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June 10, 2013 1:59 PM

Business, Retail

The Saks Quandary

The well-oiled Saks Inc. rumor mill has gone quiet. There was the initial flurry of stories after it became known the luxe department store company hired Goldman Sachs to explore its options and possibly a sale....

The well-oiled Saks Inc. rumor mill has gone quiet.

There was the initial flurry of stories after it became known the luxe department store company hired Goldman Sachs to explore its options and possibly a sale.

The most fantastic of the stories had private equity giant KKR buying the company and then wheeling and dealing with Neiman Marcus Inc.'s owners to combine the two companies. Qatar was also put forth as a possible buyer.

That's pretty much it.

Even if there is stuff going on behind the scenes, that really isn't a whole lot of intrigue given the chain's stature, its name recognition and how often it's been rumored to be on the market in the past.

Saks is a vital store to many designers, a key destination for well-heeled consumers and a cornerstone of the New York retail scene. It is important to the fashion industry any way you slice it. But the investment set still isn't quite sure what to do with the company.

It has focused its full-line stores and might close a few more; chief executive officer Stephen I. Sadove has pushed for omnichannel integration and the firm has tapped into the outlet market.

At the annual meeting last week, Sadove talked about the possibility of specialty stores under different Saks concepts. That might be an interesting avenue for the company, which needs to show how it can keep growth up if it wants to draw suitors. Department stores just aren't natural candidates for overseas expansion and developers aren't breaking ground on lots of new malls.

Saks might well find a buyer, or not, but either way stores that sell other people's brands just aren't in vogue. For better or worse, investors are looking for focus. They want a brand, maybe with some wholesale, but definitely with retail stores that can be marched out around the world.

Michael Kors Holdings Ltd. is the obvious and oft-used example of what investors are looking for today, with its market capitalization of $12.59 billion. But there are others.

Fifth & Pacific Cos. Inc., where the focus is on Kate Spade, has a market cap of $2.62 billion. Many investors are hoping the company will sell off its Lucky Brand and Juicy Couture divisions to fuel Kate's continued expansion and ultimately push the value of the firm even higher.

The value of all of Saks' stock, even with the company's ample real estate and its sterling name and a boost from the Goldman news, is $2.15 billion.
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