RELEVANT RETAIL: KATE OLDHAM
In the more than 20 years that she has spent at Saks Fifth Avenue, Kate Oldham, the senior vice president and general merchandise manager of beauty, jewelry, and home, has proven to be a groundbreaker, a brand-builder, and a visionary. Since she began working with fragrances in 2002 she has revolutionized the category, and established Saks as a major player by being one of the first to recognize and celebrate the niche fragrance phenomenon. Throughout it all she’s kept her eye on the changing desires of the customer and has come up with endlessly creative ways to meet them—including the revelatory new beauty floor at the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship, which opened to much acclaim last spring. Here, the Fragrance Foundation 2018 Circle of Champions honoree shares some of her peerless, and ever-enthusiastic, retail insight.
How does Saks keep retail relevant?
We challenge ourselves to look at what we’re doing every day and see how we can do things differently with the customer in mind. Our ultimate goal is not to change for change’s sake, but to change for the customer’s sake. I think to stay relevant in retail is to engage with the customer in the way they want to be engaged with, which could be moving from communicating by phone to communicating by email to communicating by text if that’s what they prefer. It’s about making a meaningful connection and never ignoring what the consumer is looking for. As consumers ourselves, we know that we’re looking for advice. We’re looking for people to think about what we need to make our lives complete. Even now, after years and years of working in the beauty industry, when I go into stores and get a makeover, I always ask what I need. Women want to know what they are missing because they’re not the experts. And I think that’s how Saks stays relevant: by being able to tell a customer what’s going to keep them up to date and also what’s going to make them feel good.
How do you do that in fragrance, specifically?
A lot of different ways. One is that we train our associates to be experts on their brand and in the beauty space and to be able to give educated information to the customer. So if a customer is looking for new fragrance and they say, “I don’t want to smell like everybody else,” they’ll show them smaller niche brands, or show them things that might be polarizing to some people. We also have fragrance founders come in and give talks on where their inspiration came from. That gives consumers a deep connection with the brand, which I think is really different than the way that customers used to shop. Now they want to know who designed something, and what their beliefs are. Are they somebody who thinks about the world in a bigger way? I think those are the stories that the customers relate to, and of course influencers matter. They talk about why something makes a connection for them. And all this connectivity is vitally important in retail today.
The beauty floor at Saks Fifth Avenue was revolutionary. How has it resonated with customers and within the industry?
Most people embrace it fully. Before, you were sitting in the middle of a very busy, highly trafficked floor getting your makeup done. And we said, “we can do better for our customer.” Moving upstairs was a bold move. But we felt like we could truly give people a reason to come up. For fragrances in particular we had niche brands that weren’t everywhere, and we were one of the first to really give a dedicated space to fragrances, and then to customize the fragrance area so that they were grouped together by their personality rather than by the advertising persona they created. So when we moved upstairs, we wanted to make sure that we continued to be leaders in that. The customers can now sort of meander through all the fragrances, and then discover them in new ways with a specialist who can really take them on a journey. We also put the fragrances by the window where the light comes in. It makes everything sparkle.
How has the world of fragrance changed, from the standpoint of scents and brands? How has the presentation to the customer changed?
The industry used to be a top down approach, whereas we’re doing a bottom up approach: We get to know the customer, and we stay connected to them and let them know when they need something new. But we did this slowly. We brought in Bond No. 9 in 2002 and we clienteled to the customer, so they would buy one fragrance and then we would send them three more fragrance suggestions, so we would build the customer’s fragrance wardrobe up. We also brought in one brand at a time, and getting them fully developed before we brought another brand into the store.
You’re perceived as a nurturer of brands. What does that entail?
You don’t open the door and turn on the light and have a booming business. It’s one store, one customer, one brand at a time. If I believe in the brand, I’m in it for the long haul. And as a team we really believe that if we get brands that we believe in and we know who the customers are and we look for ways to develop that customer and that fragrance, then it will continue to grow over the years into a really prosperous and vibrant business. We don’t just think it’s going to happen in five minutes. But the world has changed and so has the speed in which the expectations are set. Before, a brand would come it, whether it was a treatment brand, a color brand or a fragrance brand, and you would expect it to take maybe two or three years to grow a really solid foundation. Now, because of the influencer world and the social media world, the expectation is that you should come in and grow double digits every year. So we’ve started to roll out brands faster and in more doors, and that’s been successful. I still don’t believe in bringing in hundreds of brands a year, I prefer being patient. But I also always want to be on the forefront of the curve.
What do you think makes a fragrance brand successful?
The authenticity of the brand. It’s that they have thought about who they are, where they want to be in the fragrance world, what they want to represent and why. And really sticking to it. I can name hundreds of them. Ex Nihilo, Bond, Creed, Kilian, Jo Malone, all of those brands know who they are. And they want to bring something to the customer that hasn’t been seen before. I love that. I think this is why fragrance is so interesting right now because people are not creating a story around a fragrance, they’re creating a fragrance, and that becomes the story.
As someone who loves to travel, do you also love to check out other department stores when you’re off the clock?
When my son was little, he used to say to me, “Oh please mom, don’t make me go into another store when we’re on vacation,” but I can’t stop myself. It’s exciting to see what other stores do, and I’m always inspired by their thinking. London department stores are different from department stores in Paris or in Tokyo or in Italy. I’d be a fool not to look at every single thing when I travel. It’s really fun.
Do you collect fragrances yourself at home?
I have a lot of fragrances, as you can imagine, but I don’t collect them per say. I have a lot and I love them all. It’s an interesting thing, I love the bottles so I always have several on my dresser. I don’t always wear them—but I love the way they look.
What does your involvement with the Fragrance Foundation mean to you?
I am so proud to be part of the Board of Directors at the Fragrance Foundation. I get to see the passion Linda and the board really have and how they are always thinking of ways to improve the fragrance business, both for retailers and brands.