Now turmoil is hitting the entire department store sector. Macy's and Nordstrom — two industry stalwarts — reported disappointingly weak traffic and sluggish sales heading into the holiday season. Over the last week, investors have erased almost $5 billion from their combined market values.
It has fallen on Mr. Metrick, a 42-year-old father of two, to undertake a Saks revival. He was not the first choice of the Hudson's Bay chairman, Richard A. Baker. The task initially was assigned to Marigay McKee, who led a turnaround at the British luxury department store Harrods. But in April, Ms. McKee was ousted after just 15 months on the job because of what insiders have described as a personality clash with top executives at Hudson's Bay, which also owns Lord & Taylor.
Mr. Metrick, who worked for almost two decades at Saks and Hudson's Bay in less glamorous positions like chief administrative officer, gives off the air of a corporate lifer who has long toiled for uninspired bosses and now unexpectedly finds himself in charge.
"You spend your whole life saying, 'If I was in charge, I would. If I was in charge, I would,'" Mr. Metrick said. "You have all these ideas. Then all of a sudden, I can."
When the merchants Horace Saks and Bernard Gimbel teamed up to open a luxury department store on the Fifth Avenue in 1924, it was still largely a quiet stretch of stately homes. It wasn't too long before Saks's designers were creating and stitching lavish gowns for Manhattan debutantes dressing for their coming-out balls. In 1935, Saks constructed an indoor ski slope where Scandinavian instructors offered lessons. Above the 50th Street marquee, an electric sign system was installed so that chauffeurs could be summoned to pick up society ladies laden with purchases.
"Saks had gravitas. For a long time, it was one of the leading department stores of New York City," said Marie Driscoll, chief executive of the retail consultancy Driscoll Advisors and a longtime luxury analyst. "But their positioning needs a refresh."
For Mr. Metrick, reinventing the flagship is a priority. A lavish, indulgent in-store shopping experience, he said, was something that online retailers could never replicate. But he said Saks, even its flagship store, needed to work on its game.
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"Look at this. People are moving around you, they're bumping into you, they're coming off the elevator," he said on the store's ground floor, a vast concourse populated by shiny cosmetics counters. "When you look at the store from the outside, it's huge, but when you go in, you almost can't tell that there are other floors."
Mr. Metrick complained about Saks's restaurant on the eighth floor, Cafe SFA. "I never thought it was a productive thing to have a restaurant back here," he said, waving his hand toward a lunchroom with customers seated at only a handful of tables. "See how it's empty?" And a terrace outside the shoe floor on eight, which overlooks Rockefeller Center, is currently in disuse, he grumbled. "What a waste. Imagine having dinner out here, or lunch. Or coming out here with a drink," he said, warming to the idea. "Shoes and booze!"
To open up the entire store to shoppers, Saks is making some radical changes. It is punching a hole through the ceiling of the ground floor to make way for a 23-foot-high spiral staircase, wrapped around a glass elevator. The beauty department will jump to the second floor, leaving the first floor to handbags and other accessories. About 55,000 square feet of back-room space in the basement will be transformed into a boutique for fine jewelry to be called the Vault. (Think of "million-dollar pieces," Mr. Metrick says.) To replace Cafe SFA, Saks is installing the Paris restaurant L'Avenue. It is also installing a champagne bar and a John Barrett beauty salon.