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Q&A with Harry Cunningham, Saks Fifth Avenue

Saks’ senior vp fell into a career in store planning and visual, but his feet are on solid ground now, overseeing the brand’s full-line and outlet locations



What drew you to a career in visual merchandising?
I had done some seasonal help at a local department store when I was in high school. While working at Dillard’s in college, both visual people quit on the same day. I offered to help out (to get the extra hours) while they were finding someone – they ended up finding me! The rest is history.

How has the role of visual merchandising changed in the last five years?
People in unconventional businesses now see the value in visual. Places like Whole Foods and Starbucks have paved the way. I’m not sure my local grocery even knew what visual merchandising was when I was growing up in a small town in Florida.

What’s a strong trend in visual that you’re seeing right now?
There’s a return to realistic mannequins, even if it’s realistic wigs on abstracts. People are ready for something new – and as it’s been said, “everything old is new again.”

If budget were no object, what one prop would you love to use in a window display?
Water, preferably moving water.

Saks will begin displaying real flowers in its stores this spring. What drove that decision and what will it bring to the store environment?
It’s a clear point of differentiation and a return to the heritage of Saks Fifth Avenue. As we move forward, we’re focusing our efforts on what we call “modern heritage,” bringing back some of the old, updating it and blending it with the new.

How do you give Saks’ flagship and outlet locations their own identities while still maintaining an overall branded Saks experience?
The full-line stores are much more luxe with custom carpets, an art collection and a variety of materials and finishes. At OFF 5Th, we skew the design a little more contemporary through our “luxury in a loft” environment – clean, open spaces, neutral color palettes and extremely flexible fixture designs.


You do a lot of work mentoring young talent in the industry. Why is this important to you?
I was fortunate to have several mentors along the way in my career that helped me learn through doing. By staying involved, I hope I can give a little of that back. These young, talented people need to know the rich and full heritage that is the visual merchandising/store design business.

What advice did a mentor give to you that still helps you today?
Toni Browning, the former president of the Proffitt’s/McRae’s division of Saks, read a quote to me that I still think of often: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” It’s been a guiding principle to me for many years.

I Spy Inspiration
• Anthropologie in Rockefeller Center … every time I walk by their windows.
• Walking around with my camera phone. I recently photographed a neatly stacked pile of “stuff” a homeless person left on the subway platform. On top was a bundle of fresh flowers – even there, it made a difference.
• Seeing something my team has developed come to life in a store. It’s still pretty amazing to see it on paper and then see the real thing.




MasterClass: ‘Re-Sparkling’ Retail: Using Store Design to Build Trust, Faith and Brand Loyalty

HOW CAN WE EMPOWER and inspire senior leaders to see design as an investment for future retail growth? This session, led by retail design expert Ian Johnston from Quinine Design, explores how physical stores remain unmatched in the ability to build trust, faith, and loyalty with your customers, ultimately driving shareholder value.

Presented by:
Ian Johnston
Founder and Creative Director, Quinine Design

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