Every year about 15 million people surge through the doors of Harrods, probably the most famous department store in the world.

Passing the top-hatted ‘green men’ at the shop’s entrances, they stream through the emporium’s 330 departments spread over seven floors and nearly 1 million sq ft. There, they will be served by a 5,000-strong army of staff.

Recruiting and keeping the right people is crucial to Harrods

Harrods

Recruiting and keeping the right people is crucial to Harrods

That amounts to a lot of customer touchpoints, and highlights the scale of the challenge to ensure that the in-store experience lives up to the highest expectations.

For many, a visit to the Knightsbridge institution will be a long-anticipated treat.

While the retailer has plenty of regular customers, for others a trip to Harrods – whether once a year or even once in a lifetime – will be a London highlight on a par with Buckingham Palace or a West End show.

If that visit disappoints, it will be a letdown never forgotten that erodes the lustre of a legendary brand.

Customer-centric strategy

Ensuring that does not happen is the responsibility of Sarah Andrews, Harrods’ retail and HR director, who has been with the business for 22 years, originally with then-subsidiary Kurt Geiger.

During her time in charge of the people side of the business, Andrews has overseen a variety of initiatives designed first to find and then retain the right employees.

They include ventures such as Harrods’ retail academy, launched in 2012, and a range of career development programmes.

Attracting the right people from between 120,000 and 150,000 applicants a year, starts from the perspective of the Harrods shopper.

“Everybody here would pick a piece of paper up off the floor. Our customers have high expectations and our people know that every little thing matters”

Sarah Andrews, Harrods

“Whether you ask customers or employees, it’s all about behavior and attitude – the difference that makes the difference,” Andrews says.

She wants those who bring “passion and pride”.

“People who are really successful here share the values of the organisation,” she adds.

“You have to have very high standards. Everybody here would pick a piece of paper up off the floor. Our customers have high expectations and our people know that every little thing matters.”

Recruiting the right candidate

From a practical point of view that has meant more effective filtering of the huge volume of online applications, such as the introduction of “situational judgment” questions designed to assess attitude, as well as identifying bright young things with a vocation for retail through school leavers’ and graduate recruitment schemes.

Sarah Andrews, Harrods

Sarah Andrews, Harrods

Sarah Andrews, Harrods

Bringing youngsters with the right attitude and aptitudes into Harrods creates the foundations of success for employees and employer alike.

Andrews says: “You have this huge excitement at 18 years old to join an organisation like Harrods. They’re very keen, very adventurous.

“We believe sales people are professionals. It’s not something you fall into because you’re not smart enough to do anything else.

“It’s an art form that needs relationship-building and integrity – some customers come generation after generation.”

Retaining talent

To ensure recruits are equipped for the challenge the retailer puts them through a three-day ‘welcome programme’ and provides development opportunities ranging from the general, such as intercultural awareness, to the specific such as a gourmet food academy.

Harrods Department Store of the Year

Harrods Department Store of the Year

For many, a visit to the Knightsbridge institution will be a long-anticipated treat

So equipped, the ambition is of course to keep those people on staff. While Andrews will not disclose staff turnover figures, she says it is well below the 41% typical across the retail and leisure industry.

She describes herself as a “living, breathing example” of how a career-long relationship can be developed with Harrods, and says that at one recent party for long-servers those attending had 3,000 years of experience between them.

To retain staff over such long periods, there has been an increased focus on career development. About a year ago, the retailer put in place a plan to help deliver that.

“The biggest challenge is talent management,” acknowledges Andrews. “Our programme might not be unusual, but it’s ambitious.”

The scheme was introduced following a staff survey which revealed that while people wanted to stay with Harrods, they were unsure of how to progress through the organisation.

“We now have a more structured process and look at future management needs,” says Andrews.

The path to success

The retailer launched a careers week, during which people talked about their own career journeys with Harrods, and now has 50 trained career advisors to provide guidance.

Harrods

Harrods

Harrods retains its reputation for excellence in customer service by recruiting staff based on their ‘situational judgement’ abilities

“Probably one of the big shifts was helping people understand that career development is not necessarily vertical,” observes Andrews.

For example, someone who wants to be a retail director might move to gain experience in another part of the business, helping them climb the ladder, without necessarily having to wait for their superior to move out of what would otherwise have been the next obvious ‘vertical’ promotion.

“You can spend time in departments you’re interested in, you can do secondments in marketing or whatever to see if it’s for you,” says Andrews – and notes that one senior womenswear staffer originally joined as a Christmas elf.

“Old-fashioned customer service has become less fashionable and more challenging generationally”

Sarah Andrews, Harrods

While Andrews is pleased with the benefits Harrods’ approach to people is bringing, it remains a taxing task to find those just right to maintain the retailer’s 166-year-old reputation for excellence and service.

“How do you consistently maintain customer service?” is the question on Andrews’ mind.

“Old-fashioned customer service has become less fashionable and more challenging generationally.”

She displays a letter of apology sent by the retailer to a customer in the 1880s, when the store was destroyed in a fire. It explained that the customer’s order would be a day or two late as a result of the disastrous blaze and begged their “kind indulgence”.

That was representative of the standards of service Andrews would ideally like to achieve at Harrods. “I think comparatively we do it well but it’s more of a challenge,” she says.

However it is a challenge that the retailer is determined not to duck.

Robert Taylor

One of eight of Harrods’ famous ‘green men’ Robert Taylor has held the role for 15 years. “I haven’t looked back,” he says.

Harrods door man

Harrods door man

Harrods ‘green man’ Robert Taylor

The former soldier and community centre manager was alerted to the opportunity by his son, who had a Christmas job at Harrods. As well as meeting and greeting, he is also the “eyes and ears” of the business, playing a part in its security and that of its visitors.

“Every day is different, that’s what’s nice,” he says. “You get satisfaction from helping people. For them, Harrods is an experience, it’s not just shopping.”

James Taheny

Sales associate James Taheny joined Harrods in 2014 as part of the school leavers’ scheme. He applied after hearing about it on the retailer’s Twitter feed and thought he would “give it a go”.

James Taheny  Harrods

James Taheny Harrods

Harrods sales associate James Taheny

He has so far worked in menswear, the famous food hall and the international crystal department.

The retailer’s training on cultural awareness and organising of visits to other parts of the business have been “really beneficial” he says. “I’d like to go down the management route and maybe into learning and development.”

Isabelle Luckett

A retail support assistant, Isabelle Luckett joined Harrods in 2014 after graduating in retail marketing and management from Leeds Metropolitan University.

Isabelle Luckett  Harrods

Isabelle Luckett Harrods

Harrods retail support assistant, Isabelle Luckett

Her programme at Harrods is designed to train her to be a manager and as well as gaining experience on the shopfloor she has worked on retail projects such as Harrods’ ’future vision for PoS’, on which she teamed up with a senior manager.

“That’s how I got into retail support,” she says. “Harrods does live up to expectations from a customer and employee point of view. It’s been a fantastic opportunity.”