On the brink: Saks sticks with troubled luxury

Saks Inc. (SKS) has long embodied the glitz of American luxury. With its iconic flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and his-and-hers stores across the street from each other on Chicago's swank Magnificent Mile, it's long been one of the landmarks of luxury retail.

But since the recession hit, Saks has come to represent something else. Like many high-end retailers, it's on the brink due to a big pullback in consumer spending that may prove to be less of a symptom of the economic downturn than a characteristic of a new reality -- one that doesn't include $600 shoes.

The numbers aren't pretty. Sales at stores open for at least a year fell by at least 23% every month this year. And since the recession officially began in December 2007, the company's stock has fallen some 81%.

There have even been questions about Saks's ability to survive. In a conference call with analysts after the company released it fourth-quarter results in February, CEO Steve Sadove rebutted speculation that the company could face bankruptcy. A JPMorgan analyst who met with Saks executives in April agreed, upgrading the stock.

But despite reporting first-quarter results that exceeded analyst estimates, analysts and stockholders are growing restive. A downgrade by Credit Suisse sent Saks's shares down about 8% on May 28, even as the broader market rallied. And P. Schoenfeld Asset Management, which owns about 1.5% of the company, according to regulatory filings, is staging a proxy fight to revamp the company's board, citing sales that badly lag its competitors.

Facing last year's dismal holiday season, Saks slashed prices by as much as 70% to entice wary customers. So even if the storied chain isn't going away anytime soon, could it lose its luster as it, like many shoppers, trades down? Don't count on it, Sadove told Reuters in February. "Our intent is not to go after a mid-tier customer who happened to come in for a deal and make them a core customer at Saks," he said. "[Saks] is a luxury player."

The question is, will that be enough?

Tim Catts is a writer for DailyFinance. You can follow him on Twitter at timcatts.

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