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Creating a special place: How Selfridges is revitalising the store experience

Selfridges MD Anne Pitcher shares the driving forces behind the retailer’s £300m refurbishment project.

Anne pitcher selfridges managing director

Anne pitcher selfridges managing director

 

Anne Pitcher’s elegant office is an oasis of calm from the hustle and bustle of Selfridges’ busy Oxford Street store. Except, that is, for the faint sound of drilling in the background.

Pitcher, who has been managing director of the department store group since 2011, is presiding over a £300m regeneration of its 107-year-old, grade II-listed London flagship – and the work is in full swing. The hoardings are up over what will be a new triple-height entrance on Duke Street, and inside the store, sections are blocked off as they shift existing departments to make space for the new.

“A department store is a house of cards – you decide to expand one bit, you have to move something else,” explains Pitcher, speaking to Drapers in her office, which adjoins the store. “We’ve moved 80 departments around since May of this year.”

The project, which Selfridges calls its “masterplan”, technically started around two and a half years ago, when the business relocated its head office team from the third floor of the store to an adjacent building and created an underground tunnel between them. This freed up space to create the 37,000 sq ft Body Studio, a destination for activewear, lingerie, swimwear, sleepwear, hosiery and loungewear brands. The Body Studio opened in April of this year, and in July was joined by the 20,000 sq ft Designer Studio.

Importantly, the Body Studio allowed Selfridges to bring more of its contemporary womenswear brands up to the third floor from the ground floor, creating space for the ambitious plans to transform it and create the 60,000 sq ft Accessories Hall.

“We were selling women’s ready-to-wear in more than one space on more than one floor,” explains Pitcher. “Now the third floor is for contemporary brands and the studios, and the second floor is for luxury apparel. The ground floor can take its position as the world’s largest destination for accessories. It’s a much clearer journey for the customer.”

The accessories hall at selfridges 1

The accessories hall at selfridges 1

The new Accessories Hall

 

The first section of the vast new accessories department was unveiled to the public last week. It includes new concession and shop-in-shop spaces for 10 of its luxury brands: Balenciaga, Burberry, Chanel, Céline, Chloé, Chrome Hearts, Gucci, Loewe, Mulberry and Saint Laurent.

Prices extend to more than £20,000 for some handbags and clutches, but these are not snooty, closed-off designer boutiques: they are open, inviting spaces that encourage customers to walk through and take a look.

I hope it doesn’t feel like you have to knock on the door before you walk through.

“I hope it doesn’t feel like you have to knock on the door before you walk through,” says Pitcher. “We want it to be welcoming. Many of the spaces have two or three openings because we want to encourage traffic.”

Loewe selfridges 3

Loewe selfridges 3

Loewe’s Spanish millstone

Each brand has brought something different to the space. For example, Loewe imported 200-year-old millstones from Spain for its bags to rest on, while Anya Hindmarch displays hers around a lava lamp and Gucci’s small leather accessories are stuck to a magnetic wall. There is also a new cocktail bar called The Fount, which creates a focal point.

By the time the second and third phases of the accessories hall revamp are completed in 2018, the hall will have tripled in size to 60,000 sq ft, covering one-tenth of the floor space in Selfridges’ Oxford Street store. It will stock more than 100 brands and is expected to sell up to 370,000 units per year – or around 1,000 per day.

The accessories hall at selfridges the fount

The accessories hall at selfridges the fount

The Fount

 

The £300m investment has inevitably hit Selfridges’ bottom line. Sales rose 5% to £1.4bn in the year to 30 January, but its operating profits dropped 1.9% to £152m. However, Pitcher says the Body Studio and Designer Studio are performing well, and the business predicts accessories sales will increase by more than 50% between 2014, when the work started, and 2018.

And she argues that the investment was essential: “We have been able to create better customer journeys throughout all of the floors in a building that’s really grown over time. Circulation is much easier – people can see where they’re going. You can see what’s happening in the store from the outside. And hopefully what that creates is a very welcoming and engaging experience.

Our mantra is we’re not a shopping mall: we want to create a Selfridges ‘spirit’

“Department stores are supposed to offer a great experience, but what is that? Our mantra is we’re not a shopping mall: we want to create a Selfridges ‘spirit’; a feeling of being in a special store, a special place.”

This ambition extends across the store estate, which includes one in Birmingham and two in Manchester. Selfridges has already invested £20m in revamping the store on Manchester’s Exchange Square. Most of the work was completed last year, but the finishing touches were unveiled last week with the opening of a double-stacked Hermès store.

“I have to say, I think Manchester Exchange Square is one of the most beautiful stores in the UK, and in the world,” says Pitcher.

Selfridges also did a lot of work in Birmingham to coincide with the opening of the Grand Central shopping centre in September 2015.

“Next year there’s more work to do at our store in Trafford, which is well underway in terms of planning,” adds Pitcher. “It will be a significant project. It was the second store we opened [in 1998] and it really engages the local customer, but I think there’s a lot more we can do with it.”

Selfridges is also investing in its website, from which it delivers to 130 countries and transacts in 60 currencies. Earlier this year, it launched its first app, and is soft launching a service called Selfridges+, which provides unlimited delivery for £15 a year.

“What’s important is to retain a sense of balance,” argues Pitcher. “We have to continue to invest in bricks-and-mortar and our website at the same time. Many businesses only have the choice of doing one or the other, but we’re lucky to be able to invest in both. For me, the two are entirely linked.”

She adds: “Mobile is growing and we see a swing towards the use of apps. The app has allowed our customers to customise how they shop with us. They tell us what they want, rather than the other way round, which is far more engaging. There’s half a million square foot here [in the Oxford Street store] and you can choose where you want to go – you can’t trawl through a hundred thousand SKUs on the website. Tell us what you like and we’ll help you find it.” The retailer declined to reveal how sales break down between online and the stores.

Yet Pitcher is in no rush to bring digital into Selfridges’ stores. “I think the stores are about the physical, they’re where you talk to people. Online you get efficiency, in stores you get stories, touch and feel, and emotion.”

This emphasis on feel and emotion, the playfulness and sense of fun, is what sets Selfridges apart. Its Christmas theme this year is “gather, gift and get on down” and over the next few weeks it will host Santa experiences and “Troll dancing” alongside other in-store events and performances, most of which are sold out. It has plenty more activities planned for next year.

“People come to Selfridges to smile and have fun,” says Pitcher. “It’s not just great product in stores; it’s great people, great customer service, and delivering a sense of the unexpected – that’s what makes people feel great when they shop here.”

 

By the time the Accessories Hall is complete in 2018:

The ceiling will be 6 metres high

The hall will be 50 metres by 115 metres – that’s longer than the football pitch at Wembley Stadium (105 metres)

It will take up one-tenth of Selfridges’ total floor space (600,000 sq ft)

It will be lit by more than 4,000 LED bulbs

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