An extract from Anne Pitcher’s interview for The Mail on Sunday (9/5/2020). ‘We will change the way we shop from this point on forever, we will shop more digitally. There will be fewer stores, I'm afraid”, said Anne Pitcher, Selfridges’ Group Managing Director. 'People in the short term will not want to visit public spaces as often or attend large events. It will be the most difficult year ahead of us that we've ever known.' The silver lining is that 'it's the years beyond that that are going to be the exciting times. This is about reinventing retail, nothing less,' she adds. 'Stores will be different forever.' Selfridges' financial position is far from critical, unlike so many retailers that may not make it very far past their exit from lockdown. 'We've done what anybody else does,' she says, revealing that Selfridges has accessed Government subsidies including the furlough scheme for staff, whose wages it has topped up to full pay, as well as prudently shelving its annual dividend 'certainly for the current year'.
Its four top-end department stores – London, Birmingham and two in Manchester – have been closed for seven weeks now with 'a lot of stock' inside, Anne Pitcher explained. A week ago, Selfridges quietly reopened its Foodhall on the ground floor of the Oxford Street shop with a small number of the company's 5,000 or so staff. 'The opening of the Foodhall has also allowed us to experiment and learn a lot of things and all that thinking is well under way for what the future might hold,' Anne says. 'The question is how do we come back better than before?' she asks aloud. 'You start by being agile in your thinking and being prepared to challenge anything you thought was normal before. 'It's important to start thinking about doing things differently and respond to new social behaviours. All that might seem very huge and grand. But look at everything though the lens of the customer, think what they need and build your ideas around that.' We are going to learn a lot in the next year. 'People may buy less – but they may buy better. They may look for more value, to own things for longer. They may look more closely at where things come from and how they're made’. 'I think it was changing before lockdown. I think Covid-19 has increased awareness and concern of the way we live our lives and the decisions that we take. Central to our thinking has always been sustainability and doing the right thing.'
Anne Pitcher says she expects trends in fashion retail to accelerate. Resale of pre-worn or repaired clothing, for example. Selfridges has been selling more online where demand for beauty and products for the home has 'allowed us to rethink about whether we were ever ambitious enough' in those areas previously. She and her team have been sizing up reopening plans for the rest of the shop, while acknowledging that Government directives will ultimately control the shape and timing. 'We'll open the day they say we can and in any which way is available to us – and we'll be right back at it.' Separate exits and entrances, strict social distancing, calculating the number of people stores can hold at any one time is 'the very least that you have to do', she adds. 'We just need to make sure there is enough space. One solution is to open the shop by floor, another could be that we reduce the amount of stuff that's out – less touch but more enjoyment and more one-to-one interaction with the customer.
She agrees a return to normality could take years. ‘This is not just 2020 and it probably won't be in 2021 – it's the years beyond,' she says. 'From a financial perspective the question is how quickly do we get back there. 'But I think people will always enjoy being with people and once we can understand being out and about in society as a safe place to be, then I'm confident that people will continue to come back to our stores.' But which shop chains are most vulnerable to closure? 'Shops that don't deliver experience. 'But what we have to do is look up and out, be bold and consider a better future. You can't afford to be boring.'