We’re in for our hardest year ever – boring shops won’t survive’: Selfridges boss’s warning as department store opens Foodhall and cuts its dividend

Anne Pitcher, the Selfridges managing director who has spent a lifetime working in shops, replies bluntly when asked how it felt to turn the lights out and pull up the shutters on Oxford Street’s most iconic store.

‘Awful,’ she says, describing herself as ‘never happier than when I’m on the shop floor’. ‘The day we had to close was, for all of us, something we never thought we’d have to do – and something we haven’t had to do since the war.

‘For a girl who’s not used to working from home, I’m finding myself quite keen to get back to work if I’m honest.’

Confident: Selfridges boss Anne Pitcher has missed the shop floor

Confident: Selfridges boss Anne Pitcher has missed the shop floor

Perhaps it’s that long experience that allows her to grasp so firmly what for many will be a painful assessment of retail’s future.

‘We will change the way we shop from this point on forever,’ says the store’s 63-year-old boss. ‘We will shop more digitally, there will be fewer stores, I’m afraid. 

‘People in the short term will not want to visit public spaces as often or attend large events. It will be the most difficult year ahead of us that we’ve ever known.’

The silver lining is that ‘it’s the years beyond that that are going to be the exciting times’. ‘This is about reinventing retail, nothing less,’ she adds. ‘Stores will be different forever.’

Selfridges’ financial position is far from critical, unlike so many retailers that may not make it very far past their exit from lockdown. But Pitcher says her reaction to the crisis was no different.

‘Out came the accountants and you take a deep dive into what is possible and what isn’t possible,’ she says as the company began ‘reviewing our cost structure, ambitions and investment plans’.

‘We’ve done what anybody else does,’ she says, revealing that Selfridges has accessed Government subsidies including the furlough scheme for staff, whose wages it has topped up to full pay, as well as prudently shelving its annual dividend ‘certainly for the current year’.It’s about reinventing retail, nothing less 

The private firm’s most recent accounts show it paid £70million in the year to February 2019 on sales of £1.85billion. Its four top-end department stores – London, Birmingham and two in Manchester – have been closed for seven weeks now with ‘a lot of stock’ inside, Pitcher explains with exasperation.

‘The good news is that I think we do have a future. We’ve been in business since 1909 and we’ll be here for a lot longer.’

As if to prove that, a week ago it quietly reopened its Foodhall on the ground floor of the Oxford Street shop with a small number of the company’s 5,000 or so staff and an attention to detail that many retailers have long since left behind in endless rounds of cost cuts.

A doorman, yellow posies for every customer, and even a new weekly ‘Full Fridge’ competition in which one local and one shop worker get a full fridge of food delivered by the company.

What are people buying in lockdown?: ‘Beauty has been a very strong category for us,’ she says. ‘The necessities. It’s something that makes you feel good and doesn’t necessarily always need to cost very much.

‘We’ve also had a lot more interest in products for the home – and as families spend more time together. Also, toys or learning games. We’ve all spent more time in the kitchen, baking and looking after one another.’

There is also the ever-present hand sanitiser, a one-way system through the store and a separate entrance for NHS staff and care workers. 

Returning staff were given screens at tills, temperature checks, food and drink during the day, free car parking: ‘Anything we could think of to make them feel more looked after’.

‘This isn’t going to save our bacon. But it’s important to remain relevant and the first customers in were so pleased – some of the locals and our neighbours. 

‘The opening of the Foodhall has also allowed us to experiment and learn a lot of things and all that thinking is well under way for what the future might hold,’ Pitcher says.

‘The question is how do we come back better than before?’ she asks aloud. ‘You start by being agile in your thinking and being prepared to challenge anything you thought was normal before. 

‘It’s important to start thinking about doing things differently and respond to new social behaviours. All that might seem very huge and grand. But look at everything though the lens of the customer, think what they need and build your ideas around that.’We are going to learn a lot in the next year 

Her analysis? ‘People may buy less – but they may buy better. They may look for more value, to own things for longer. 

‘They may look more closely at where things come from and how they’re made, I’m sure they will. 

‘I think it was changing before lockdown. I think Covid-19 has increased awareness and concern of the way we live our lives and the decisions that we take. Central to our thinking has always been sustainability and doing the right thing.’

Pitcher says she expects trends in fashion retail to accelerate. Resale of pre-worn or repaired clothing, for example. 

‘There are many different models emerging that we’ve been working with over recent months that will forever change the typical model of retail but still allow us to sell things, but selling in a different way with more respect for people and planet.’

The company has been selling more online where demand for beauty and products for the home has ‘allowed us to rethink about whether we were ever ambitious enough’ in those areas previously.

‘To be candid, ready-to-wear and clothing have been more difficult. We don’t need so many clothes at the moment.’

Back in bloom: The Selfridges Foodhall in Oxford Street has reopened

Back in bloom: The Selfridges Foodhall in Oxford Street has reopened

Pitcher and her team have been sizing up reopening plans for the rest of the shop, while acknowledging that Government directives will ultimately control the shape and timing. ‘We’ll open the day they say we can and in any which way is available to us – and we’ll be right back at it.’ 

Separate exits and entrances, strict social distancing, calculating the number of people stores can hold at any one time is ‘the very least that you have to do’, she adds. 

‘What we are doing is looking how we can provide experiences over and above that – as shown in the Foodhall – the kind of thing that is the ‘Selfridges way’.

‘We just need to make sure there is enough space. One solution is to open the shop by floor, another could be that we reduce the amount of stuff that’s out – less touch but more enjoyment and more one-to-one interaction with the customer. 

‘I suspect we’re going to learn a lot in the coming year that will serve us very well for the future.’

She agrees a return to normality could take years, even for a business with committed backers – namely British-Canadian billionaire Galen Weston and his family.

‘This is not just 2020 and it probably won’t be in 2021 – it’s the years beyond,’ Pitcher says. ‘From a financial perspective the question is how quickly do we get back there. 

‘But I think people will always enjoy being with people and once we can understand being out and about in society as a safe place to be, then I’m confident that people will continue to come back to our stores.’

But which shop chains are most vulnerable to closure?

‘Shops that don’t deliver experience. We’re great operators in the retail sector. I think great operators tend to buckle down, watch costs and pull back on investment plans – baton down the hatches.

‘But what we have to do is look up and out, be bold and consider a better future. You can’t afford to be boring.’

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