September in London

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At TRR, we are always talking about the customer experience because honestly, that’s the only measure that matters for long-term success.  Happy customers, happy CEO, happy employees, happy investors. So, on a recent visit to London, we put the four legacy majors to the test. These doyennes have been marketplaces for generations of England’s residents.

Harrods started in 1824, John Lewis & Partners in 1864, Marks & Spencer in 1884, and Harry Selfridge opened his doors in 1908. And they are all still soldiering on after two centuries of feeding and clothing their loyal customers.

But longevity doesn’t always guarantee success. Our recent visits to all four revealed that for Marks & Spencer, happiness must come in the guise of super-low prices and a utilitarian store environment.  John Lewis & Partners was no less remarkable; even with some of its upscale brands, the shopping experience is forgettable.

Harrods is as exquisite as it is elegant. Surrounded by history, notice-me design, and blatant luxury, it’s a taste of what is for many, an unobtainable lifestyle. Selfridges is a festival; Harrods is a monument. 

But moving on, Selfridges and Harrods are otherworldly, delivering as much on the in-store drama front as on the graciousness and empathy of the frontline workers, not to mention the greeters and security personnel.  Both cater to an affluent customer but with different styles, narratives, and stage sets.

Harry’s Spirit Lives On

London was filled with international tourists on TRR’s recent visit. The streets were crowded, and Selfridges was filled with optimistic shoppers on a Saturday afternoon during the city’s unprecedented heatwave. It’s possible the crowds were escaping the heat; London is not designed for high temperatures and is only marginally air-conditioned. But the energy level was high and shopping bag-laden customers of all ages and backgrounds were on the prowl for luxury necessities.

Selfridges is by far one of the most exciting retail stores – anywhere.  You are greeted by a bright, white, colonnaded, airy temple to temptation. The merchandise is displayed like art objects on pedestals, making luxury handbags all the more irresistible. Acres of accessories on the ground floor provide shots of color in the white-on-white-on-grey interior.  It’s impossible not to think that Nordstrom’s on 57th Street in New York was inspired by this high-ceiling marketplace — just on a smaller scale. They sure look similar.

The 115-year-old Selfridges doesn’t miss a beat.  Although the interior is totally modern and on-trend, the gracious service and positive attitude of the frontline sales force were refreshingly old-world. And for anyone living outside of England, the presence of wealthy Mideastern families is clearly apparent when chauffeur-driven Bentleys line up at the side entrance picking up the shopping bags from their patrons’ daughters and whisking them home. There are so many head-scarved young women serving so many head-scarved shoppers. Peer-to-peer sales are essential in respecting the tradition of Muslim women who cannot and do not interact with male salespeople. The store feels like an international emporium.

The Kyle Cosmetics counter was mobbed with teenagers; the Golden Goose shop-in-shop was busy customizing $625 sparkle star sneakers.  We met a charming teenage customer from Mexico City designing her own sneakers with studs, her monogram, and words to live by, “Everything happens for a reason.” She said Golden Goose hasn’t arrived in Mexico and she was thrilled to create her own personal sneaker statement, thanks to the talented Selfridges artisan who customizes an average of 30 pairs of Golden Goose sneakers daily. And speaking of sneakers, everyone on the streets wears them. The Selfridges sneaker department seriously looked like the size of a football field, with seemingly endless selections of dazzling white models priced at hefty price points.

Lola’s cupcake café was packed, and the high-tech beauty concierge was busy with shoppers navigating the zillions of choices of hope and possibility. The aisles were loaded with shoppers with that familiar glint in their eyes, determined to buy something, anything.

Security at Selfridges are dressed as proper, suited-up gentlemen, not flack-jacketed armed guards like Nordstrom in Seattle. Selfridges guards are well-informed, friendly, and helpful…and quick to say that theft in London is rare.

The prerequisite food hall was jammed with shoppers, takeaway foods of every possible variety, and restaurant counters pigeonholed in between the food stock. It looked just like Eataly, and the novelty of the Yo Sushi conveyor belt of sushi selections requires diners to stay in focus to snap off a snack before it raced by.

In summary, Selfridges is exciting, trendy, modern, young, and hard to resist.


If Selfridges is a temple to intoxicating purchase power, Harrods is a vault of serenity and luxury.  Its boulevards of designer brand concessions create a warren of ultra-luxury boutiques, each with its own brand personality and expert sales staff, dressed accordingly. The effect is a series of mini-stage sets paying homage to Chanel. Dior, Celine, Prada, In a way, it’s a village of dollhouse rooms teeming with luxury.

Harrods requires confidence. Shopping there — if you’re doing it on your own and not with a personal stylist — is a place where you have to know the brands, the merchandise, and what’s in-store. It’s not for the casual shopper and certainly not for the faint at heart. Intentionally designed to appeal to ultra-wealth, it can be off-putting to the accidental or tourist shopper. The shoe section is the same; a labyrinth of branded shops displaying footwear as design artifacts. It’s impossible to imagine dragging shoes and clothes from one shop to another to compare styles … and prices. This is a deliberate, individual brand-based experience. Spontaneity is not the norm.

At Harrods, the store design is the hero.  Everything is theatrical, meticulously, and intentionally designed. Visiting the Rolex shop in shop is entering a silent, private viewing room. And the vast cosmetics department is a refined marketplace where the brands are only differentiated with tasteful signage. To be honest, at times it’s all so staged that it seems alienating. It’s more like a private club for the top tenth of a percent. The one throwback is the tearoom that looks like it was lifted right out of the 19th century; everyone feels comfortable here.

The hallowed food halls are a marvel. You can imagine that the managers spend time walking the aisles adjusting the displays to ensure the food is Insta-perfect and worthy of Country Fair blue-ribbon status. There are perfect rows of Harrods “H” branded boule bread. Exotic fruit displays are enticing, and seductive pastries are lined up like confection props. Every category of food as an ingredient and the impressive takeout meals are unabashed displays of the best of the best, all framed by the dramatic black and white décor.

Harrods is as exquisite as it is elegant. Surrounded by history, notice-me design, and blatant luxury, it’s a taste of what is, for many, an unobtainable lifestyle. Selfridges is a festival; Harrods is a monument.

Experience Design

Great design transforms a transaction into an experience. Visits to several trendy restaurants reveal that the hospitality industry is doing a lot better job than retail in creating the stage and drama to entertain and inspire customers. The restaurants are full of sophisticated diners, both native and foreign. Two of the most memorable are Petersham, a mash-up of an indoor garden with crystal chandeliers, and art exhibition; Hide is an artisan exercise in natural materials craftsmanship with a dramatic, centerpiece inlaid wood staircase. And the food is as extraordinary as the décor.

The street life in Soho at night is flourishing with chatty 30-somethings lining the sidewalks outside of corner pubs festooned with cascades of flowering plants. The city center reeks of vitality in counterpoint to the serene, calm garden-infused residential neighborhoods.  Mixed-use makes the human-scaled city a welcoming place, even in the 93-degree heat radiating from all those 18th-century brick and stone facades.

End Notes

So, back to customer experience. There is a grounding point for every brand. It doesn’t have to be a demoralizing experience for the value customer at John Lewis and Marks and Spencer. The same goes for brands here in the U.S. that trade utilitarianism for emotional connection. Granted that London retail has been at it for 200 years, the two leading ladies have not lost their allure, luster, and ability to make the experience of shopping transcendent to buying stuff.



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