Marigay McKee has had an insatiable appetite for Harrods since visiting its pizzeria as a girl. Now chief merchant, she reveals her own recipe for its success.
If Harrods was a love affair, for chief merchant Marigay McKee it would certainly be her childhood sweetheart.
Its ice-cream parlour and pizzeria’s singing waiters were among her first delights as a young girl, but it’s the luxury store’s tradition and grandeur that have cemented her relationship with it ever since.
McKee, promoted from fashion director last November, has climbed the head office ladder, holding fashion and beauty buying positions for more than 12 years.
“Working at Harrods has been an honour. It’s a British institution. You either love it and you stay forever, or you don’t like the taste and take another sweet from the box. Its provenance and heritage is such an integral part of my life. There’s always something new. I still find hidden treasures and nooks and crannies,” she says.
These “nooks and crannies” can be anything from the pet department to the yoga studio. McKee ensures she takes time out to walk the floor each morning for half an hour on her way to her desk. And while some would say Harrods’ more unique offerings – pet meditation and crystal pedicures for tortoises – were crackpot, to McKee they are “magical”.
“It’s weird but wonderful. A bulldog coming in for a minty fresh breath treatment: how fabulous is that?”
But for all McKee’s whimsical recollections and effusiveness, she is twice as commercially astute and ambitious. Her reputation throughout the industry for both perfection and professionalism is formidable.
Emma Jones, director of sales at agency Mirabel Edgedale, which represents labels including Missoni and Nanette Lepore, says: “She’s got a real business head and a fantastic eye. Coming from a beauty background gives her a real edge.”
McKee’s recipe for success is clear: exclusivity, point of difference, ‘wow’ factor, “extremely” high service, good quality and a “massive” focus on luxury.
Across fashion at Harrods, these factors translate into exclusive services such as private buying events for top-spending clients – experiences that “money can’t buy”. She recounts one in March, where 50 women were invited to listen to her and designer Roland Mouret in conversation, before being able to try on dresses with Mouret doing personal fittings.
“It’s not about giving them an expensive dress, it’s about giving them an opportunity to chat to the designer that’s making that dress, and have that designer pin that dress on them and alter it so it fits like a glove,” she says.
Also increasingly popular is a unique collaboration introduced two years ago with couture label Ralph & Russo. Customers don’t buy a dress – they buy a sketch, delivered to their home in a beautiful box with a ribbon.
McKee enthuses: “It gets made on you. The person that buys it knows no one else will have it. They make it with you. And on you.”
Brimming with ideas, McKee flits between describing time spent negotiating margins with the chief executives of brands, to working with architects on store development, to her student design mentoring duties at the British Fashion Council, and of course being a parent to her two teenage kids. Harrods, though, is a constant presence, and inspiration, it seems, comes from everywhere.
Rebuilding the Knightsbridge store is currently occupying McKee’s creative time.
She has committed to 50 projects over a 26-week period, including four new international designer womenswear rooms, an overhaul of kidswear and sportswear, expansion of the ground floor luxury accessories room to include boutiques for Louis Vuitton and Chanel, and a revamp of the Men’s Lab – an edit of contemporary and denim lifestyle brands.
She explains: “A lot of inspiration comes from little boutiques that have a great philosophy and a different way of merchandising. You might go to a store in Tokyo that looks like a nightclub or an S&M cave but it will be selling Givenchy or McQueen really well.”
Although McKee’s self-professed “anal retentiveness” leads her to merchandise other people’s stores on research trips, in Harrods it means the detail – down to the swimwear department smelling of suntan oil or the lingerie department evoking fresh talc – is taken care of.
Qatar Holding, which bought Harrods from Mohamed Al Fayed in 2010 for £1.5bn, is “doubling capital expenditure this year” – up from £32.7m in 2010/11. With such backing, McKee now has the resources, speed and efficiency to match her ambition for the store.
“It will really make a difference for our future results,” she says.
Harrods broke through the £1bn sales barrier in January 2011 after tourists hit the shops in the run-up to Christmas, but McKee’s ambition now is to reach the £2bn threshold within five years.
“We grew by 12% last year – in the first year after the billion – and we’re on target to grow by the same amount (this year). I’m asking myself: what can I do to influence the product, the people, the positioning and the power of the brand to get to the £2bn goal?” she says.
One thing helping this growth has been the increased exit price points and a significant shift towards international designerwear in fashion. In the rooms where McKee has edited the brand mix – upgrading to have more designer focus – she has doubled the turnover.
“The average transactional value is two or three times more, so even if you’re selling less, you’re increasing turnover. When I started at Harrods, the most expensive dress on the floor was £4,000. Last year, however, there was a £250,000 dress in the window, which was bought by a Hollywood actress,” she says.
McKee has also been fine-tuning brand adjacencies to suit the increasingly international customer profile. At the moment it’s split 50/50 between locals and tourists, but those coming from China, Russia, India, the Middle East, Brazil and Africa are big spenders.
These new consumers are all about the power brands: Chanel, Dior, Prada, Gucci and Vuitton, says McKee, reeling off the names. The traditional customer, meanwhile, remains loyal to the timeless style of Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan. And the second-generation international traveller, for whom understated luxury is a growing trend, chooses Loro Piana or Brunello Cucinelli.
“It’s having a [mix] of the right brands in the right place at the right time, with the right spaces. For a store of our size, it’s about creating the right adjacencies. These streams of focus will make up the trends today and in the future,” says McKee. Indeed, if they manage to fall in love with Harrods as deeply as McKee has, this certainly won’t be a one-night stand.
Harrods in numbers
1 million Size of Knightsbridge store in sq ft. Shop floor is 770,000 sq ft
5,000 Number of employees during the Knightsbridge store’s busiest periods
50 Buyers at Harrods
12 General managers
6 Board directors
72 Windows at the Knightsbridge store
50 Projects over a 26-week period in 2012 are being overseen by McKee