Retail Confessions: Saks Fifth Avenue
Two former Saks employees talk about who buys all the clothes.
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After I wondered who buys all the clothes hanging in empty retail stores like Saks, which I recently visited in New York City, people who had worked there or other retail establishments reached out to share some thoughts on the empty store. Today, I’m beginning a series of Retail Confessions, featuring interviews with people who have worked in the retail industry. Do you want to talk to me for future installments? Reach out by replying to this email or send me a DM. Interviewees will be kept anonymous.
I find these chats particularly fascinating at a time when fashion is undergoing a seismic shift, owing to the pandemic and the ways it has profoundly and permanently changed our lives, including how we dress and shop — but also owing to Gen Z, the climate crisis, and a distrust of capitalism. Even as the fashion shows continue in Europe for the spring 2022 season, the Next Phase of fashion feels intangible and unmoored. But I was struck while conducting the below interviews (both edited and condensed) by how mismatched with today the old ways seem.
Today’s first installment of Retail Confessions features two pre-pandemic employees of Saks Fifth Avenue.
Interview #1: The Former Marketing Department Employee
The first interview subject worked for two different Saks stores in two different southern states in the mid-2010s.
Is it unusual for a Saks to be so empty?
When I worked in Florida, the store was always empty. I was like, How is this store ever making money? The reason why that particular store was empty is because the people who shop there have so much money that they have a personal shopper and they don't really step foot in the store. The person shops for them, their credit card's on file, and then hand delivers all of the merchandise to their home. One transaction can be $30,000 to $50,000. And they never set foot in the store. But your point about the waste. Oh my gosh. Could I speak to that?
Yes, please do.
Shipments in the old retail kind of format were what, six times a year? You know, four seasons plus the old kind of cruise/vacation in the winter. And then I think there was one other that was considered holiday. That changed to 52 seasons a year — 52 weeks a year there's merchandise coming into a store. That pretty much changed when companies like Zara and H&M came around, most likely within the last 10 to 15 years. So there's just like this obscene amount of inventory coming in all the time to stores and when they don't sell it and they have new inventory coming in, they have to turn it out. The poor people in the inventory control area, they just could not keep up. They were practically working around the clock.
You mean as part of the intake process or to get rid of things that didn't sell?
What happened with the stuff that didn’t sell?
An organization like Saks for instance has a certain level of luxury brand, i.e. Manolo [Blahnik] and things on that level. They were not interested in that merchandise going anywhere but in the garbage.
A lot of brands destroy things so people can’t do that. Were they slashing or were they just tossing?
Sometimes they would slash it, but it oftentimes they just tossed it.
Were they throwing stuff out daily?
Is it possibly to quantify it? A dumpster’s worth? Two dumpsters’ worth?
I'm going to say it was definitely one to two full dumpsters a day. It was an atrocity to see expensive items being just tossed out. And I always wanted to bring them to a homeless shelter or Dress for Success. That was just absolutely wholly dismissed because there was no way a luxury brand was going to allow that to happen unless they decided to do it on their own terms.
[Author’s note: I emailed the Saks PR department Friday morning for comment on trashing merchandise but have not received a response.]
That’s really sad. What else do you remember about the clientele?
The clientele down in Florida, in the shoe department, they would determine they wanted to buy, say, 10 pairs of shoes. And then they immediately wanted a “fresh box.” So they wouldn't even take the shoes that they actually tried on. It was constant.
So they would try on the shoes and they wanted to bring a fresh pair home that hadn't been on their feet?
Right. It was so common that if the shoe went back into the stock room and somebody else came in and wanted to try it on and they saw that it had been in a previously opened box, they wouldn't even try it on.
So when you said that people would come in and spend $30,000 to $50,000, what would they buy?
Mostly shoes and handbags. I’d say the second category after that would be dresses. So if there was a trunk show from a designer, like Oscar de la Renta, those dresses can run anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a piece. I saw a guy who bought three $10,000 dresses for his girlfriend. And then she broke up with him like a month later.
And then the last thing would be jewelry sales, which were not as often, but they could easily run $100,000 and up per transaction depending on what they were getting. It is all about status and money, period. People come there, they have giant houses, they have tons of money, and all they do is go to black ties and try to one-up each other with parties.
Was there any unsold stuff the store wouldn’t throw out?
Jewelry. That always went back to the manufacturer. I remember though the jewelry department pretty much had like a trunk show every week. I can remember designers being there for days and not one piece selling.
What about younger designers trying to break through and become the next Prada? There’s a floor in the New York store for instance where they’re all hanging together, and some brands only have a few pieces.
What's important when you have a younger brand or a lesser known brand is that they themselves do a hefty enough job of marketing their own brand. In other words, a store like Saks is not going to give love to an unknown brand. They might agree to feature it, like, OK, we're gonna, sell you in the contemporary [category] for this season and see how you do. They might allocate real estate for that. The brand itself is really going to drive the interest. If you see something that you really like and you really relate to, you're gonna be like, Oh, where can I buy that? That's where the store is going to come in.
Saks does a pretty good job with their personal stylists, and that's where a personal stylist can be really beneficial. So say I'm your customer. And, you know, I am into the latest, greatest whatever, and now you're in the store and you see this small rack of niche brand whatevers come in and you take a look at it and you say, I think this is something she would really like. It’s your job then to show me that merchandise. Those brands can cultivate a nice relationship with the personal shoppers, or if the personal shoppers are smart enough they're always looking for something new. They can make more money because they get paid based on what their clients buy.
Was there anything else that surprised you about working there?
Just how much money people spend on stuff. You would see these people come in, you know, four or five times a week, they had nothing else to do. They had tons of money and the only thing they could think to do with it was to buy stuff.
At luxury retail locations, I think a lot of their problems have been self-created. So one of the things that I always said when I was working there was, I didn't understand why there was such a focus on the discount brands, the Off Fifth [Saks’s outlet store] and online, because I felt it was like a cannibalization of the store. “Surprise and delight the customer” was always told to us by corporate to get people to be there in person. But the fact of the matter is they drove a lot of merchandise online and the stores were really used more as a repository for returns.
For instance, Greenwich, Connecticut was considered a return store. A lot of people who worked in New York City but lived in Greenwich would go out on their lunch hour, buy a bunch of shit at Saks, get home, try it on, say, I don't like this, and then run down the street to your local Greenwich store and dump it off as a return.
Interview #2: The Former Personal Shopper
The second interview subject worked for a couple of years in the flagship New York City location in the mid-aughts.
Another former Saks employee I interviewed described one to two dumpsters’ worth a day of merch being trashed by one Saks store. Did you ever see anything like that?
No, but I do remember when things didn't sell they would just keep getting marked down. Let's say the original price on something was, I don't know, $1,000, and it's a pair of shoes or a specific designer that just wouldn't sell. It would be marked down once and now it's $700, and then the second time it'd be $600. I remember seeing certain things get marked as far down as like $79 or $80 that you were like, Wow, originally this was $1,000. And there were customers who knew about that and would visit the store over and over and over waiting for that item to get marked down.
So a lot of that stuff would really sell at the last, last minute, but then eventually all that stuff had to go — the resort collection would come, and you couldn't have the stuff from the fall there. So my understanding was that it would get sent to the outlet stores — Off Fifth.
Is it possible some things were going to a dumpster and you didn't know?
It's possible. I mean, that would really suck if it did. I wish I knew where those dumpsters were.
How often would new shipments of clothes come in?
See the New York store is the flagship store. At the time that I worked there it was a giant ATM, it was a giant bank. That store sold millions a day — a day — because I remember, we would have morning meetings and the managers would let us know how much the store made from the night before, from the day before, from the last week. I just remember being like, Oh my God, are you kidding?
Do you remember around how much that would be?
Like $15 million for a week. And then certain departments, like the shoe department alone, $2 million. The ladies’ shoe department was the largest shoe department in the world. I don't know if it still is, but they had 100,000 pairs of shoes. But the shipments, I think, were almost daily. They wanted to make sure there was enough supply.
And what was the store like? Was it always busy?
It was always busy. Always, always busy. The only time that it wasn't as busy was for two or three weeks in January. The employees there that had the most seniority — they would call them the old dogs — that's when those employees would take their vacations. They never wanted to take a vacation during Christmas or Thanksgiving, because that's when they were making money.
When you worked at Saks, some of your money was commission, right?
Yeah. I made 10 percent commission on certain departments. Like if I sold shoes, they were 10 percent. I was a personal shopper, so I was able to sell anything in the store. Depending on what you sold, the percentage was different on that item. So like men's clothes were 6 percent, men's shoes were 10 percent, women's shoes were 10 percent, jewelry was like 3 or 4 percent, I can't remember. Handbags were like 7 percent. So if I had a good client, I would make sure and be like, “Well now you need your handbag, you need your shoes” — so it would all add up.
And can you talk about your clientele? Like who was shopping at that time?
My big clients were South American — Argentinian, Brazilian. And as far as American clients, the big shoppers were from, like, a farm in Ohio or Kansas. Like oil [money], or they owned a bunch of ranches and farms. And they would love to come to New York two or three times a year and do their shopping there. For me, it was mostly international clientele. I had like two or three that were from New Jersey or Long Island, but not Park Avenue. I feel like that type would shop on Madison. They wouldn't want the mess of dealing with a million people in the store.
And as a personal shopper, you could buy stuff for people and just send it off to them without them being there right?
Oh yeah, I did that all the time.
What sold at that time? What was popular?
Mostly bags, shoes, accessories. Shoes and handbags were big at that time. For guys, it was shoes, sneakers, Prada sneakers.
Was there a typical amount that these people would spend at a time?
It just depends on the client. Some would spend between $2,000 and $3,000. But that's not happening every day. I would say once a week I would have a client buy that much. Then, I'm not just helping clients, I'm just helping some random person that walks into the store that [spent] just $500. And then you also have your percentage of people that are transient and return stuff that I had sold to them. So then that would put me in deficit with my sales.
So you were really incentivized just to sell as much as you could, right?
What percentage of your income was the hourly rate?
I would say 50 percent. There's no way you can survive — and I was living in New York City — on just the hourly rate. That’s why the commission was so high. A 10 percent commission on shoes alone — you sell one pair of shoes and that's a hundred bucks. A lot of the shoes were a thousand dollars. There were people that would come in and buy 10 pair of shoes.
The hourly pay, I think, was low because they want you to be out there hungry selling. They don't want you to be standing around being like, Well, if I don't sell anything, at least I'm making hourly pay, I'm fine. It was a little bit of a hostile environment because the sales associates were sharks. Everybody was fighting for clients.
So it sounds like the threat of a return was kind of stressful.
The way you would know, like, Oh yes, this merchandise is not going to get returned, is that they would buy it, and then right then and there be like, “Throw the box away. I don't need the box, I'm just going to put these shoes in my suitcase to travel back to Brazil tomorrow.” Of course, if they're going back to Brazil, there's no way they're going to return their Chloe boots.
So when I was in the store and it was totally empty, that would have been super-unusual during the time you were there.
It was never empty. That first floor was never, never empty. I feel like it's even harder for those sales associates now because back then, there wasn't Amazon and there wasn't The RealReal. There weren’t all these different options for people to be like, I could totally get the knockoff version, or, I could totally get that used. I feel like it's way more difficult now for those sales associates to make money. I don't how they do it.
I’m guessing you would have had customers who weren’t wealthy but earned enough money to save up to buy, like, one thing?
Those people were very sweet. That clientele would never return their item. And if they would splurge, it would be like a pair of Louboutins. Back then, that was the biggest hit, the Louboutin shoes. Also, Chanel bags, Chloe bags.
What about the fur salon? Saks plans to phase out fur entirely.
All the furs were in a room called the vault and it was temperature controlled. But they would sell a ton.
Can you say how much?
I remember they would sell a lot. And I was not allowed to sell [fur]. Like, if I had a client that was interested in buying a fur, I would have to take them and introduce them to one of the fur specialists. I would say the fur [coats] would range anywhere from $30,000 up to like [hundreds of thousands].
Did you enjoy your job?
I had a great time working there. The customers had a great time — at that time. Everything has changed now. But back then, it was almost like a tourist attraction. Like, you have to go to Saks and you have to go to the shoe department and you have to go to the fragrance department, and then you’ve got to eat at the restaurant. It really was an experience. And I enjoyed giving the clients that experience. It was like being on a Disney ride, if you had money.
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