TAMPA — Saks Fifth Avenue, the upscale department store credited with putting Tampa Bay on the map of luxury retailers, is closing after 15 years.
The New York-based retailer said Tuesday that its location at WestShore Plaza was falling short of company sales goals and will close May 4. In its place will go a flagship store for Dick's Sporting Goods, scheduled to open sometime early next year.
Saks had five more years left on its lease but worked with WestShore's owner, Glimcher Realty Trust, to leave early and allow time for Dick's to gut and remodel the store as quickly as possible.
Saks' closure reflects the mall's ongoing difficulty in competing with the more ritzy and newer International Plaza up the street. Many of WestShore's more middle-class shoppers have never stepped foot into Saks, let alone bought any of the high-end designer merchandise.
Mall officials said the departure was less about the area's ability to support a luxury retailer and more about the company's shift in strategy to focus on profitable stores. Ultimately, getting a fresh, lower-brow retailer like Dick's could help drive more traffic to the center.
"If Saks is not happy with their sales, then we are not happy with their sales," said WestShore Plaza general manager Jay Botsch. "We want a productive anchor."
While local business leaders lamented the loss of the brand, gaining another Dick's Sporting Goods would increase business for other retailers in the area of West Shore and Kennedy boulevards. Dick's also has stores in Brandon, Citrus Park, Countryside and Wesley Chapel.
"I think Dick's will appeal to a broader set of demographics, which is good for the business district. It will bring more people into WestShore," said Ron Rotella, director of the WestShore Alliance. "It's unfortunate Saks is closing, but it doesn't leave the business district without national brands."
Saks opened at WestShore in late 1998 as part of an ambitious expansion and upgrade to the area's oldest mall. It was the first full-line Saks Fifth Avenue store on Florida's west coast and a symbol that Tampa Bay had finally arrived as a major retail market. For high-end shoppers, it became a huge source of pride. Tampa Bay didn't have everything but, "Wow, it had a Saks!"
News of the closure came as sad but not surprising to customers like Carol Osborne, a marketing professor at the University of South Florida. She never bought much there but liked the fact that Tampa was sophisticated enough to warrant a location. She remembers the buzz when it first opened and drew enthusiastic crowds.
"We had nothing fancy schmancy. We didn't have anything but Jacobson's," she said. "I was so thankful we finally had a place to get some fun brands, like Gucci, and good makeup."
Three years later, however, International Plaza opened about a mile away with even more upscale Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor, which eventually closed. Osborne wondered why Saks didn't join them and figured then the store was doomed. Nordstrom, with its great service but more reasonable prices, became her retail darling.
"A new guy came to town and I dumped them,'' she said.
In the long-term, she thinks Dick's will be a better match than Saks for the store's other less upscale anchors: Sears, JCPenney and Macy's.
Saks' closure comes amid major changes for the New York-based luxury chain. Its Dallas store is closing in June, followed by its Stamford, Conn., store early next year. It's also adding stores, most notably nearby in Sarasota where an 80,000-square-foot store is opening at The Mall at University Town Center in October 2014. It will replace an existing smaller store in Sarasota.
Saks officials would not comment on whether the decision to close the Tampa Saks was related to the new Sarasota store. CEO Steve Sadove said in a statement the closing was in line with the company's strategy to direct the company's resources to the most productive stores.
"We regularly assess the productivity, profitability, and potential of each of our stores and may determine that a closing is appropriate from time to time," he said.
The Tampa Saks will not have a clearance sale because the store is closing in less than two weeks. Merchandise will be transferred to other locations.
Saks operates nine other Saks Fifth Avenue stores throughout Florida and a total of 43 stores nationwide. It also has 66 Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th stores, including one at the Ellenton Premium Outlets.
The approximately 105 part-time and full-time employees in Tampa will be transferred to other Saks locations or given severance packages.
The new Dick's Sporting Goods will be a flagship store with more interactive and experience-driven displays. It's part of the Pittsburgh-based retailer's push to add more stores nationwide, including about 40 this year. Florida's 21st location opened in Jacksonville in late March.
The store will open across from Sports Authority, one of its main competitors. A Sports Authority manager said Tuesday that his store did not plan to close. However, he was unaware of the plans for Dick's Sporting Goods and deferred comment to corporate officials, who did not return a phone call.
Susan Thurston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3110.