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Saks Closing – King Street’s Cemetery Ridge?

Lee Walton

The high water mark in the history of King Street’s revitalized shopping district may have been reached recently with the announced departure of Saks Fifth Avenue from the corner of King and Market. The reality of the current world-wide recession, changing tourist demographics, and an initial reach too far to serve a relatively small, specialty customer market share has combined to end a 14-year experiment for Charleston’s first and only nationally prominent, luxury department store. What started nearly two decades ago as a much-hyped “almost impossible dream” for Charleston’s Mayor and one of his closest, most loyal deal-estate developer cronies will end as a whimpered sigh later this summer.

Charleston’s Saks, the acknowledged anchor tenant of the Calhoun-to-Broad King Street shopping district, proved to be an unviable economic investment for the New York-based department store conglomerate. The bold, chiseled-in-stone Saks Fifth Avenue lettering high above the corner opposite Charleston Place will likely, and unceremoniously be replaced with Forever 21, another also-ran discount department store chain catering to the not-so-wealthy fledgling cruise ship market and younger, more numerous, and ever-growing horde of local college students.

Like most cities, the current recession and “new normal” economic reality have taken a broad, sweeping toll on local Charleston area governments, businesses, residents, and the hospitality industry without favor. Fortunately, unlike most other metropolitan areas of its size, Greater Charleston’s unique history, architecture, climate, and natural environment still make it a desirable destination for middle-aged transplants looking for a second career, regional tourists and undergraduate and postgraduate college students. Even now, local service and hospitality sector employment is available for those willing to work hard for modest wages until hoped-for better times offer better opportunities.

Regardless of what rung on the economic ladder one may presently occupy, it’s a fair bet that rung is several lower than occupied four of five years ago. Business and personal investments and retirement “nest eggs” have shrunk significantly for everyone, prince and pauper alike. The reality of the “new normal” is that everyone has ratcheted down their spending habits on both necessities and luxury items. Everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, has become more frugal and bargain conscious. Faced with this reality in the much smaller than traditional Charleston market, Saks took its only economically viable option – when its Charleston store couldn’t generate enough revenue to cover fixed costs, it was more profitable corporately to close.

Only time will tell if peninsula Charleston will again become viable enough to attract another luxury department store on the scale of Saks, but the odds are against it, at least during the productive lives of those currently in control of local government and business. A quick look down King Street and Market Street to the Cruise Terminal doesn’t bode well for high-end, luxury shoppers with considerable disposable income. To the contrary, it now appears that Charleston has ratcheted down its target market objectives to compete with Myrtle Beach for the tee shirt and trinket crowd and Port Everglades for the cruise ship gamblers.

Confederate General Pickett led the Confederacy to its all too brief high water mark on Cemetery Ridge during the Battle of Gettysburg. Odds are that Mayor J. Pericles Riley has also led a similar lost cause by again reaching too far and charging into the heavy firepower of a global recession with a less than well thought out economic strategy for Charleston’s future.

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