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Selfridges Exec: ‘Radical Times Require Radical Thinking’

High-end department store operator Selfridges Group had ambitions to embark on a new sustainability strategy this year that was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic—so now it’s adjusting those plans and thinking local.

“We found ourselves living in radical times, and radical times require radical thinking,” said Anne Pitcher, managing director at Selfridges Group. “We are contending with a rapidly changing customer whose needs change every two weeks.”

Pitcher noted that change isn’t easy, particularly when governmental policy can sometimes put up barriers “between us and success, and on top of that a pandemic,” a scenario that results in being forced to make some difficult decisions due to “bottom lines like we’ve never seen before and will feel for years to come.”

The Selfridges head said at the WWD Virtual Apparel and Retail Summit last week that while radical change can unleash anxieties, the retailer is looking forward to the opportunities ahead.

The company operates five international department store brands—Selfridges in the U.K., Arnotts and Brown Thomas in Ireland, De Bijenkorf in the Netherlands and Holt Renfrew in Canada.

Sustainability still has a key role in Selfridges’ strategy, whose goals include a 2025 target date. On the agenda is giving customers many ways to shop as responsibly as possible. That includes renting designer outfits, using refillable containers for beauty products, a repair shop for accessories, and launching new, sustainable products in merchandise offerings.

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“Times have changed, and we have to change with them,” Pitcher said, noting that the element of change is not limited to just the business but that company executives also need to “change ourselves as leaders. We need to change ourselves first. If we can’t change radically, then neither can our business.”

“Instead of thinking about sustainability as a limit placed on our business, we need to think of it in a new way for our customer to shop in a way that surprises and delivers,” she said.

Retailers need to need to look at their entire business with a fresh set of eyes, and look through a lens that includes experiences, the customers and their “destinations.”

For the past eight months, customers have had virtually everything delivered to their front doors. Multi-brand retailers are designed to foster social human experiences, and even when they can fully reopen, having an easy to use website providing speedy delivery will still be a part of that experience and association with the retail brand. Retailers can blend the physical store and a digital experience that serves customers, but they also need to listen and act on what they hear that customers want so “we can be a vital part of their lives.” And the space in the physical store can make destinations an integral part of that experience, such as the best shops as social spaces, or in the case of the London store, the inclusion of a bike shop.  Retailers need to think about what customers want to buy, she said.

“We use product to [tell] to the world ‘Here we are’ without opening our mouths. When people change, we need to change what we sell,” Pitcher said.

In McKinsey & Co.’s State of Fashion 2021 report with Business of Fashion, Pitcher spoke about the interruption of travel and its impact on luxury retail. She said department stores have an advantage because they have large open spaces that can be used for art, food and social gathering. “There’s a lot more that people can do in a space than just buy stuff,” she said.

But she also noted in the report that the falloff in international travel and tourism due to the pandemic also provided an opportunity for the company to focus on the local customer and its domestic marketplaces. It’s a strategy that she said can enable retailers a chance at surviving the pandemic’s upheaval.

“All of our businesses are very local, but there is a huge opportunity to continue to build domestic business. You can start with a pretty strong assumption that digital is going to continue to over-deliver on 2020 plans,” she said. “One of the things we have done well in the past is invite people into the store for events. We’ve found that we’ve reached a much wider audience with some of our recent digital conversations, turning them into customers of the future.”

There’s been talk that international travel might not return for another year or two due to Covid. Pitcher said in the McKinsey report that if “international travel doesn’t happen before 2022, it’s going to be very long and hard… We will need to focus far more on our communities and our relevance in our domestic market, and we’ll all need to try new models.”