The first lady of the UK’s department stores has worked at all of London’s top retailers and is now buying and merchandise director at Selfridges.
Anne Pitcher looks surprised as she recalls that it has been three and a half years since she arrived at Selfridges as buying and merchandise director.
“Time flies when you’re enjoying yourself,” she grins. “Seriously, this is the most exciting place to work, it’s a very fast-paced environment. I suppose that I was fortunate to arrive soon after the company changed hands [the Weston Family bought Selfridges in 2003 and with that came the opportunity to question almost everything that we were doing and change things.”
Pitcher says the biggest changes are what customers can see in the architectural and physical environment of Selfridges’ London Oxford Street store. “In London we have opened the Wonder Room on the ground floor, repositioned menswear, and opened up the designer womenswear floor. They are three fairly large programmes of work, and in addition to that there is always some area that is being changed or refurbished.”
She says internally these smaller changes are referred to as churn projects – where the business is introducing new brands or expanding the accessories area after the opening of the Wonder Room. She is in no way dismissing these as less important – in fact it’s fairly clear she sees these changes as the lifeblood of what goes on in Selfridges’ four stores. “There is still a real hunger for spontaneity in our customers and I think that is true of all levels of our market,” says Pitcher.
But it is in luxury where she sees the most need for that element of surprise and delight. She explains: “I think it’s incredibly necessary for the luxury brands to move away from commoditisation. You can buy luxury mince pies in Tesco, for example. Nowadays the word luxury just means ‘good’.”
Pitcher is interested in the brands that can reclaim the high ground in the luxury market, but points out that this market faces the problem of wanting to serve its new customer base – the fast-growing emerging markets – while also serving its more mature markets.
She says: “I thought this autumn’s catwalks were interesting because a lot of collections showed an extraordinary quantity of fur and had other elements such as huge amounts of embellishment, which I think cater for what I call a desire for obvious luxury from the emerging markets. That sort of product will probably work well in the Middle East, Russia and China, but it could present real challenges to a business such as ours – not least because we have a no-fur policy.
“Our customer wants to feel special and that means the experience of luxury has to touch them personally. It has to be more meaningful and that can come from either the way the products are made or a feeling that the product has been created specifically for them. In a world where the rich can have anything at the drop of a hat it’s interesting to see how they are still prepared to wait for bespoke products. Perhaps what the luxury brands need to focus on is not being quite so generalist and providing products that are more specific to certain markets.”
Pitcher says that parts of the luxury market are starting to understand this dynamic. “Luxury is taking on a new meaning and brands are beginning to produce products that inspire. A good example of that would be the limited edition work Louis Vuitton has been doing with the artist Richard Price, or the Prada fairy-print bag.
There are very few of those bags around but this season every Prada shoe box has the fairy print on it. I normally throw shoe boxes away, but this one I wanted to keep.” Pitcher feels it is these art collaborations that will re-energise the luxury market, and that Selfridges should and does drive that vibe internally via similar creativity in its windows and the exhibitions and collaborations that it runs in the London store’s gallery, the Ultralounge.
It is this energy that feeds through to the rest of the stores and drives the business forward to try new things. Pitcher says: “If you take menswear in London as an example, there was some real resistance to moving men’s shirts and accessories off the ground floor, a kind of common myth that we couldn’t get men to come upstairs. But putting the menswear all together on one floor has been extraordinarily successful, with all those brands now having a bigger business. Crucially, it has allowed us to offer London’s most comprehensive menswear selection from Topman to Gieves & Hawkes, and to become a destination.”
Selfridges Oxford Street extended its menswear floor by 20,450sq ft to just over 100,000sq ft in 2006 and also boasts the “largest men’s footwear department in the Western world,” according to its press office.
The last piece of the jigsaw in menswear is reformatting the formalwear offer. Pitcher says: “We will refurbish that area in July and reopen it for autumn. We want to focus on our key partners in that area and provide a much higher level of service. We will still provide the same spread of brands from Ted Baker through to Gieves & Hawkes and Richard James but the bespoke offer will be much more edited than it is today.
“We are aiming towards providing the right environment for this customer. We have spent an extraordinary amount of time on trying to get the environment right – not just the space but things like the temperature in the fitting rooms and the amount of daylight.”
When asked what proportion of the menswear floor is now concession and what is own buy Pitcher is adamant this is not a key issue for the business.
She says: “We have succeeded if the customer does not see how we operate but they simply see the best offer. We do not start from a premise of ‘we want this much concession and this much own buy’ – what we focus on is the customer experience.
“One of the things we have learned from the Wonder Room is that there’s a male shopper who wants an aspect of privacy when he shops, so we’ll be looking to provide areas like that for the formalwear brands. What we haven’t identified at the moment is any need for a men’s personal shopping service.”
The womenswear designer floor that was finished last year was, she says, also focused on the customer experience. “It’s a freer shopping experience as you move from brand to brand. We wanted to offer something different from other stores and introduce a fresher spirit.”
However, Pitcher is not against the shop-in-shop model for womenswear. “It is still appropriate to present certain brands in their own concept stores, she says. “If you take the Superbrands area, it opened eight years ago, and it may look fixed but actually it changes all the time, and it performs extremely well. Last autumn we opened Balenciaga, this spring we opened the vintage store and Roberto Cavalli while refurbishing Stella McCartney, and this autumn we will introduce Halston.”
She adds that what Superbrands also does for the floor is provide a welcome change of pace. “When you are presenting womenswear over 100,000sq ft you need to be able to slow the customer down or speed them up and provide landmarks for them,” she says.
Superbrands may be a fixture for some time to come then, but Pitcher is also a big fan of the pop-up shop. Some of the most recent have been the Target and Temperley London four-day run during London Fashion Week last season, and Mango’s collaboration collection with Osman Yousefzada, which took pride of place in all four stores.
Pitcher says: “We love the pop-up store at Selfridges. They fulfil that need to continually excite and surprise our customers. People forget that Selfridges is still a very local store for many Londoners, and we want our regular customers to feel they are always going to find something new each time they pop in. The collaborations that we’ve been doing with artists at Christmas also lend that element of surprise.
“It does take up a lot of time and energy but it is worth it as it gives us that point of difference. Selfridges as a group of stores have their differences but the common theme is that they all attract a very fashion-hungry customer. They want newness and they appreciate a faster-paced shopping experience.”
Spot the difference
Having filled the top buying spot at all three of London’s premier department stores: Harvey Nichols, Harrods and now Selfridges, Pitcher is probably the best-placed person to define the differences between them. Selfridges, she says, has the widest spread of customers and clients, which makes it the most challenging but also the most exciting. The Birmingham store also excites her because she sees its youth as a real opportunity for growth.
The store in Birmingham’s Bullring has 190,000sq ft of retail space, making it bigger than either of the two Manchester stores – the Exchange Centre store has 119,000sq ft of retail space, while the Trafford Centre store has 143,000sq ft.
“There is a customer in Birmingham that we are growing up with – we have become part of their lives and that presents us with a great foundation to build on in the future.”
At the moment, Pitcher is concentrating on laying foundations for the future in terms of brand partnerships. She says: “When times get tougher it’s essential that you’re clear as a retailer about who you are and what you do. We have fewer brands and fewer products than when I arrived three and a half years ago, but the result is that you can see who we are much more clearly.”
Distribution seems to be a clear point of difference for Pitcher, particularly when it comes to the Oxford Street store. It is now facing challenging talk from the likes of House of Fraser, which has vowed to set out its stall between John Lewis and Selfridges in terms of price positioning.
Pitcher uses the contemporary womens-wear or bridge market as an example of her thoughts on this matter. She says: “Bridge is an area I am watching with interest. We could expect to see some of the spend at this level disappearing because of the economy. We’ll be watching it closely because the distribution of brands in department stores is becoming a real issue in this marketplace.
“Brands that allow their products to be discounted every other month in other department stores are not going to be brands that are successful in this store,” she warns.
“We like to work with brands and support them and have them support us. But brands that work with every other store on Oxford Street largely can’t be brands that can be successful in our store, and this is where I think distribution is going to become a real point of debate. In my experience it is the brands that are carefully distributed that are the most successful.”
Do Pitcher’s words point to some tough conversations with brands over the coming months? She smiles and shrugs her shoulders. “Listen, tough conversations are one of the things this business is all about,” she says.