Anne Pitcher

Retail — only radicals need apply.

In a spirited presentation, Anne Pitcher, managing director of Selfridges Group, argued for fast, proactive and unconventional thinking in retail, and said it was time for the industry to lead with creativity, heart and passion for people and planet.

Despite a trying year that saw physical retailers struggle due to COVID-19, and lose even more ground to e-commerce, Pitcher believes the future is exciting and full of opportunity. Retailers, she said, need to be brave, think differently and stop clinging to the past.

“We find ourselves living in radical times, and radical times demand radical thinking,” said Pitcher, who oversees five retailers — Selfridges & Co. in the U.K.; Brown Thomas and Arnotts in Ireland; Holt Renfrew in Canada, and De Bijenkorf in Amsterdam, with 26 stores across four countries. While the damage wrought by COVID-19 will impact retail for years to come, “it’s also catalyst for change that should have us both worried, and excited. Suddenly our plans for five and 10 years in the future need to happen today,” she said.

Sustainability is at the core of Pitcher’s retail manifesto, and the group has embraced it with gusto, in the back office and on the shop floor. Selfridges has committed to a series of science-based targets, and said that by 2025 the group will ensure that all of its “environmentally impactful materials” come from certifiable sustainable sources.

Pitcher had revealed over the summer that group stores would be powered by 100 percent green energy by the end of September, while the company has committed to a net-zero carbon footprint by 2050 in line with the Paris Agreement. It will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions 64 percent by 2030.

“The time for action is now. We have less than 10 years to halve our impact, if we have a hope of preventing catastrophic climate change. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing for our business, and because it matters to our customer,” said Pitcher, who believes that customers will choose to shop elsewhere if Selfridges does not match their green values.

“We wanted to create a vision that was radical, and something that we had to strive to achieve. Our sustainability commitment underpins our ambitions to change the ways we shop, and the way we do business,” she said.

Pitcher talked about the aims of Project Earth, a company-wide initiative intended “to change the way we shop,” and to help customers consume as responsibly as possible by 2025. To wit, customers can now rent designer outfits, re-fill beauty products to save on plastics and have their accessories mended with the Selfridges “repair” concierge.

“We’ve hosted forums that put our customers in touch with environmental thinkers, we’ve launched new, sustainable products such as Prada’s Re-Nylon collection and opened an Oxfam shop in one of the most prime pieces of retail real estate in the world [on the second floor of Selfridges’ Oxford Street flagship, near Miu Miu and Gucci]. If you’d told me 10 years ago that a charity shop was  going to be part of the key plans for our creative scheme, I would have thought that you were off your rocker,” said Pitcher, whose talk was brimming with British charm and dry humor.

She also addressed what many retailers are quietly concerned about — sacrificing cool in the name of global warming.

“Being sustainable doesn’t mean you have to lose your essence,” she said, adding that retailers can deliver sustainability in a way that is so “creative, on brand and easy to shop that customers can’t tell sustainable, and unsustainable, service apart. If anything, they should just prefer it. Instead of thinking about sustainability as a limitation, we need to think of it as a new way to deliver more of what our customers want in a way that surprises and delights.”

Stores, she added, should also be thinking about “what makes a product desirable,” such as its green credentials, and the ethics of the company that made it.

Pitcher believes that sustainable strategies all come down to people, planet and profit. “If your sustainability policy works for all three, you will have found a way to make your business ready for the future.”

She also talked about the role that physical retail should play going forward. She believes the COVID-19 lockdowns have only proven that shopping and consuming is one thing, while experience is another.

The past eight months of full or partial lockdowns and the rise of digital shopping have robbed the consumer of so much, she said.

“Our lives have been a shadow of what they were, because it is experiences that make us feel alive. Multibrand retailers are a place for social and human experiences. What retailers can offer is experience and connection, while the customer must be at the heart of what we all do.”

Stores, she added, should be thinking beyond sales and look to hotels, museums and galleries, which offer much more than products and services.

“In the future, retailers can be anything — they can be houses of content and experience. They can be places to educate visitors, places that blend the physical and digital. If we can listen and act on what we hear, we can be a vital part of customers’ lives. The best shops are not just shops, they are social spaces that are an essential part of the communities they inhabit.”

Pitcher said change will come from new types of thinking, and fresh ideas. “If we can’t think radically, then neither can our businesses.” She recommended that everyone read John Elkington’s “Green Swans,” which she described as an exploration of new forms of capitalism for the 21st century.

Retail leaders, she added, will have to don many hats. They’ll need to be “futurists, those who can imagine new possibilities boldly and optimistically, and innovators, who can discover new ideas through creative ideation and rigorous experimentation. They’ll need to spot which technologies will impact the industry, and they’ll need to be humanitarians, too,” she said.

“Futurist, innovator, technologist and humanitarian all rolled into one leader. It sounds radical, and it is. If we can adapt to the events of the last eight months, I think we can all adapt to this,” she said, adding that thinking about what worked in the past is not the way forward.

Retailers, she said, need to “focus on what will work in the future,” and “do the right thing for people and planet now, instead of waiting for legislation to force us into it.” She added that retailers also need to be hyper-sensitive to big cultural shifts, such as the ones brought on by Black Lives Matter, and not treat them like “student politics the younger generation ‘will quickly grow out of.’”

Pitcher touted creativity and innovation, and said they should be the beating heart of retail.

“I’ve been a shopgirl since I’ve been 16 years old. Retail has been my life’s work, and recently I have come to feel that the left side of the brain lives in the shadow of the right, in our industry. We have become too finance-led. There is far too much head, and far too little heart. COVID-19 is offering us an opportunity to re-build ourselves in radical new ways.”

She said creativity needs to be “part of the essence of what we do — not just the gloss on top.”

Her bottom line? “Focus on what will work in the future, don’t cling to what worked in the past. Don’t to just the same thing in a different way. Do the right thing for people and planet now instead of waiting for legislation to force us into it. Radical is exactly what we need, and I’m excited to see what we can all deliver.”

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