It goes back to March 2013, on a Saturday, when Metrick was HBC’s chief marketing officer, and Richard Baker, HBC’s governor and executive chairman, informed him about his plan to buy Saks Fifth Avenue. “We had just gotten back from an offsite from Richard’s place in Telluride, Colo., my phone rings and he said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ That’s usually how your conversations start with Richard on the weekends.”

He told Metrick about the Saks plan, and said, “I need you to get with Don Watros [then HBC’s chief operating officer and currently its president of the international division] and we should talk about what the strategy should look like. What the deal thesis is. What the opportunities are at Saks.”

The very next Monday was when “the ideation around the deal thesis” for purchasing Saks and formulating the elevation strategy began, Metrick recalls.

“Let’s fast forward to April 2 of this year,” he continues. “I really wanted to settle things down a bit. It’s been a long time for the organization from the selling to the closing, to new management, into a new culture.”

Off the bat, “The big priority was to hammer out what were the big priorities for the organization. It’s repetition. It’s frequency. For me as a Saks veteran, consistency is a very important word.

“Richard asked me once, ‘Why is Saks in a different position in some ways than its competition?’ I said honestly, over the last two decades, it’s been inconsistency. It’s been strategic shifts. Changes in ownership.

How the business has reacted to external factors and forces, in a lot of ways beyond its control. There have been a lot of pivots, but I will say that prior to the HBC acquisition, Saks was coming off a long tenured team with not a lot of turbulence, outside of the macroeconomic issues from 2008.”

Though he has limited merchandising experience, he’s worked for Saks for about 15 years and has greater experience in areas like allocation and planning, data mining, financial controls, business development and marketing. “I feel perfectly qualified based on a lot of different things. Most importantly, having an understanding and appreciation for Saks, having watched and learned from a lot of people [who ran the business at one time or another] ranging from Phil Miller and Rose Marie Bravo and Steve Sadove to Richard Baker and Jerry Storch.

“Everything I am doing from people, from the brand, from the strategy from the product, my mantra, my goal here is: Saks is the hero, not the brands we sell. Not the president who sits in that chair. When you think about Saks is the hero, that’s what the 10022-Shoe concept was. We opened that floor in 2007 and one of the most important brands in footwear wasn’t there. It mattered, but Saks was the hero from a product standpoint.

“People ask me all the time, ‘How do you know when you’ve won.’ It will be the metrics — no pun intended there — but the way I put it is, there is conversation between two people. Somebody says, ‘Jane that’s a beautiful dress.’ Right now, Jane says, ‘Thank you. It’s Saint Laurent.’ I need her to say ‘Thank you, I got it at Saks Fifth Avenue.’ When that’s the answer, you’ve hit it…. You are done. I want people to talk about Saks.”

This story first appeared in the August 12, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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