March 17, 2018

Fifth Harmony

When Hudson's Bay announced in 2013 it would acquire Saks Fifth Avenue, I waited ever so patiently for the American luxury department store to one day open a location in my city. That day finally arrived a few weeks ago, when Saks set up shop and opened its doors in square footage formerly belonging to Target (whose shameful expansion failure will remain talked about in business schools for years to come).

I believe I had once visited a Saks when I travelled to Seattle, but don't recall much of the experience. However, I had an inkling Saks would be on par with Nordstrom, so I was curious to see how it would differentiate itself from its competitor who is - literally - just down the hall.

After checking out the store on the day of its grand opening, I see I was slightly off in my prediction. Saks actually falls between Nordstrom and Holt Renfrew: it is more high-end than Nordstrom, but not nearly as luxurious as Holts.

As I've mentioned in the past, Nordstrom is a mix of mid-to-high end wares. Although such a product mix can make it a more approachable department store, it does unfortunately weaken its air of luxury. Saks, on the other hand, focuses solely on high-end designers. Its handbag section is fairly rounded, carrying major names like Chloé, Alexander McQueen, Valentino, Loewes, Dolce & Gabbana, Givenchy, Saint Laurent, and Alexander Wang.

Its shoe section I found to be most interesting, though perhaps not in the best way. Besides being small in comparison to every other department, I found it lacking in variety. There were a lot of unique and quirky products I had not seen elsewhere - but that was it. It seemed almost like a museum of shoes. There were no classic styles or luxury brands to ground the footwear department, making it unlikely I will ever go to Saks for serious shoe shopping.

In spite of that, I was impressed with how Saks houses an apothecary, a Tom Ford beauty boutique (which I had never seen before), and private shopping suites. Walking into the store, I also approved of the glimmering and shiny interior décor, which truthfully outshines that of Nordstrom. My only critique of décor would be the jewellery section. With its orderly rows of glass jewellery cases, it looked surprisingly commercial and plain compared to the rest of the store.

In the clothing department was where Saks lower rank beneath Holt Renfrew was most apparent. Even though Saks carries high-end brands, it doesn't carry luxury clothing. All of its womenswear was from contemporary labels - which isn't a bad thing as many of those labels are one-of-a-kind in the city, but any feeling of granduer was certainly dampened. Nonetheless, the standout item for me that day was a light pink, beaded leather jacket from Elie Tahari.

As an overall shopping experience, I was pleased with the customer service. Granted I did attend the grand opening so I may have received particularly keen service that day, but I was greeted multiple times by sales associates who simply wanted to ensure I was enjoying my time and felt entirely welcomed to browse. I was not pressured to buy at any point.

One final, funny thing I would like to point out is I noticed every entrance was flanked by a security guard. I understand the value of the merchandise inside and I realize other stores do the same, though I found it amusingly jarring to see darkly uniformed guards standing among such elegant surroundings.

Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Holt Renfrew are like the Venn diagram of high-end retail in my city right now. They undeniably have overlapping offerings which will challenge all of them to be more competitive, but I think each has also carved out enough of their own market to co-exist in relative harmony.

Image Source: Retail Insider