A Tale of Two Store Openings: Saks vs. Lou & Grey

Stores open and close every day in New York but Friday marked some notable entrances. First, Saks Fifth Avenue's foray into Lower Manhattan was major for Saks and the department store world, as well as for Battery Park City, Tribeca, and the Financial District. Second, Lou & Grey, Ann Taylor's newest concept is expanding its footprint and entering Manhattan at a time when many of its parent company's ilk are closing stores.

The Saks Brookfield Place store is beautiful and largely does feel like the "large concept boutique" it's been dubbed. My favorite feature of the store is the way apparel and handbags are merchandised together on the main floor. This is great for true fans of a designer and for representing more of a designer's head-to-toe vision. I can't think of another US department store I've seen execute a presentation this well-connected. I also like the lack of hard, branded fixtures: Sight lines are clear across the floor and a customer isn't made to feel like she's stepping over a line and into another selling environment.

Saks' downtown shoe floor is perfect. I hope more customers enjoy it.

Saks' downtown shoe floor is perfect. I hope more customers enjoy it.

That said, the designer names are in such fine print that they're hard to see. And I know from past research that customers use brands they know as "guide posts" for navigating large stores. But more concerning is that I observed weak traffic for an opening day. I arrived and 10:30 AM to see many more associates than customers. It's hard to imagine there was a much bigger crowd for the 10 AM opening. What could Saks have done differently, besides more advance hyperlocal marketing?

While the tuxedo-clad men with trays of bottled water were nice on a hot day, I expected some special touches from Saks. Some ideas are mimosas, a nod to the downtown community (signage or signature giveaways), printed cards or large signage with a store map and list of services... even an enthusiastic welcome. Yes, they had plenty of "free" services being hawked in the cosmetics department, but that's par for the course. And aren't we trained to zoom through these departments heads-down at this point? Bonus if the escalator had worked and all of the merchandise had been taken out of its plastic bags.

"Hello, New York" feels cute and appropriate. The outdoor visuals were a show-stopper on Fifth Ave.

"Hello, New York" feels cute and appropriate. The outdoor visuals were a show-stopper on Fifth Ave.

On the other hand, when I visited Lou & Grey in Flatiron, a friendly associate at the door greeted me, excitedly told me they had just opened, and offered me a branded and localized tote bag with a fashion week magazine inside. Within minutes, I was impressed with the store concept. Think about the relevance of Urban Outfitters' lifestyle merchandising for a younger customer and Anthropologie's cross-category appeal for an eclectic shopper. Now picture the same quality curation, but for an urban or suburban sophisticate who wants a wardrobe that can flex to any day of the week. That's what Lou & Grey achieves in a small, easy-to-shop environment that combines private label apparel with an edited assortment of shoes and beauty and even plants and food. And while the second floor wasn't open yet, management communicated it in a cheeky yet polished way.

I'm rooting for Saks and the proliferation of retail in my downtown neighborhood, but I witnessed more traffic, conversion, and energy while I was in the relatively tiny Lou & Grey.

Well said. If you have to close off part of a space, brand it. 

Well said. If you have to close off part of a space, brand it.