UK. October 31, Halloween, might not have seemed the most auspicious date for Harrods to reopen its refurbished, reconfigured luxury fashion store at London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5. But there were no frights, no tricks, only treats on offer as the retailer unveiled an impressive new-look offer high on space, elegance and a much more cohesive look than its predecessor.
Following 24 months of planning and a six-month closure and revamp, there are several key differences between the old and new. Whereas part of the Harrods floor space in the past was occupied by World Duty Free (with jewellery, fashion watches and sunglasses), the luxury retailer now has 100% occupancy of the zone.
Its offer is split into two, with the extensive upscale fashion and accessories area (a combination of stand-alone boutiques and a generic offer) divided off from the gourmet & gifts selection in two adjacent zones. An escalator that led to the World Duty Free offer below has been removed and an impressively expansive and refined changing room area added.
“It’s a much more cohesive space and it’s our space,” says Harrods Director Raj Assanand, a veteran of 42 years with the company. “And it allows us to do the things that we do best – edit collections, and deliver customers the service and the merchandise they want.
“The flow is good everywhere. It’s not cluttered, it’s open. Everything is very defined and the walkways are very clean. We own the floor and the ceiling, so we own the frame as it were. When you own the frame you can paint a prettier picture.”
“We’ve moved on leaps and bounds from where we have been in the past, though we’re still doing the same job as when we opened [in March 2008 when T5 was inaugurated]. We’re a multi-branded retailer complete with boutique spaces to create a fashion department store.”
That proposition is delivered across 8,500sq ft of retail space for the main fashion zone, bolstered by a further 1,500sq ft for the Harrods signature gifts and food offer.
“Having those little nods to the Knightsbridge store is really important for us. This is what Harrods is about.”
The clear delineation yet proximity between gifts and gourmet from fashion is working well, says Assanand. “It’s two different stores but there’s a seamlessness,” he says.
“This is the first time we’ve put them together in this format. And hopefully, space and contracts permitting, it’s the way we want to go in the future [at other airport locations]. I think this works, without one offer taking away from the other.”
The twin store is nicely situated on the same level as T5’s two security entrances to the front left and right. Big, bold, bronze Harrods branding above the open frontage ensures maximum visibility whatever the traveller’s entry point, complemented by a series of design touches designed to mirror the retailer’s famous flagship store in Knightsbridge, London.
“We’ve recreated our windows [from downtown], and gone back to our heritage with the bronze work, which is a nod to our Knightsbridge store,” says Assanand. “There’s some great finishes and we’ve used a number of materials which we would use in Knightsbridge – just having those little nods to the store is really important for us. This is what Harrods is about.”
Assanand points out a stunning window display to the left of the store, which illuminates an otherwise bland Heathrow corridor with a snowy Christmas scene “It really sings the brand,” he says.
[Bearing gifts: Click to view Harrods’ 2016 Christmas TV commercial, A Very British Bear Tale]
Other than the need to refresh, as one constantly must do in retail, what really drove the refurbishment? “As a store we’ve changed,” replies Assanand. “Knightsbridge has changed. We’ve gone up a notch. So that needs to be represented here at Heathrow. It’s consonantly evolving. We’ve had several huge projects in Knightsbridge featuring massive changes and massive investment.
“So when the flagship store is changing and you’re here at the airport offering a very small selection of what you’re doing downtown, then it needs to reflect that.”
Harrods offers an eclectic mix of fashion brands, some with boutique space, others part of a generic offer. How does the selection process occur? “You’ll find brands who might operate by themselves in other terminals,” Assanand replies. “It’s all down to a combination of commercial negotiation and also the willingness and the extent to which brands wish to operate at airports. We respect the brands’ heritage absolutely – we respect ours so we have to respect theirs.”
The marriage of brand and retailer aspirations is “a constant conversation”, Assanand says. “It’s evolutionary.” Such a conversation led to Chloé appearing in a boutique setting that suits both partners. For others with dedicated boutique space, including Ferragamo, Ralph Lauren and Zegna, there has been a long mutual relationship at Heathrow.
The multi-brand area is equally important, Assanand but there the approach has to be refined. “You can’t give them their own spaces, so you edit their collections. For example, we’ve brought Max Mara to the airport store for the first time here – you’d never think outwear and coats and winter items would sell but it’s been amazing.”
He continues: “It’s no different from the [Knightsbridge] store in the same sense that we’re always reviewing, editing and changing things. Equally, the brands are evolving at very different speeds all of the time. But airports are making it much easier to retail luxury. You really have an environment here where you can do that well. What’s changing for a lot of the brands is that they feel comfortable in the airport environment.”
Buying fashion, especially luxury fashion, for a customer demographic as fluid and multi-national as Heathrow’s must be a daunting task though. After all, winter in London is summer elsewhere. How does that factor influence how Harrods buys for the airport store?
“We still buying seasonally… four times a year now,” replies Assanand, noting that getting the buying decisions right is therefore critical. If a collection doesn’t sell through, it can lead to expensive losses.
“You can only buy what’s out there,” he adds. “So we pretty much buy that seasonal fashion. But the brands have got better at doing pre-collections – pre-collections are bigger now than main collections, whereas it used to be completely the other way around. So there’s always that bridge.
“We also try, however, to keep some continuity stock because it’s always hot – or cold – in some part of the world.”
“You just wouldn’t see this elsewhere in an airport environment”
Equally, just as brands create new lines and new season’s ranges, so consumers expect to find them in a high-profile location such as Heathrow. For the Harrods customer, Assanand notes, the world has become a much smaller place – “So whatever the trend is, they know it and they want to buy into it.”
Who, besides the British, are the key customers at T5? “It’s the world, really,” Assanand replies. “Knightsbridge [in customer mix] is the world and London is a very international city.” And while the retailer is not immune to external and macroeconomic challenges, the Knightsbridge business has proved deeply resilient down the years and continues to grow. There’s a trickle down to the airport stores, he says, “though the environment is more challenging because you’re surrounded by competitors in a very small space and with a customer with very little time”.
In that sense, Harrods “first port of call” status immediately post-security could even be a disadvantage, I suggest, as many passengers will want to make their way immediately downstairs to the gate level.
To an extent, Assanand replies, but that is offset by the fact that T5 and Harrods have many regular customers who know the airport and its layout well. “We have to take advantage of that,” he says, “and we do it via our product offer and our service, which is really good. It’s not just a nod to service, it’s really about looking after people.”
“Price does play an important part. But if you don’t deliver the other things, such as service, then they won’t shop here. You have to work at it every day.”
New boutique brands at the refurbished store include Stella McCartney, Saint Laurent (which makes its debut in January) Tod’s, Longchamp, Armani and Chloé. Within the multi-brand offer there are additional newcomers, including Barber, Max Mara and Oliver Brown. “There are some very forward fashion names but it’s nicely balanced,” says Assanand. That balance is complemented by the retailer’s own Harrods of London collection, which continues to thrive and is proving particularly suited to the airport audience.
The new store features what may be the most elegant and expansive fitting room areas (pictured below) to be found in any airport worldwide. There’s a plush waiting area for partners or relatives, an elegant sofa and multiple spacious changing rooms that allow – and encourage – travellers to try on different items.
“You just wouldn’t see this elsewhere in an airport environment,” says Assanand proudly.
There is much of the rest of the store that you wouldn’t either. Overall it’s an impressive transformation of what was already one of airport retail’s most respected luxury fashion offers. The cumulative effect of the many “nods to Knightsbridge” that Assanand refers regularly to (including personal shoppers, some lovely matt finishes, detailed and nuanced flooring touches and an unrelenting focus on service excellence) have come together here in a cohesive, creative fusion of class and no little imagination.
Provenance with panache
Next door to the fashion store, a giant Harrods Teddy Bear, regaled in trademark green, draws customers into the gifts to gourmet offer.
Here the emphasis is on food, for gifting or personal purchase, supported by an upscale gift offer at the back of the store, that includes the likes of Wedgewood and Royal Doulton.
“It’s pretty much a British viewpoint, with an emphasis on British brands,” says Harrods Director Raj Assanand.
There’s plenty of seasonality (during The Moodie Davitt Report’s visit in December the focus was obviously Christmas) in the ranging throughout the year but the key word is provenance, particularly in the fine foods offer. Real not token provenance, not just ‘Made in Britain’ but preserves from Devon, honey from Bermondsey, and luxury biscuits from Yorkshire. There are single estate coffees and single estate teas, all oozing authenticity.
The Harrods store in Knightsbridge is of course most famed for its legendary food hall and there are plenty of design links here to the mother ship, notably in the elegant cartouches and peacock references.
“The peacock is pretty much our symbol from when we first started,” says Assanand, “but we have re-interpreted it in a modern way.”
Although the product range is more mass-oriented than the luxury fashion offer, it’s still high on style, beautifully packaged and merchandised and features a range of price-points to suit various budgets. There’s a heritage range, a vintage range and an everyday luxury range.
How does Harrods set about paring down its Knightsbridge selection for the airport environment? Giftability is key, Assanand replies, and size naturally comes into it – though he notes with a chuckle that the retailer has sold several of the giant teddy bears, including to one customer who had to take the item onboard (it was put in the hold rather than occupying its own seat). There are plenty of larger icon pieces on show too; even if the sell-through is slower they enhance the look and image of the respective ranges.
The big movers though are tea, coffee, confectionery, chocolate and other foodstuffs – all consumables that regular Harrods customers return again and again for.
While we talk, I watch a young sales assistant carrying a shopping basket for an elderly customer, accompanying her around the store. Is that typical, I ask? “Yes, very much so,” Assanand answers. “It’s the personal touch.” Not just in English either; Harrods prides itself on employing multi-lingual staff, including Chinese speakers in the luxury boutiques (the retailer has just started accepting Chinese online payment platform Alipay).
“It’s all about making consumers as familiar with shopping as they would be at home,” says Assanand. “It’s no surprise that people like to be served in a certain way or talked to in a certain way. We’re not all proficient at languages, and not all the world speaks English.”
It’s a simple fact too often overlooked in travel retail and typifies Harrods’ consumer-led approach that is paying rich dividends with vital customer groups such as the Chinese. Key messages have to be conveyed simply and quickly – in the case of the Chinese consumer, focused on the fact that the goods are genuine, that the price is fair, and the inherent qualities of the product. “Once you’ve established those factors, then they will buy,” Assanand says.
Each item shows two prices – one for the Knightsbridge store, one for Heathrow. The dramatic slump in the Pound Sterling’s value since June’s Brexit vote has made British prices highly attractive to overseas shoppers and Harrods, as with all UK tourist-related retailers, has reaped the benefit.
“Price does play an important part,” says Assanand. “But if you don’t deliver the other things, such as service, then they won’t shop here. You have to work at it every day.”