“I wish fashion would slow down”

The queen of department stores hangs up her crown. In her shiny bob, worn with immaculate designer attire and chunky jewellery, Anne Pitcher, the boss of Selfridges, has just a few weeks of work left after more than 40 years of stalking the atelier.

She’s quitting the stage just months after the high-end department store changed hands, but Pitcher insists it’s not because the department stores are dying. She left, after all, to help run the department store chain of former Selfridges owner, Canadian company Holt Renfrew.

“Major physical stores won’t shut down, not on my watch,” she says. “Every time you look, something else is there to attack the original department store model, so we have to keep reinventing.”

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

“For some, the future is bleak; For me the future is bright, and finding the way is the pleasure

Anne Pitcher

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

The demise of Sir Philip Green’s BHS empire in 2016 left holes in the UK’s high streets. 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 spell.

House of Fraser has closed at least 25 stores since being taken over 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 moving online. Heavy old buildings that once anchored many high streets creak as owners grapple with high property taxes, falling footfall and increased staff, maintenance and bills of energy.

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

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

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

Pitcher has set up teams of “navigators” to explore the future through many aspects of Selfridges’ business, whether exploring the metaverse and trading digital artworks or non-fungible tokens, improve the diversity of its workforce, or find more sustainable ways to trade. .

“Where customers play, so do we,” she says.

Pitcher’s early days in retail came when she worked at an artists’ supply store while still in school. Then, after exams, she got an internship at Harrods – starting in the basement, answering questions about wine orders, as she tells it.

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

“I did everything in the shop,” says Pitcher. She says she had no intention of running a business, but was “lucky in my choice – not everyone is lucky in their career choice”. But then she fires back with, “I don’t believe in luck much either.”

She was “always bossy”, she admits, but also delivered what clients wanted by following her rule of life – “watch, listen and learn”. She says she has “always embraced change”.

Shoppers this month on Oxford Street, which Pitcher said should be pedestrianized. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

So what about Oxford Street, one of the largest shopping malls in the world, which is now full of closed and demolished stores?

Pitcher believes the street should be pedestrianized and welcomes projects such as Marks & Spencer’s controversial Marble Arch redevelopment as the start of a new future. “At least something is happening,” she said. “The High Street is a tragedy, but nothing is forever and we have to find something new. I don’t think it will ever get back to what it was – nor should it. The current situation is due to the way the people have changed and the culture has moved away from the city center [during the pandemic].”

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

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

“The planet is past the point of no return, and while a lot of people don’t want to hear it, our customers and our children do,” she says.

After consulting with employees, customers and even former employees, Pitcher hatched a bold plan to use Selfridges as a platform to report environmental concerns and experiment with more sustainable models. But can a luxury store that makes money selling new trinkets to the largely affluent really make a difference?

Pitcher says he can be a leader and help inspire change elsewhere. Its bold plans aim for almost half of its customer interactions to be based on resale, repair, rental or recharging by 2030.

She admits that while “no one is making money” from such business practices at the moment, she will “because I think you can”.

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“We have to do that if we want to consume less, and one way to do that is to find more value in the initial purchase and all the things we appreciate.

“I would like fashion to slow down: I think it’s going 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 that she’s gone, will the new owners of Selfridges stick to Pitcher’s big green visions? She thinks so: “Well they just paid £4billion for it apparently so they probably think it has a lot to offer. I think they are proud of what they bought and inspired by what they see.

“We have remade the retail business here,” she says proudly. “And I will now do a remake of myself.”

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