Saks sees next-level service as key to winning luxury retail

At-home offerings and upscale eateries vie for market share against Nordstrom, Simons

Behind the black tarps that cover its entrance, construction workers with drills, hammers and paintbrushes in-hand work furiously to put the finishing touches on Saks Fifth Avenue’s first Canadian location.

An early preview of the relatively primped and polished store reveals an open space flanked by in-store boutiques, an extensive jewelry department and stocked shelves. Behind white construction boards lies the promise of a restaurant by Oliver & Bonacini scheduled to open later this spring.

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There is every indication that Saks Fifth Avenue is ready for its foray into Canada. The HBC-owned department store chain opens the doors Thursday morning to its CF Toronto Eaton Centre location, occupying 169,000 square feet and three levels of the Hudson’s Bay building on Queen Street.

“After more than two years of planning, our entry into Canada is truly a milestone for our company,” said Marc Metrick, president of Saks Fifth Avenue in a release. “We cannot wait to bring the Saks experience of an elegant edit of the best designer names, coupled with distinctive, personalized service to Toronto.”

Its second Canadian location is slated to open next week at CF Sherway Gardens in Mississauga, Ont. – a premium-level shopping mall on the outskirts of Toronto.

Following the demise of Target, Future Shop and Jacob, Saks’ opening ushers in a new chapter in retail comprised mostly of high-end chains and international players.

Over the next year, competition in the luxury segment will intensify as the Greater Toronto Area welcomes Nordstrom, Simons and a new Holt Renfrew location at Square One shopping centre in Mississauga.

But Saks believes offering exceptional service is what will set it apart from the competition. Both large and small butler statuettes are scattered throughout the Toronto store, holding place cards signalling the retailer’s promise of the personalized, high-level service that is the cornerstone of its positioning. For instance, in a made-to-measure room within the men’s department on the second floor, a table-top butler holds the card: “Custom creations.”

“It creates a dialogue and we can talk about the services,” Stephane Ledoux, regional vice-president, Saks Fifth Avenue Canada, told Marketing two days before the grand opening. “There will be cues throughout the store for our customers to read and ask about it.

“We want to make sure customers feel at ease and ask about it. It doesn’t mean because we offer it they need all of it, but we want them to know it’s out there and our job is to be at their service,” said Ledoux, who joined the retailer from Hudson’s Bay a year ago.

In-store service, he said, is available in 37 languages including American Sign Language. “At least if there’s somebody coming in, a tourist, we can pull someone from the store to act as a translator and continue the experience.”

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Also debuting in Canada is the “Saks at your service” offering that includes a full range of services offered at a shopper’s home, office or hotel anytime and anywhere, according to the retailer. Traveling in a Saks-branded Mercedes-Benz sprinter van equipped with a jewelry safe, a personal shopper can make emergency visits with merchandise specifically selected for the client in the event of lost luggage, explained Ledoux. Or, a Saks stylist can make a visit to a client’s house to assist with a closet makeover. The options are unlimited, said Ledoux.

“It’s giving the option to the customer, saying we’re available to you. There aren’t really limitations of what we can do for customers,” said Ledoux. “As we build the relationship with our customers we’re going to find out how we can be at their service and make the experience what they want it to be.”

Saks Fifth Avenue has its high-end food options covered equally as well. In addition to the two-floor O&B concept restaurant, a fine-dining option and a champagne bar in the downtown Toronto store, the retailer is introducing “Saks Food Hall by Pusateri’s” at both locations.

In a release, Saks said each food hall would include food stations, exclusive products and a deluxe grocery assortment. The Toronto location is also outfitted with a private event space on the second floor that can hold up to 50 people, said Ledoux.

Word of mouth is by far the best marketing, in our opinion

Shayne Stephens, Saks Fifth Avenue Canada

When asked what lessons Saks had learned by observing the way other U.S. chains approached a launch into the Canadian market, Ledoux said the ability to leverage HBC’s logistics is a huge advantage.

“We have the strong leverage in Canada to do what we do very well and then focus on the experience. If you had a quick look through, our store is not empty,” said Ledoux, an obvious reference to Target’s well-documented inventory problems prior to the closure of its Canadian operations. We are at 97% full of what we planned. I think we’re very well set to give the Canadian audience exactly what they’re looking for.”

Canadians have been introduced to Saks through various social, online and public relations initiatives over the last six months, and it will continue to lean on events and relationship marketing to support the brand.

“Word of mouth is by far the best marketing, in our opinion,” said Shayne Stephens marketing director for Saks Fifth Avenue Canada. “And with a focus on service to this extent to get people into the building… It’ll be very much an event, get them in the store, provide this level of service and then word of mouth.”

In January, the retailer launched what it called a “social-media-driven short documentary series,” titled #saksuTOpia that tapped into Toronto’s creative scene.

Recruiting nine tastemakers and influencers, the online series explored areas of fashion, design, food and culture, as seen through their eyes and explained why each of them loves Toronto.

And, in September it introduced a two-minute video that chronicled the long distance relationship between real life couple Alyssa Campanella and Torrance Coombs as a way of expressing the brand’s love for Toronto.

ASC Public Relations handles media outreach for Saks Fifth Avenue in Canada.
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Photography by Saks Fifth Avenue Canada
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