Exit through the gift shop: desperately seeking differentiation

On a cold and crisp day last Sunday, I experienced London at its best. My first port of call was the Royal Academy to see two world-renowned British artists: Antony Gormley followed by Lucian Freud. Both exhibitions were teeming with people all engaged and having a good time. Then, of course, I visited the vibrant and wellstocked RA shop (I always have to stop myself from going in there first!).  

The newly renovated store has been extended and is laid out in a clear and well merchandised way. From a postcards and packs of Christmas cards all the way to pricey limited-edition art pieces, there is something for everyone here and you can be reassured upon buying that you probably can’t get your purchase anywhere else. Most products have a uniqueness to them – and generally, when its gone, its gone. I especially like the editions centred around the current exhibitions. You can buy an Antony Gormley perfume – Antony collaborated with Londoner Azzi Glasser, who is an award-winning perfume designer.   

Antony Gormley Limited Edition Iron Eau de Parfum

There has been much talk about the demise of the department store, and it is well documented that department stores are now struggling worldwide: from David Jones in Australia, to Barneys in NYC, all the way to our own Debenhams and House of Fraser. There are, however, stand-out stores bucking the trend thanks to distinctive features and pointed differentiation: Selfridges is on point and uptotheminute on trend; Harrods has its sense of grandeur and impeccable service and Fortnum & Mason – my second stop for the day – offers a uniquely exhilarating retail experience. 

There are stand-out stores bucking the trend thanks to distinctive features and pointed differentiation: Selfridges is on point and up-to-the-minute on trend; Harrods has its sense of grandeur and impeccable service and Fortnum & Mason offers a uniquely exhilarating retail experience.

Fortnum’s, as it is fondly referred to, was founded in 1707 by William Fortnum and Hugh Mason. Today, it is owned by a branch of the Weston family, who bought it in 1951 and, a decade later, installed a four-ton clock above the main entrance as a tribute to the founders. Every hour, four foot-high models of William Fortnum and Hugh Mason emerge and bow to each other, with chimes and eighteenth-century music playing in the background. The Westons clearly know a thing or two about department stores and how to run them across the world – they are a family of born merchants. Founded as a grocery store, Fortnum’s reputation was built on supplying quality food and saw rapid growth throughout the Victorian era. Over the decades, it developed into a department store, with the emphasis on stocking a variety of exotic specialities and also ‘basic’ provisions.  

The store has since opened several other departments, such as the Gentlemen’s department on the third floor, an excellent homewares department and a fabulous beauty hall upstairs. Their Christmas decorations department is outstanding and it also houses a tea shop and several restaurants.  

It hasn’t always been this way. In the ‘90s, while trying to be both a grocer and fashion store, the store seemed to languish and lose its way. It never really worked, attracting only tourists to the ground floor. In 2007 a renovation aimed to revitalise the store, but failed to bring back Fortnum’s sparkle.  

But its fortunes changed in 2012 when the Westons hired Ewan Venters, who had been running the Selfridges food hall as CEO. If there was an award for ‘retail theatre’, Ewan would win it hands down. He understands the theatre of retail and how to delight customers. Since Ewan has been at the helm, the customer mix has changed dramatically. 

Walking into the store last Sunday was breathtaking. The windows looked vibrant, the displays were enticing and the ground floor had so many customers – it was quite remarkable to see.

Walking into the store last Sunday was breathtaking. Firstly, the windows looked vibrant, the displays were enticing and the ground floor had so many customers – it was quite remarkable to see. The store had a wonderful aroma, the music playing added to the ambiance and the merchandise looked incredible. The displays of chocolates, confectionary, jam, honey, preserves, biscuits, tea and coffee looked exceptionally inviting. Upstairs, Fortnum’s famous hampers are piled high with goodies spilling outThe perfume and fragrances counters are a treat with wonderful service. The bottles are displayed beautifully and the layout is very special, too.    

What differentiates Fortnum’s from the other department stores is that you can happily buy a bottle of jam for someone, all the way through to an expensive cashmere throw.  And no matter what you are buying, the customer service is outstanding and they have been trained to make everyone feel special.  

The Parlour at Fortnum & Mason. Photo credit: Fortnum & Mason

My favourite of all is The Parlour, a decadent ice cream parlour on the first floor. It reminds me of when my mother used to take me to Garlicks in Port Elizabeth, South Africa for a milkshake and a toasted cheese. Although there was a long queue, the staff were friendly, chatty and helpful and made the wait worthwhile. The crockery department next door to The Parlour is very clever – green Spode in 2019?  I want it all!  

Fortnum & Mason is nostalgic but up to date, traditional but modern, service-driven and relevant. It does what most retailers have forgotten how to do, by ensuring that everyone walks out feeling special with a desire to come back soon. Bland, soulless stores will not survive in the coming decade… omit service and newness of product at your own peril.  

Moira.benigson@thembsgroup.co.uk | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup