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Making it click

Selfridges’ managing director is skillfully mixing luxury and fast fashion – but sees multichannel as her greatest task yet.

Anne Pitcher

Anne Pitcher

High, low, fast and slow,” is how managing director Anne Pitcher describes Selfridges in relation to other department stores. It may be a cliché, but it’s a business that can never stand still, she says.

It’s been almost four years since Drapers profiled Pitcher, back when she was buying and merchandise director at Selfridges. In that time the store has launched its acclaimed Shoe Galleries and the first phase of its Womens Designer Galleries – a three-part overhaul of womenswear, with Chanel, Céline, Balenciaga and Dries Van Noten among eight designer “boutiques” now sitting alongside the main offer, which has doubled in size. It has also dipped its toe into environmental campaigning and embarked on the big challenge facing all retailers: creating an engaging and compelling multichannel experience.

Poised in the calm of her plush white office, Pitcher muses over the myriad changes, coming to a pause at multichannel. “It’s one of the most significant of all,” she says. “It’s about creating an emotional multi-store journey.

I would like customers to think there are a multitude of different ways to enjoy Selfridges.”

She points to phase one of the multi-million pound Womens Designer Galleries, which opened last month, as having delivered the best multichannel experience to date. Filming the building of the space, with its lavish marble floor and restored original features, provided material for unique digital content and online discussion.

Pitcher says: “It was the best experience in so far as we documented the building of the space online and released the film over three phases. We set an ad campaign through traditional media, then a campaign through digital media.

“We invited you to explore some exclusively defined products by some of the world’s best designers for the first time online. And in some instances, [we invited you to] shop online but you could also make a personal shopping appointment and reserve those items in-store.”

This was, in fact, the way that the first item from the Womens Designer Gallery – a Balenciaga dress – was sold.

“You must interact on every level,” says Pitcher. “That’s what we endeavour to do.

It’s more than just selling product. You need to be a destination in your customers’ hearts and minds and be part of the way they live.”

Of course, product is still key to this. The last time Drapers interviewed Pitcher, her focus was on building brand collaborations and tightening the brand mix. Brand distribution, she says, is still important. These days, though, exclusivity is about more than creating a range.

She explains: “It’s more the way you do things than what you do now. It’s less what you’ve got and more how you sell it. The whole experience and entertainment is so important.

“Brand distribution matters most to retailers who are trying to build a vision of what their store should look and feel like, or what their proposition should be.”

She still maintains that brands with wide distribution and long markdown periods are the hardest to work with. “They are the more difficult businesses and the ones where you have to edit very carefully to make sure we and they succeed where we represent them.”

Because of this, brand collaborations as entertainment and experience have become just as important in creating a point of difference. “We try to work and collaborate with brands and products and designers, tapping into what’s going on in the world,” she says.

Such thinking has led to partnerships as diverse as Giles Deacon’s yellow centenary dress, Christian Louboutin’s self-curated 20th-anniversary exhibition and Project Ocean (a partnership with 20 conservation and environmental groups) – what Pitcher terms “retail activism”.   All of this serves to give Selfridges a voice and reinforce its personality, she says.

Pitcher and her team have also been working on increasing the breadth of luxury and value brands working in counterpoint to create “the Selfridges dynamism”.

Across the Womens Designer Galleries, new partnerships with established luxury names like Céline and Prada have been complemented by the freshness of London Fashion Week designers including Peter Pilotto and Mary Katrantzou. “Both [brands] have huge shopfloor standout and are comercially successful. They look absolutely part of and are relevant designers within a global edit,” says Pitcher.

She also cites Primark – controversially introduced last November as an edited menswear concession in the Trafford and Birmingham stores – as a “great fashion” brand. The Primark partnership drew much criticism that Selfridges was lowering its standards.

Pitcher, naturally, has a swift response to this. Fashion, she says, is what underpins everything in Selfridges. She points out that Primark was an “instant” success, becoming a top five brand in its sector in the two stores. It has also opened neighbouring brands up to a new audience.

“We talk about luxury, luxury, luxury but this [Selfridges] is a great destination for fashion. We are a fast-fashion destination. It’s always fashion brands and a fashion point of view. The energy that this creates, there’s bound to be something for everyone.”

She adds: “Primark provoked a huge response and I’m very proud. Have those that have been negative seen it? I think probably not. Where you have a hugely successful retailer in a large footprint and then edit them down, you have a compelling retail destination. It looks great.

And what that shows is Selfridges is accessible.”

Not only is this now prompting discussion as to how the partnership might translate to womenswear, but she hints that such collaborations may not be confined to Primark: “The message is that we have to look everywhere for opportunity.”

Such an approach will be key to maintaining momentum in difficult times. While pre-tax profits were a healthy £127m for the year to January 29, 2011, Pitcher admits Christmas was “tough” compared with previous years.

But Selfridges maintained full price in the face of widespread discounting outside the store.

“Fortunately, we cleared up very quickly in January with a short sharp Sale. 2012? It’s been an OK start and I’m optimistic,” she asserts.

So far, accessories, footwear and bags have been the best-performing categories, seeing “strong” growth due to an increase in the women’s footwear floorspace from 20,000 sq ft to 35,000 sq ft.

Footwear sales were up 71% in the three months from launch and by last February around 10,000 pairs a week were being sold, exceeding targets of 8,500. Now that that £10m investment in the Shoe Galleries has proven itself, the next area set for a boost is womenswear. She also hopes to replicate the success of the womens Shoe Galleries in men’s footwear, increasing floorspace threefold and upping the number of brands to 250 for launch in November.

Pitcher and her team expect the multi-million pound Womens Designer Galleries department at the London Oxford Street store to double the turnover it previously achieved from that floorspace in just a year. Phase two will open in November and phase three in spring 13.

If Selfridges can achieve all of these ambitions, its future will be more high than low.

Selfridges milestones

2012  The Womens Designer Galleries, phase one, opens

2010  The Shoe Galleries and a transactional website launch

2008  The winner of Best Multiple Retailer at the Drapers Fashion Awards

2007  The Wonder Room, dedicated to fine jewellery, watches and gifts, opens

2003  The Weston family buy Selfridges

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