Saks takes the wellness path

ConBody, a "prison-style boot camp", is one of the programmes offered at Saks Fifth Avenue.
ConBody, a "prison-style boot camp", is one of the programmes offered at Saks Fifth Avenue.PHOTO: NYTIMES

The iconic department store is turning to experiential offerings at its flagship in New York to keep the tills ringing

NEW YORK • You enter a neon-lit chamber the size of a phone booth and sit on a bench.

Pink Himalayan salt bricks form the walls while pink salt crystals crunch beneath your shoes.

As the mood lighting changes from fuchsia to gold, hidden speakers pipe in birdsong and gentle piano music.

Soon, a fine mist of 99 per cent sodium chloride fills the air, dispersing from a device called a halogenerator.

Welcome to the salt room - but it is not in some hip wellness centre.

Instead, it is at Saks Fifth Avenue's ornate flagship store in the heart of Manhattan's shopping district.

Saks may be an iconic department store, but it is not immune to the winds of change leaving a trail of destruction in the retail industry.

As stores around the United States reckon with, discount chains and changing consumer habits, they are turning to "experiential" offerings to mount a fight-back.

So what is Saks' defence strategy? One weapon is deployed on the second floor, where spread across 16,000 sq ft, that until recently displayed ready-to-wear Armani and Burberry, is what Saks calls The Wellery.

Devoted to upscale fitness products and remedies, it features kiosks offering avocado juice and futuristic fat removal processes.

It also has vegan non-toxic nail treatments that promise to "help with focus, memory, increased confidence and overall wellness".

Mr Marc Metrick, president of Saks, says: "The wellness thing is big. We're calling it 'the new luxury'.

"It used to be about fur and leather. But people just want to feel better."

Precisely what makes people feel better these days can be surprising.

One section of The Wellery is devoted to ConBody, a "prison-style boot camp" that features ex-convicts leading workouts for US$30 (S$41) a class.

The ConBody studio, sheathed in chain link fencing and faux cinder block wallpaper, is across the aisle from the Martone Cycling Co, which sells brightly coloured two-speed bicycles that cost US$1,200.

Saks is not the first department store to sell wellness treatments alongside haute couture.

Nordstrom, the high-end department store chain based in Seattle, has a line of spas offering acupuncture, massages and a treatment billed as an "oxygen-boosting facial with skin detox" for US$180.

Macy's and Saks both have partnerships with Purebeauty Salon & Spa, a chain offering manicures, massages and waxing.

And in some ways, the new effort is a return to the past.

Some 80 years ago, Saks was a pioneer in creating eye-catching retail experiences. In 1935, it built an indoor ski slope where instructors offered lessons to customers while selling skis and winter wear.

The new emphasis on wellness comes as Saks' corporate parent is under siege.

An activist investor, Land & Buildings Investment Management, recently took a 4 per cent stake in Hudson's Bay, which owns Saks and other department stores, including Lord & Taylor.

Land & Buildings has issued a letter, with a suggestion to sell Saks Fifth Avenue - or turn the upper floors of the flagship store into high-end residential condos.

There are no plans to convert Saks' flagship into apartments just yet, but Mr Metrick's team is overseeing a major overhaul of the store.

The first floor, currently occupied by make-up and perfume kiosks, is being turned over to leather goods and accessories. Beauty and fragrances will be moving to the second floor next year.

The renovation plan originally called for the second floor to sit empty for much of this year.

Ms Tracy Margolies, Saks' chief merchant, had the idea to offer fitness classes and, from there, other executives zeroed in on the concept of a wellness bazaar.

The result, which opened in May, has been a success, said Mr Metrick. "Selling (only) stuff... is not the answer. You have to build an emotional connection with them.

"Where else can you take a fitness class and buy a Chanel handbag?"

And while The Wellery will be dismantled later this year as part of the renovations, he added that elements of the experiment will be incorporated throughout the redesigned flagship.

"This isn't the end of wellness for us," he said. For example, plans include a permanent juice bar on the fifth floor.

"Juice bars today are what frozen yogurt was in 2003," Mr Metrick said.

Such ideas may well provide the juice to maintain, even extend, Saks' appeal.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2017, with the headline 'Saks takes the wellness path'. Print Edition | Subscribe