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Retail a duller place without Al Fayed

Jessica Brown

Last weekend marked the end of an era as one of retail’s more colourful characters, Mohamed Al Fayed, sold his Harrods empire off for a whopping £1.5bn and exited the fashion industry for good.

Last weekend marked the end of an era as one of retail’s more colourful characters, Mohamed Al Fayed, sold his Harrods empire off for a whopping £1.5bn and exited the fashion industry for good. The deal with the Qatari royal family, which had been repeatedly denied over the past few months by the Al Fayed camp, is said to have come as just as much of a shock to head office as it did to the wider business community.

Al Fayed, who at aged 81 still obsessively tramped the one million sq ft luxury department store for up to two hours each day to check that everything was up to the standards expected. Though he was often best known for his volatile temper (there are few ex-Harrods staff without a fascinating Al Fayed encounter to recount) and his colourful outbursts in the media, his contribution to retail and his creation of the UK’s ultimate department store should not be underestimated. So much so, it’s become almost impossible to separate the man himself from the Harrods brand.

Fortunately, the Harrods management team is solid, with managing director Michael Ward and group fashion and beauty director Marigay McKee well aware of Al Fayed’s formula for success. They must stick to this religiously if an international roll-out of Harrods goes ahead.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Vergo Retail, which includes some of the most recognised indie department stores such as Lewis’s of Liverpool, Joplings of Sunderland and Robbs of Hexham, fell victim to the challenging climate this week. Rent bills were partly to blame but a tired store estate and a lack of anchor brands were at the heart of the group’s difficulties. The stores might not be on the scale of Harrods but were iconic in their local markets and their potential closure in a shrinking market is a sorry state of affairs.Jessica Brown Editor

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