Saks Makes Some Curious Tablet Choices When Upgrading Its Flagship Store

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Trying to boost Saks Fifth Avenue's (NYSE:SKS) flagship store—which Citigroup reported has underperformed the chain's store-revenue average for three of the last four quarters—the retailer has turned to iPads and some old-fashioned customer service improvements. But the chain has made some curious tablet deployment choices.

The first move, which should be applauded, is equipping associates with the devices to try and show the hypothetical "single view of the shopper" through multiple channels. So if a shopper routinely logs in—and logs in with the same ID—in all channels, that customer's data could be accurate, assuming an associate is able to nonchalantly ask for the shopper's full ID. It's an ideal step in the right direction.

But Saks, according to Citi, is only deploying one iPad for every three associates. That suggests some 66 percent of associates either won't have a tablet to help their customers or they will have to awkwardly borrow one from another associate. But one associate can't borrow a tablet from another associate who is working with a customer, so an idle associate will have to be located. On a busy Saturday afternoon, that could be almost impossible. Does Saks really want some of its associates to have tablet-powered capabilities while others do not? Will some shoppers be at a disadvantage?

Wasn't the whole point of tablets that their pricepoint is such that it's economical for every floor associate to have one while they are actively working the floor? Granted, that was always more of a $100 Android tablet concept rather than a souped-up iPad. But when a chain like Saks is buying in the expected quantity, wouldn't the issue be the same?

It's not so much that tablet-powered data access is so essential but that once some customers can benefit from it, they are all going to want it. It's a valid economic argument to say, "We can't afford to equip our sales force with iPads until the third quarter" or, "We're going to have to cut costs and use Androids."

But to say that we'll treat some associates—and their customers—differently, and in such a way that all shoppers will see that difference, seems ill-advised.

Kathleen Ruiz, a senior VP for vendor and store marketing at Saks, confirmed the iPad distribution but added that the numbers may be better than they sound—sometimes—due to coordination of associates who are on the floor. "We currently have one iPad for about every three associates and are making additional investments as needs evolve," she said. "This ratio has generally been adequate, as not all associates are scheduled at all times."

The next unusual tablet move is in the shoe arena. (If you've ever tried selling shoes at the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship or the Macy's flagship, you'll realize arena is the perfect word for it. OK, coliseum would be better, but arena does nicely.) Saks has embraced the critical show-selling goal of keeping the associate standing by the shopper throughout the process. If an associate walks away to get a shoe, there's a fine chance the shopper will get bored and leave.

What Saks has done is assign runners to fetch the products from the stockroom and to bring them to the associates. That's perfect. The retailer has also placed iPads in the show areas so that, according to the Citi report, shoppers "can browse catalogs and lookbooks."

For efficiency's sake, why not use the iPads—they are already there and paid for—to message the runners (a.k.a., expeditors) to bring out specific shoes? Why have them run both ways when a wireless signal could cut the running in half and, in theory, bring that shopper her shoes faster and allow more shoppers to be serviced in the same time?

It wouldn't necessarily double the speed, because the running time is presumably a small percentage of the time spent finding the right shoes, but it would certainly help accelerate the process. Plus, wouldn't it be helpful to have a precise record of every shoe requested? And wouldn't a pull-down menu with a list of all the current shoes—updated with real-time inventory—be a lot faster than a runner being told a shoe and then sprinting to find it and then bring it out from the back?

Saks' Ruiz offered a different position than did a Saks shoe associate we spoke with. The associate said the runners stay with them and make the roundtrip, while Ruiz said associates are supposed to text the runners. The difference might be little more than how it's supposed to be done vs. how it's actually being done. But a text doesn't deliver the automation, speed or comprehensive database that using a tablet would. If Saks' intent is to use texting, though, that's a very hopeful sign. It's also a good sign that Ruiz added: "We are working toward an even more efficient process with technology," which may or may not mean using the tablets that are already in position.

The last item in the Citi report is another example of triaging costs, but this one works and sends the right message.

"The Fifth Avenue Club offers a private shopping experience for high-end clientele who can enjoy shopping at SKS in a private room with amenities such as custom tailoring, food and drink, and highly personalized service," the Citi report said. "It is currently being expanded." How is the chain finding the room to expand it? "Store managers are losing their offices," penned Citi retail analyst Deborah Weinswig.

Store managers lost their offices so top shoppers can get more personalized treatment? That's an efficiency that works.