Luxury department stores are borrowing from the past to bring customers into their stores in the digital age. That is, retailers are taking a page out of a playbook set by retailers like the now-closed B. Altman, which served tea sandwiches in its Charleston Garden, and opening their own restaurants. Saks Fifth Avenue is one of the retailers falling into this trend with a new eatery called L’Avenue at Saks in New York City, which is the same locale where Lord & Taylor is closing to make way for a WeWork headquarters.
Saks’ offering comes as consumers have other places to shop beyond department stores, and retailers are looking to find ways to encourage shoppers. Marc Metrick, the company’s president, told The Wall Street Journal, “I think over time, whether it’s because of the internet or brands opening their own stores or new entrants to the market, making a transaction wasn’t going to be why you came into a department store. You have to come to a department store for other reasons.” In other words, those who operate stores must convince consumers that it’s worth their time to go there to shop.
The restaurant takes its name from a much-esteemed eatery in Paris that is owned by Jean-Louis and Gilbert Costes, and is said to be their first United States “outpost.” And the location in Saks is said to have many of the dishes that brothers’ restaurants offer in Paris such as a tom yam chili sea bass and a spicy beef tenderloin. In another similarity to the Parisian establishment, the Saks location looks to have small portions. The idea is to create the kinds of experiences that look and feel genuine. As Metrick told WSJ,, “The new luxury loves authentic. It doesn’t like fake. It doesn’t like ornate. It likes behind the scenes. It likes real.”
In describing the “new luxury,” Metrick pointed to Starbucks in an unconventional comparison: While coffee can be seen as a commodity, he paid just over $5 for a cup of the hot beverage from the chain. He told the paper, “I didn’t care. No one’s getting coffee anymore, they’re getting Starbucks.” In Saks’ case, L’Avenue isn’t only another restaurant: It has the kind of design that a diner might expect in a Parisian establishment along with stained-glass windows that allow diners to get a glimpse into the kitchen.
The Department Store Restaurant
Saks Fifth Avenue is not the only department store that has brought a restaurant onto its premises: To help customers actually have breakfast at Tiffany’s (well, Tiffany & Co.), the luxury retailer opened an eatery in its Fifth Avenue store called the Blue Box Café two years ago. The concept was well-received by customers: “People who arrived even an hour before the 10 a.m. opening on Saturday were sent home, since reservations were already full for the rest of the day,” the food blog Eater noted in 2017. The eatery served breakfast, lunch and tea service to customers, and the blog noted that it was the retailer’s “first foray into food.”
And, beyond Tiffany’s, Crate & Barrel, the home decor retailer, was said to be adding a full-service restaurant to its Chicago store. According to a Chicago Tribune story that cited emailed comments from Crate & Barrel CEO Neela Montgomery, the company planned to open a restaurant at its Oakbrook Center Store this year. Montgomery said in an email, according to the paper, “As a longtime destination for dining and housewares, we know that our customers love to entertain, and incorporating food and beverage offerings is a natural extension of the Crate & Barrel brand.”
Plans for the store weren’t set in stone at the time of the story, but the space reportedly could host events and cooking demonstration. In addition, the company was said to be looking into permits needed to enable customers to have a glass of wine as they wait for their table. In all, Montgomery said per the report that the company is “always exploring new ways to offer meaningful moments to our customers beyond the traditional shopping experience.”
The aim, then, for department stores, is to be more than a space to buy clothes or other items that can be easily purchased online: They are seeking to become destinations the digital age, with restaurants as a draw.