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What's ending Saks' run at Tampa's WestShore Plaza: International Plaza or recession?

When upscale retailer Saks Fifth Avenue opened its fancy WestShore Plaza store in Tampa in 1998, it became a symbol to the region that this metro area was finally growing up — and had the disposable income to prove it.

Move aside, Target and Walmart. Saks, a seasoned and affluent New York retailer, did its own market analysis and decided Tampa Bay was sufficiently wealthy and style conscious to merit one of its stores.

Remember, this was years before Tampa's International Plaza opened, before the Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom department stores arrived.

In the 1990s, not one but two mayors of Tampa wrote letters urging Saks to reconsider a market that, among retailers, had a reputation for informal dress and whose key wealthy spenders were scattered widely across Tampa Bay's waterfront real estate.

On Tuesday, Saks said, in so many words, that this market isn't quite up to snuff. In tight times, there are better markets in Florida worthy of a store — a new Saks soon will open in Sarasota — even as its Tampa location closes May 4 and 105 employees must scramble to find other work.

Dick's Sporting Goods is expected to replace Saks.

"This planned closing is in line with our strategy of using our resources in our most productive Saks Fifth Avenue stores," company CEO Steve Sadove stated.

What did we do wrong? Did Tampa Bay's affluent not spend enough at the local Saks? For many of us who do not frequent the higher fashion scene, Saks sells stuff like designer Dolce & Gabbana dresses for $1,125, Maison Martin Margiela clutches for $1,195, and Jimmy Choo high-top sneakers for $550.

None of these items can be gotten for less at the Family Dollar Store. But most of this stuff can be purchased at nearby International Plaza.

Curiously, back in the 1990s, Saks told us it had studied the Tampa Bay market for a decade before deciding the time was right to open a store.

Back then, the Tampa Bay area also happened to be the largest market in the United States without a Saks.

The arrival of International Plaza in 2001, and its growing success, siphoned off richer shoppers, leaving upmarket Saks by its lonesome in a middle-class mall whose other store anchors are Macy's, JCPenney and Sears.

Another blow was the withering recession that made it ever tougher to woo the fewer locals with substantial shopping budgets to skip IP in favor of West­Shore's Saks.

Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce CEO Bob Rohrlack suggests Saks' exit reflects the "never-ending ebb and flow of retail stores" in any market. "Tampa Bay is leading the state in new job creation," he says. "I hope Saks finds a way to get back into this market."

J.P. Morgan analyst Matthew Boss, citing the impact of higher taxes and fiscal turmoil on the wealthy, cut his rating this month on Saks to neutral from overweight.

Saks is not just departing from Tampa Bay. In February, Saks said it will close its store in Stamford, Conn. In January, it targeted its only store in Dallas for closure. Last September, stores in Illinois and Austin, Texas, were named to be shut down.

So Saks has been busy closing more flagship stores than opening them. But last fall, Saks did unveil plans for one new store — far from Florida.

It's in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

What's ending Saks' run at Tampa's WestShore Plaza: International Plaza or recession? 04/23/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 10:08am]
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