In this Drapers exclusive, her first interview since becoming president of Saks Fifth Avenue, Marigay McKee outlines her vision for the luxury store group.
On the afternoon of Monday September 16, Drapers broke the world exclusive that Harrods chief merchant Marigay McKee was to travel across the Atlantic to head up Saks Fifth Avenue, the US store group.
In the ensuing months the fashion industry has been speculating about how this well-regarded ball of energy, who many see as a maverick in the luxury world, would make the transition from directing the content of one iconic London store to reshaping a portfolio of 41 full-line department stores plus 72 Off 5th discount stores that stretch from Manhattan to less familiar locations such as Tulsa, Oklahoma and Tigard, Oregon.
Soon after the news broke, McKee told Drapers that after 15 years of almost continuous success at Harrods the chance to test herself with a once-in-a-lifetime challenge was too good to miss. She certainly came highly recommended to Richard Baker, chief executive of Hudson’s Bay Company, the Canadian group that bought Saks in a $2.4bn (£1.46bn) deal in the summer of 2013.
Powerful figures like Tommy Hilfiger and Leonard Lauder, supremo at Estée Lauder, reportedly told Baker that McKee was the visionary leader he needed.
So, with teenage daughter and son in tow, McKee has relocated to New York to begin what will be a closely observed new role. Here she reveals some of her strategy for the repositioning of Saks Fifth Avenue.
What was the appeal of this job for you?
My new adventure has a number of appealing factors. I am very fortunate to have been part of one historic brand for the past 15 years and am thrilled at the opportunity to join Saks Fifth Avenue (SFA) in New York.
I am excited about what lies ahead: more stores, a new country to call home and the chance to bring my experience from Harrods to Saks, a globally recognised brand with an iconic heritage. I have very fond memories of visiting Saks as a retailer and with my family.
It’s been bittersweet to be wrapping up at a store I have such a strong passion for, but exhilarating to take on what’s ahead at Saks with new-found energy and enthusiasm.
When did Hudson’s Bay approach you?
I have been acquainted with the Saks Fifth Avenue and Hudson’s Bay teams for many years. Our discussion was a progressive conversation over some time which involved a lot of persuasion for me to make the final decision to move.
Why did a North American retailing group with 41 stores want an executive who worked for a single British store?
Although Harrods has only one location, it’s become known as a luxury shopping destination around the world. My main focus was always to ensure customers had an incredible shopping experience with the best possible product, in the best environment, with the best positioning and best service level.
As at Harrods, I want Saks’ customers to be energised by our offer and know that we take extraordinary care of them, wowing them with theatre, activity, exclusive product and service.
What are the strengths of SFA?
Saks’ name alone possesses both domestic and international recognition. It is a company whose heritage in luxury retail has stood the test of time and has always stayed true to its core. Its global brand identity, impactful real estate in the heart of many of the US’s most prestigious addresses, and solid luxury vendor relationships are all part of its strengths. The DNA, the heritage and the reputation will come together for a new era of luxury retailing in the US.
What are the biggest challenges SFA faces?
Our challenges are our opportunities. My focus is on product enhancements, stronger positioning and differentiation, while always striving for the best customer experience possible. We will work to ensure we realise these opportunities at all of our customer touch points, online and in store. The aesthetic needs a complete revamp. The transformation of the look and feel of the store and the brand are key priorities.
[On December 19 it was confirmed that Mark Briggs, Harrods’ director of store image, with 20 years’ service at the business, would be joining Saks as chief marketing officer.]
What differences have emerged between your perception of SFA before you took the job and what you know now?
I have had the opportunity to travel to many of our stores around the US in recent weeks and enjoyed the uniqueness of each local door. Although we are a global brand I love the idea of acting locally to make each store unique under the ideals of the Saks Fifth Avenue brand. The West Coast is very different from the East Coast or the Midwest, so we need to act accordingly and cater to the local needs of our customers.
What will be your strategy regarding stores that vary in size, location and demographic?
We want to have the best product, people, places and positioning (‘the four Ps’). We will look at all our stores individually to evaluate what’s appropriate for the city they’re located in with the overlay of the Saks point of difference. The ultimate question for each store will be: What can we do better? How can we add value and ‘wow factor’ and how can we excite the customer?
What will success look like for you?
Success will be cementing Saks Fifth Avenue as the premier global luxury destination that domestic and international customers want to experience and shop in. Success will also include exceeding customer expectations in all aspects of their interaction with our company. Success will be allowing the customers to engage with us and experience the brand with freedom and a sense of humour.
How long will you take to make an impact?
You’re going to start seeing a lot of new exciting developments very soon. There will be immediate changes and long-term strategic goals executed over time. These changes are already in progress, with a number of store renovations from the updated fragrance floor in the Fifth Avenue flagship to the new Men’s Store in Beverly Hills.
We will continue to evaluate and make capital investments, with the overarching goal of creating an amazing store experience for all who enter a Saks Fifth Avenue or visit our store online.
There are key branding opportunities and developments that will enhance our DNA, heritage, and iconic status. There are quick wins and longer-term wins that will be evolutionary, not revolutionary.
How good is SFA’s multichannel offer?
Saks has a diverse and varied omnichannel offer enhanced by the ability to pull merchandise from bricks-and-mortar inventory and Saks.com.
Our separate buying teams have been partnering to ensure we provide our customer with an assortment that is consistent in being recognised as having a Saks perspective and a Saks edit. How we edit will be key to commercial opportunities and long-term success.
Our (sales) associates are fluid in using all multichannel mediums. We have provided them with iPads to access Saks.com so they can assist customers with orders and specialised look books, and have enabled them to use their cell phones to communicate with customers.
We will be looking to continue the focus on omnichannel for an ongoing seamless customer experience. Online is one of our strengths and we will continue to invent and evaluate new experiences and opportunities to excel online.
How are you (re)structuring your immediate team?
As the acquisition at Saks has been a strategic focus for Hudson’s Bay for some time, many changes have already been made to the team and I am thrilled to come in and hit the ground running.
Having always been a people person, the energy and dynamism of our team is a key priority for me. I will work hard to understand the cultural and regional differences and variations to ensure we’re relevant to the market and future-proofed for our long-term strategic goals.
Is SFA a concept that can be exported?
We are currently exploring immediate expansion plans in North America (Canada, Hawaii and Puerto Rico) as Saks maintains a global identity while keeping an eye on future opportunities beyond North America. We don’t have time to rest - there’s so much for the team and I to achieve.
I only started on January 6.
My main aim is to ensure we try to exceed expectations and leave our customers breathless. Our new tagline: ‘Saks: Live the Legacy’ will start us on our journey of adventure and discovery.
I’m excited, inspired, and ready for the challenge and thankful to the UK and my previous home, Harrods, for the experience and opportunity to take this new step with Saks.
Saks Fifth Avenue traces its roots to a business founded by Andrew Saks in 1867. Saks & Company was incorporated in New York in 1902 and its flagship store in NYC was opened in 1924.Today this fashion-focused business comprises 41 full-line stores in 22 states, Saks.com, 72 Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th discount stores, Saksoff5th.com and licensed stores in Mexico, Dubai, Bahrain and Kazakhstan. The group’s sales for the year to February 2013 were just over $3bn, with net income at around $63m.