Selfridges’ UK managing director Anne Pitcher reveals what sets the business apart from others this Christmas. By Gemma Goldfingle.

This Christmas, it is feared, could be one of the toughest in recent times for retailers, but Selfridges UK managing director Anne Pitcher is feeling optimistic as she takes her first festive run-up in charge of the department store.

“Christmas is the time of year when Selfridges comes into its own, offering its own distinctive take on the festive season,” she says. “We will grow on last year. As long as we don’t have the snow that last year brought we should have a really good Christmas.”

The retailer has opted for a white Christmas theme in-store, with its windows decked out to create a winter wonderland, as well as a shop-in-shop selling a range of exclusive white products ranging from handbags to vodka.

Pitcher is a firm believer that it is points of difference such as the White Shop that are one of Selfridges’ greatest strengths compared with other department stores – and she should know, she has worked for most of them.

Pitcher was appointed managing director of Selfridges UK in January – the retailer is part of international business Selfridges Group, run by Paul Kelly and owned by members of the Weston family. Pitcher is no stranger to the business, as her promotion came after six years as buying and merchandising director.

She says of Selfridges: “We want to give a reason to visit, and by showing you things you didn’t know you needed, or that you didn’t know existed, you’ll want to come in. We’ve tried to bring brands in that don’t partner with other stores.”

Stocking brands that do not have a presence otherwise in the UK also protects Selfridges – which aims to “reflect” price cuts that its concession partners run elsewhere – from the discounting frenzy that has been rife across the high street, according to Pitcher.

It should put the retailer on a firm footing for Christmas, which is forecast to be one of the most promotional ever across the high street.

Pitcher explains: “Exclusivity is key, because the customer knows – as soon as one store offers a discount, she knows where she is going to buy it. We have brands that don’t suffer from that. Even the fragrances we stock are niche or luxury so we don’t play price wars.”

Fashion forward

Among the most high-profile names to be introduced at Selfridges this year are H&M, alongside Monki and Cheap Monday which are also owned by the Swedish fashion group, and value fashion titan Primark, which has launched a menswear collection Selfridges’ Manchester Trafford Centre and Birmingham stores.

But the introduction of such fast-fashion names does not reflect a change in Selfridges’ positioning, Pitcher maintains. She says: “Our goal has always been to show the most luxurious, beautiful collections alongside the fastest collections. We’re about fashion.

“We don’t have boring cheap stuff and we don’t have boring expensive stuff. Nobody can argue that Primark isn’t a great fashion brand.

“Neither [H&M nor Primark] had ever partnered with a department store. They’re great fashion brands, extremely affordable and only available in Selfridges. Those things make great partnerships.”

The Primark collection, which includes 10% that has been produced exclusively for Selfridges, has been “very well received” according to Pitcher. She says the Selfridges concessions offer a different shopping environment for customers who do not want to traipse through one of the value fashion giant’s flagship stores.

Pitcher believes that Selfridges has a wider customer base than any of its competitors and that its customers shop across its entire spectrum of brands, from H&M to the luxury labels. A changing brand mix has also brought in new customers, who she says are “younger in spirit”.

However, Pitcher points out that the retailer is about more than just the brands it sells – it is a destination, which any shopper trying to get through the crowds gathered outside its Christmas windows would testify.

And it is not just over the festive period that Selfridges draws in the customers eager to see what it is being showcased. The retailer launched art exhibition the Museum of Everything in September, and in May it kick-started Project Ocean to highlight the dangers of over-fishing.

“We’re more than a place you buy clothes or bags. It’s a place you can stay, absorb, be entertained, have fun and shop,” Pitcher says.

“Our relationship with arts, science and culture makes us a store that allows you to engage with us in a very different way to other retailers. Our challenge is to do things differently, with energy and imagination.”

The retailer’s initiatives have clearly paid off as it has continued to flourish through the difficult trading conditions of the downturn. In the last year to January profits soared 19% to £127m on sales up 11% to £950m.

Work in progress

Pitcher rules out any new store openings to further drive growth, in favour of exploiting opportunities in Selfridges’ existing shops.

The four-store UK business is committed to investing in refurbishments and expansion, and investment has paid dividends. The £10m ploughed into developing the world’s largest shoe department in its Oxford Street store, for instance, has resulted in sales smashing expectations.

Selfridges buying director of womenswear, accessories and kidswear Sebastian Manes revealed earlier this year that the department was selling 10,000 pairs of shoes per week compared with a target of 8,500.

Pitcher, a self-confessed lover of shoes who likes to visit the department each evening before going home, says the Shoe Galleries was a big reason for the retailer’s profits jump in its last financial year and helped reinvigorate the entire brand.

“It helped build our shoe business in all of our stores and it gave us a real opportunity to talk about ourselves and invite people to come in and enjoy the experience,” she says.

Next year the focus in Oxford Street will be womenswear. The second floor, which houses designer brands, is set for an overhaul. Pitcher said the 18-month project would begin in March starting with the eastern end of the store, and it will bring in new luxury brands.

Oxford Street is not the only one of Selfridges’ stores to benefit from investment. Its Manchester Exchange Square shop is undergoing a £20m revamp over the next three years and the Trafford Centre store will open an extended and refurbished menswear department next year.

With a full development pipeline under way, Pitcher is looking forward to not just a happy Christmas but also a prosperous new year.

Making Selfridges multichannel

The launch of Selfridges’ transactional website in spring last year has been a driver of performance, according to Pitcher, who says the channel will deliver more revenue than its regional stores “very soon”.

She says the site has more than doubled traffic and sales year on year.

However, Pitcher points out that Selfridges’ online channel is not just transactional but informational – the face of Selfridges for many customers who do not live close to one of its four stores.

“More than a third of visitors go online to simply understand our brand,” she says.

The retailer is in the process of adding more content to its website by uploading events such as the Oxford Street Christmas lights switch-on and the unveiling of this year’s white Christmas theme.

Despite its success in the UK, there are no plans to take the site international or even deliver overseas, according to Pitcher. “It’s a domestic site and we’re a domestic store and proud to be so. We are targeted to the UK customer.”

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Selfridges’ Christmas best-sellers

Patriotic purchases and trendy technology were early favourites at the department store in the lead up to Christmas.

Big sellers so far include the Kindle e-reader, children’s tablet computers, traditional Christmas jumpers and British-themed decorations, which the retailer said was trading 30% up on last year.

London-themed products have been one of the retailer’s top five Christmas decorations.

SodaStream

SodaStream

However, sales of American-themed gifts such as popcorn makers, SodaStream drinks makers and slush puppy machines, priced between £25 and £40, have also soared 60% on last year.

Pitcher says: “This year sales of traditional gifts with a Selfridges twist have been most popular, proving that even the most age-old traditions can improve with a little makeover.”

White truffles costing up to £7,500 a kilo have flourished and are up 380% on last year, showing customers are still splashing out on luxury.