The successful retailer understands that its role is to do more than just sell. Its broader responsibility is to teach, to inform, to participate and to connect with its community. Saks Fifth Avenue gets this, and Harry Cunningham, senior vp of visual merchandising and store design, is an ambassador for the company as it interacts and maintains its position as an important part of New York.
“We want our space to be a venue to connect to the world,” says Cunningham. “How large or small the event, issue or cause doesn’t matter. We’re all touched by everything going on, whether it’s 9-11 or the work of the New York City Sculptors Guild.”
On the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center, Saks’ iconic Fifth Avenue windows were devoid of merchandise. Rather, it had a listing of all those lost in the disaster. Cunningham recalls, “At eleven o’clock at night, as we were still installing the windows, a couple passing by stopped and found the name of someone they knew.”
The purpose of those windows wasn’t to sell merchandise, but rather to say, “We are part of New York and we care.”
Early this summer, Saks featured parts of the Aids Quilt in those same windows, a display that’s fast becoming a tradition for the luxury department store. Soon after last year’s presentation, Saks received a letter from a woman thanking it for the installation. She had seen a quilt in the window in remembrance of her son, and as coincidence would have it, he had worked for Saks Fifth Avenue. While the Names Project Memorial Quilt was officially started in 1987 in San Francisco by Cleve Jones to promote awareness and foster healing, Saks Fifth Avenue’s display is helping to continue to keep Aids awareness at the forefront.
Its community outreach also extends beyond New York and touches many aspects of consumers’ lives. The San Francisco Ballet is a big part of the Bay area culture and in recognition of this important institution, Saks devoted a window installation at its Union Square flagship to a celebration of the renowned ballet company.
Connecting with the community is a vital component of a retailer’s position. Whether a mom-and-pop store on Main Street USA or a venerable department store on one of the world’s most important retail/fashion thoroughfares, showing we care is the right thing to do.