Putting the customer first

Harrods International Director Raj Assanand shared the world-famous department store’s vision for the future, in which traditional values still hold sway.

Having begun life as a wholesale grocer and tea merchant in 1849, Harrods is arguably the most famous retailer in the world today.

For International Director Raj Assanand, its commitment to customer service, and its mantra to ‘never say no’ are elements that set it apart.

At Trinity, Assanand explain how the company’s service approach, which has characterised the store since its inception, has adapted to fit the needs of an increasingly educated, well-travelled and plugged-in consumer. “We are always trying to please the most important person in the world,” he said. “Our customer.”

How does Harrods do this? “Point of difference for today’s discerning customer is probably the most important thing,” said Assanand. This difference might come through exclusive products, whether Harrods’ own brand or in partnership with others. Or, crucially, in service.

“Our store is our stage. Harrods is not just somewhere you can buy things. It is a retail experience.”


Key issues for Harrods and for the industry as a whole are how businesses can gain and sustain customer loyalty. And how can physical retail – and in particular travel retail – deal with the threat of e-commerce?

“Every year more than 65 million domestic and international visitors connect with us,” explained Assanand, noting that the key demographic continues to be high net worth individuals (HNWIs). “We are facing the same challenges as all retailers. The move to online, the move to the grey market, the way things are discounted these days...it is challenging.

“The luxury customer today is changing. Our customers are the most discerning and demanding customers in the world. You really need to be at the top of your game. All this is a challenge, but we see it as an opportunity also.”

Assanand said Harrods is committed to “investing in what customers want” – not just in terms of product but also services and, crucially, experiences.

“We are always trying to please the most important person in the world. Our customer.”

Experiences, he said, “are worth their weight in gold”. As such, Harrods has started holding “curated” market events in China, which focus less on selling and more on showcasing the Harrods brand. This concept is a growing trend among the most forward-thinking of retailers.

One of Harrods’ challenges is to maintain its authenticity – much of which is drawn from its heritage and its innate Britishness – while staying relevant to a fast-changing contemporary audience. For Assanand, the balance is achieved by adapting product offer while enhancing and expanding (rather than changing) its approach to customer service and experience.

Menswear, for example, is a growth category, as the Millennial male spends as much as the Millennial female (which did not happen in previous generations). Streetwear continues to gain strength, and trainers, for example, have gone from a negligible category to one that represents 50% of Harrods’ shoe business.

Connecting to the customer in an authentic way is a must, said Assanand. And retailers need to communicate with them in the way they want, whether that is through Weibo, WeChat, Instagram, or Twitter. That communication needs to feel like a conversation, he said, and it needs to be considered and edited.

But for Harrods, the physical retail space will always be paramount. “Our store is our stage,’ he said. “Harrods is not just somewhere you can buy things. It is a retail experience.”

Harrods’ flagship store is undergoing an extensive upgrade, with a £200 million investment from the company being matched by its partners. Some 60% of the store will be overhauled in the space of four years, with work expected to be completed in 2021. The objective is to address changing consumer demographics and needs, building customer loyalty and satisfaction. Experiential retail, emotional connections and Sense of Place all have a crucial part to play in the plan, he explained.

“The move to online, the move to the grey market, the way things are discounted these days...it is challenging.”

In travel retail, Assanand noted the success of Harrods’ airport stores, which he explained are built around the brand’s Britishness, its heritage and its high level of luxury. “It’s about the elevated travel experience.” Though the brand must be highly selective in terms of space and location (to protect its authenticity), Assanand said it does have plans to expand in the channel.

He noted the development of the first Harrods tea room at an airport, set to open in Q1 next year with Qatar Duty Free.

The most important factor in Harrods’ continued success, according to Assanand, is its commitment to ‘genuine luxury’. He noted that ‘The Art of the Possible’ is the name Harrods gives to this commitment. “Physical shopping is still very, very important,” said Assanand. “And we remain artists of the possible.”

The Moodie Davitt e-Zine | Issue 252 | 16 November 2018