Wilson’s Way for Saks: Building a Distinct Image And Investing in Stores

Saks Fifth Avenue Enterprises president and chief executive officer Fred Wilson outlines plans to modernize and energize the firm.

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NEW YORK — A remodeled flagship, more powerful brand presentations, fewer price promotions and splashier events.

These are just a handful of the ideas outlined by Fred Wilson, president and chief executive officer of Saks Fifth Avenue Enterprises, in his first major interview since joining the company in December. Wilson and his team are out to modernize the chain, restore its historic luster and develop a stronger personality that resonates with customers. Saks has for years struggled with its image due to management and ownership changes, wobbly strategies and increased competition. While the team is hesitant about providing details about the future, it’s already emitting signals that big changes are on the horizon.

“We will make a powerful statement by brand and classification,” said Wilson. “We are getting input from a lot of resources.”

The master plan for renovating and remerchandising the Fifth Avenue flagship is in the works, and is expected to be finalized by September, with construction seen commencing in January. “The new plan will be very grand and dramatic,” said Robert Wallstrom, senior vice president and general manager of the flagship.

Ahead of the hammering, alterations are evident on the selling floors — from earlier deliveries to fewer markdowns, less merchandise and a greater population of mannequins to show outfits and wardrobing alternatives. “Even before making major changes, you can take what you have and energize it,” Wilson said. “This guy Wilson has been walking the floor every day.”

Aside from making the daily rounds, he also has been holding what’s become known in the store as “town hall meetings.” They’re geared to lift the morale of the entire staff of Saks Fifth Avenue, and improve communications. The team has been further motivated by the streak of strong monthly comp-store sales gains since last fall, peaking at 25.2 percent in February and 20.6 percent in March, as Saks rides the wave of consumer spending helping many retailers, particularly luxury chains. For 2003, SFA’s comps rose 3.4 percent, putting the chain at $2.44 billion. Operating income was $108.5 million, up 6.9 percent from $101.5 million.

The vision for Saks Fifth Avenue, which turns 80 next year, will be largely set by Wilson. He’s been given a great deal of independence in reshaping Saks by parent Saks Inc. — and he reportedly insisted on it when he joined the retailer. The Saks Inc. corporation is headed by R. Brad Martin, chairman and ceo, and Steve Sadove, vice chairman. Wilson reports to Sadove.
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