The joy of Saks

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Jeff O’Geary knows retail. 

For 1½ years, he ran the designer apparel floors at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Prior to that, he’d been in sales, buying and planning for 18 years with the May Department Stores Co. and Macy’s, which May owns. Then he served as assistant general manager of merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue Greenwich.

So when the GM job opened at Saks in Greenwich, “I made sure my hat was in the ring.”

Would it come as a surprise to find out that he got the job?

“My skill set matched the skill set of the store,” says O’Geary, whose title is actually vice president and general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue Greenwich. But he adds, “My designer background had a lot to do with it. What a wonderful opportunity. It was a big deal and very different than Saks in Greenwich,” he adds of the Manhattan store’s faster pace.

But experience is just one of the reasons that O’Geary is at the helm of a store that helps anchor Greenwich Avenue – one of the most fashionable thoroughfares in the world. Another key is his courtly management style, which takes some of the starch out of high-end fashion. As he escorts you to his office in the sweeping, black-and-white space, he has a greeting or a kind inquiry for his employees, and they in turn greet you, the customer. That’s no small potatoes in a field that can sometimes make a woman feel intimidated, like Julia Roberts’ “Pretty Woman” (pre-makeover) shopping on Rodeo Drive.

This is a team, one to which O’Geary might’ve sang the Andrew Lloyd Webber song, “As If We Never Said Goodbye.”

“Absolutely,” he says. “I was gone a year and a half and it felt like I was on a vacation and came back.”

There’s a lilt in his voice that evokes North Carolina. That echo of the South comes out every once in a while, he says, more in word choice than in speech, especially when he’s on the phone with his mother. Then he might be apt to say something about “cranking up” the car, a North Carolinian expression.

“What are we, driving Model Ts?” he says with a self-deprecating laugh.

Henderson, N.C., was where the teenage O’Geary fell in love with retail. He went to work for the family-owned Roth-Stewart and enjoyed not only the experience but the thrill of cash in his pocket at a young age. So it was hello, merchandise, and goodbye, tennis team. The East Carolina State University graduate’s retail career next took him to the now-defunct Thalhimers, a big Richmond, Va., department store that was ultimately taken over by the May Co. After a long tenure with May/Macy’s, “I thought it was time for a change,” O’Geary says. So he moved over to Saks in 2011.

There are 40 Saks stores around the country. “But there’s something special about the Greenwich place,” he says. “It’s big and continuing to grow” – a challenge within the confines of the store’s 36,000 square feet.

Another thing about Saks Greenwich: It’s only women’s merchandise. Today’s shopper, particularly the Saks Greenwich shopper, is vastly different from that of the past.

“The customer just knows more,” O’Geary observes. “She’s been to the fashion shows in Paris. Or she’s been online and has seen the whole thing. That’s a challenge for us. She wants that instant gratification. And we have to take that extra step to make sure she has it.”

Technology, part of the challenge, is part of the solution.

“Everything is computerized,” he says. “So we can look into her ‘closet’ to see what she’s bought in the past, and she can get brand alerts from sales associates. A lot of business is conducted on Instagram, Twitter and by text. Technology is driving the volume and the merchandise. It’s easier for customers to shop.”

For us Luddites who want to luxuriate in the feel of Prada before purchase, O’Geary has the answer. The dedicated Prada, Akris and Ralph Lauren sections of the store have been renovated. And spaces for other brands will be refreshed as well. It’s all about providing the best possible setting for the best possible merchandise, whether it’s a detailed graphic T or a rich moto jacket over a great lace dress.

It’s the kind of aspiration that keeps O’Geary’s head in the game – although the New Haven resident is known to take a break for the gym or an exhibit like the fab Charles James show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

“I think about work all the time, but not in a bad way,” he says. “But rather I ask myself, ‘How can we do things differently?'”

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