Selfridges boss Anne Pitcher: ‘The high street is a tragedy’

The doyenne of department stores may be departing for a rival soon, but she is confident that reinvention can keep physical shopping alive

The queen of department stores is hanging up her crown. In her trademark shiny bob, worn with an immaculate designer outfit and chunky jewellery, Anne Pitcher, the boss of Selfridges, has just a few weeks left in the job after more than 40 years stalking the shop floor.

She is exiting stage left just months after the upmarket department store changed hands, but Pitcher insists this is not because department stores are in their death throes. She is, after all, off to help run the department store chain of Selfridges’ former owner, Canadian firm Holt Renfrew.

“Physical department stores will not be dying out, not on my watch,” she says. “Every time you look, something else is there to attack the original department store model, so we must continue to reinvent.”

Sitting in her luxurious office above Selfridges’ Oxford Street store, Pitcher says the cost of living crisis will touch everyone, even well-heeled Selfridges customers. But she adds that tourists are now flooding back to London after Covid, helping bump sales at the flagship store above pre-pandemic levels: “The store is busy – it will be an exciting trading season.”

Still, it is a tough time to be in the business of department stores. Family-owned group Fenwicks last week announced plans to close its Bond Street store after 130 years, and neighbours Debenhams and House of Fraser have both now quit their Oxford Street locations.

The demise of Sir Philip Green’s BHS empire in 2016 left holes in high streets across the UK. Debenhams, which once had more than 160 stores, is now online-only after falling into administration, while Beales, once a chain of more than 20 stores, is down to just three outlets after suffering the same fate.

House of Fraser has closed at least 25 stores since it was bought out of administration by Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley’s retail group in 2018, and even John Lewis has closed 16 stores in the face of rising costs and the shift online. Hefty old buildings that were once the anchor point of many high streets are creaking at the seams as owners struggle with high property taxes, lower footfall and rising staff, maintenance and energy bills.

In Pitcher’s 11 years in charge at Selfridges group, which has two Manchester stores and one in Birmingham as well as the London flagship, sales have risen more than 40%. However, during the pandemic, the group made large losses: £121.5m in the year to January 2022, and £217m the year before, after a profit of £34m pre-pandemic. The Weston family, owners of the group since 2003, sold Selfridges to the Thai conglomerate Central Group and Austrian property company Signa Holding in late 2021.

“For some, the future is dismal; for me the future is bright, and finding the way is the fun,” says Pitcher. She says that Selfridges’s secret sauce is that “we have risen above the brands we sell”.

“Constant change is fashion,” she adds, “and I’m not done yet.”

Pitcher has set up teams of “navigators” to explore the future across many aspects of Selfridges’s business, whether that is exploring the metaverse and trading in digital artworks or non-fungible tokens, improving the diversity of its workforce or finding more sustainable ways of trading.

“Where customers are playing, so we must too,” she says.

Pitcher’s start in retail came when she worked at an artists’ materials shop while still at school. Then after exams she secured a traineeship at Harrods – starting in the basement, answering queries about wine orders, as she tells it.

After 25 years, by which time she had risen to deputy merchandise director at the Knightsbridge department store, she left to become buying director at rival Harvey Nichols. A couple of years later, in 2004, she joined Selfridges as buying and merchandising director, before becoming boss of the department store in 2011, and in 2019 taking over as managing director of its parent group, which includes Irish department stores Brown Thomas and Arnotts, plus the De Bijenkorf chain in the Netherlands.

“I’ve done everything in the shop,” says Pitcher. She claims she didn’t set out to run a business but was “lucky in my choice – not everyone is lucky in their career choices”. But then she counters this with: “I don’t much believe in luck either.”

She was “always going to be bossy”, she admits, but also delivered what customers wanted by following her life rule – to “look, listen and learn”. She says she has “always embraced change”.

Shoppers this month on Oxford Stree
Shoppers this month on Oxford Street, which Pitcher says should be pedestrianised. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

So what about Oxford Street, one of the world’s premier shopping centres, which is now gap-toothed with closed and demolished stores?

Pitcher believes the street should be pedestrianised, and welcomes projects such as Marks & Spencer’s controversial Marble Arch redevelopment as the beginning of a new future. “At least something is happening,” she says. “The high street is a tragedy, but nothing is forever and we have to find something new. I don’t think it will ever recover to what it was – and nor should it. The current situation is down to how people changed and culture moved away from the city centre [during the pandemic].”

She says business has bounced back more firmly in Birmingham and Manchester than in London and that it will take a massive combined effort from business, local government and other bodies to bring people back to the capital’s premier shopping street.

The future must be about an “immunity loop of digital and physical” but must also be more climate-friendly.

“The planet has gone past the point of no return, and though many people don’t want to hear it, our customers and kids do,” she says.

After consulting employees, customers and even former staff, Pitcher came up with a bold plan to use Selfridges as a platform to flag environmental concerns and experiment with more sustainable models. But can a luxury store that makes it money from flogging new baubles to the largely well-off really make a difference?

Pitcher says it can be a leader, and help inspire change elsewhere. Her bold plans include aiming for almost half its interactions with customers to be based on resale, repair, rental or refills by 2030.

She admits that although “nobody makes any money” from such business practices at the moment, she will “because I think you can”.

“We have to if we are going to consume less, and one way to do that is to find more value in the original purchase and all the things we enjoy.

“I would like fashion to slow down: I think it is too fast. Creatives can’t cope with the number of collections they have to design. Maybe we buy less and, per garment, spend more,” she says. “I don’t know, but we will make better choices.”

But now she is leaving, will Selfridges’s new owners stick to Pitcher’s grand green visions? She thinks so: “Well they just paid £4bn for it, apparently, so they probably think it’s got a lot going for it. I think they are proud of what they bought, and inspired by what they see.

“We have been remaking retail here,” she says proudly. “And I am now going to do a remake of my own.”


Sarah Butler

The GuardianTramp

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