HARRODS LOOKS TO CHINA

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The Sceptical Shopper: is this London landmark past its sell-by date, or reflecting a new world? Our undercover expert investigates...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012

High-end department stores are devoted to one idea. Their customers must enter a different world: a parallel universe, ten times better than the real one. “Enter a different world” also happened to be the advertising line for Harrods, the Knightsbridge department store, from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Today Harrods is certainly a different world—but one that arouses sharply mixed feelings. Though it still sells itself as quintessentially English, with a lot of PR flim-flam about its Victorian roots and building, and its Establishment-supplier role of “Everything London”, Harrods today belongs to the Middle East. Since 1985, when Mohamed Al Fayed bought the place, there’s been a Middle Eastern sensibility at the helm, with a Middle Eastern market much in mind. This meant that long before Harrods lost its Royal warrants, its traditional, local customers—toffs and Sloanes—started leaving in droves, to be replaced by tourists and new money from Essex and Egypt. And although it’s now two years since Fayed sold up to the Qatari royal family, this target market is, if anything, more entrenched.

Walk through womenswear on the first floor, and you pass rails of international designers, both fashion-editor approved (Céline) and elderly kaftan-glam (Roberto Cavalli). But many brands seem heavily curated by Harrods buyers, sticking to a safely middle-aged colour palette of navy, red and peach. This is not a place to go for edgy looks; and if you want to see the full range of a designer’s vision, many have fully stocked, own-name stores only a tube-ride away. The same goes for menswear—apart from the high-street “Denim Lab” section, where a teenage boy with not too much money or fashion savvy could nonetheless leave with a well-edited look from Topman or Superdry. The main plus is that, on a Wednesday lunchtime, while the pavements outside pullulated with office workers and day-trippers, the shopfloor was deserted. You’d have the changing rooms all to yourself.

The Food Hall used to be a thing of glory—a place where countesses would order a slice of something from a grocer with immaculate manners—and it still has some nostalgic appeal. The ornate paint’n’plaster Edwardian ceiling, the smell of sweet-cured ham, the decorative pastries (cream slices with an edible Harrods logo; doughnuts iced with Union Jack-red glitter) achieve the right sense of cornucopia. But the British food is pedestrian (a basket of Red Delicious apples is apparently the best local orchards have to offer) and easily outshone by a Lebanese deli counter, a rack of heavily loaded prawn-and-salami pizzas and luscious-looking bowls of heat-and-serve curries.

Elsewhere, there’s an emphasis on trinketisation—crystal-studded chessboards, crystal-studded handbags, crystal-studded candles—at the expense of investment in new or niche British products. The only two truly modern-Brit moments in the whole store are a single rail of (rather good) clothes by Victoria Beckham, and the accurately sentimental entrance-hall memorial to Dodi Fayed and Princess Di.

Yet Harrods is only echoing the reality of modern Knightsbridge—where, according to its managing director, the vast majority of its customers still come from, and where homes are overwhelmingly bought by non-doms. And despite the apparent lack of footfall, the post-Fayed books show it’s doing more than something right. Turnover last year was around £1 billion—bolstered, perhaps, by “International Lifestyle Furniture” on the third floor, an expressive boardroom collection of zebra wood, macassar ebony and silver-gilt. Or by the own-brand gift shop, a presence both on the second floor and at most British airports.

Harrods, like everyone, is now setting out its stall for the Chinese: it has hired 60 Mandarin-speaking assistants. In the first quarter of 2011, its sales to this community were up year on year by 40%: it seems they’re as happy as the rest of the world to buy global bling wrapped in the signifiers of tourist-board Old England. A bit of posh, with a bit of Posh. 

Illustration Richard Rockwood