Saks Fifth Avenue CMO Mark Briggs Explains Sweeping Changes

90-year-old department store aims to be a lifestyle authority

Headshot of Robert Klara

When Hudson’s Bay plunked down $2.4 billion to acquire Saks Fifth Avenue last year, many remarked on the pluck of chief executive Richard Baker. Hadn’t he heard that department stores were yesterday’s retail idea? Yes, he had—and he didn’t care. “Department stores still make a lot of money,” Baker told Reuters. He also promised to “optimize the Saks business while preserving their iconic brand.”

That was no small promise, of course, and some observers were wary of how the legendary store—which first opened its doors on Fifth Avenue in 1924—would fare under the reins of a mid-scale retailer based in Canada.

Now, the wondering is over. Yesterday, on the eve of New York’s Fashion Week, Saks unveiled ambitious plans to reinvigorate itself via a “host of visionary new branding initiatives.” These will include new catalogs modeled on fashion magazines and complete with big-name fashion editors from Hearst and Condé Nast; new packaging; redesigned retail spaces; and the launch of a personal-shopping service.

If Hudson’s Bay bet big on Saks last year, it has now doubled down.

The man leading these initiatives is Saks' new CMO Mark Briggs, who spent two decades as director of store image at Harrods, the legendary London emporium, but has been at Saks marketing helm only since March. Briggs sat down with Adweek to explain the new direction he's taking the luxury retailer in.

The revamped catalogs will look and read more like magazines.

You’ve apparently been quite busy overhauling many of the consumer-facing elements of Saks. Can you explain the strategy behind those changes?

Obviously, we feel that Saks has a tremendous legacy and we’re lucky to have it. But we want to create something different and fresh. We wanted to celebrate that heritage and refresh the brand and breathe life into the history and glamor of fashion, which we’re elevating from product selection to store environments.

Will customers see that when they enter the stores?

When you enter the store now, you can see tangible evidence of it. The fashions are more visible and elevated. There are more up-front, dramatic displays. Even looking at the first floor, we’ve updated the lighting on the main floor, which has been re-engineered.

Your new catalogs are decidedly magazine-like, not only in terms of their design and photography, but down to the addition of guest editors. What’s the thinking there?

We do have a more editorial catalog. We’re driving a message to engage the customer. We want to be relevant alongside all the news coming into the business. The editorial content of those books, their different pace, makes them much more of an experience. Some people will use them as coffee-table books. And as we move forward into the next year, they’ll be bigger.

Content is king these days. Was the strategy behind producing a magazine/catalog a desire to be seen not just as a fashion retailer, but a fashion authority?

It was indeed. The key thing we wanted to do creatively was to give the experts—these editors we’ve worked with, they’re the experts in their fields—to give them the range. We say, “These are the trend lines and what we’re getting into; we want to see your view of that.” When you put all that together in the melting pot of editorial, you start to create something really special. You start to create lifestyle—it truly is a lifestyle. And I see the only as the start of this journey.

Thanks to new partnerships with fashion editors, the catalogs

feature curated content.

Are you aiming for a wealthier customer—a younger one, perhaps?

Our way of looking at it is to approach it from a much boarder customer focus—taking things to a more elevated place, taking this much wider. I don’t think there’s necessarily a specific group we’re going after. At the end of the day, we want to make sure we’re seen as a leader.

As e-commerce continues to gain ground, there are those who say that the old-line department store is, well, over.

I don’t think the statement about department stores being over is something I’ll ever talk about. I’m a store boy through and through. Brick and mortar is hugely important. But the world is changing. We have an online business. It has just as much editorial content. And we’re making sure that what we do here at Saks is giving our customers everything they need. If they want a personalized experience in the store, or if they want it online, it’s there for them to have.

Will these upgrades be as apparent online as they are in the stores and catalogs?

We have an amazing online business, and we work with the online team. We’re developing our catalog and click-to-shop functionality. We’re not totally there yet, but we’re working to drive that forward. We’re lucky to have a good editor on the site already.

What about the changes you’ve brought to the store’s logo? It’s already famous—why mess with it?

One of the first things that myself and [Saks president] Marigay McKee looked at was taking the reins of the packaging. As you rightly say, Saks is a world-renowned logo. It’s been used in many iterations over the years. I looked through the archives, and the script-in-the-square logo is obviously the one that everyone knows. The thing I was concerned about is that the Saks logo was on the gusset of the bag—not a prime place. So when there are campaign messages all over the bag, that in my book does not put us in the family of world-class brands. If you look at the top luxury brands of the world, they don’t change their carry bags. The light blue bag—you know. The orange bag—you know.

So you’ll keep the logo front-and-center where it belongs. Anything else?

We’ve stepped up the quality of the paper. Again, it’s relevant to the shopping experience.

It seems like despite the macro trend of retail moving online and the world going social, you’re returning to, and stressing, very traditional notions of shopping.

They totally are. As I’ve said before, it is hugely important to us to continue a 360-degree approach. Customers love to come into the store and it’s up to us to bring a better point of difference. You hear a lot of negative things about brick and mortar—and it’s because there’s no point of difference. The one luxury that we’re going to come on with is the luxury of time. Giving the customer time, and knowing that Saks is going to look after them and deliver what they want. And we’re going to bring it to their homes—not through computers but a live, one-to-one conversational experience. Every experience is about reiterating our legacy.

If your mission is to return the store to its heritage, can one take that to mean that—prior to your tenure, or prior to the Hudson’s Bay acquisition—that Saks had drifted from that heritage, in your view?

I think there’s a slight element to that, and it comes with any business. As I said before, I’ve come from a business [Harrods] that has a world renowned heritage, and I worked there for an inordinate amount of years. I feel just as lucky coming here. The heritage of this business is something to be proud of and not ignored. 

A personal shopping service also joins Saks’ roster of revamped offerings.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.