House of Fraser. The Harrods of the High Street

House of Fraser, Cardiff 

House of Fraser, Cardiff 

House of Fraser’s new owner Mike Ashley has a brilliant ambition to transform the stores into the Harrods of the High Street. This is truly admirable, and as the stores were always regarded as being “a cut above” their competitors it makes sense. For too long our High Streets have become too “samey” and this has weakened the appeal of the High Street itself. 

Of course achieving this in a cost effective and profitable way is the challenge that will now face House of Fraser. However, many of the stores are much loved icons in their respective locations and injecting new more aspirational brand into the business will hopefully resonate with customers. 

Even in the very short term this provides House of Fraser with an exceptional opportunity to take its customers on this transformational journey, and to capitalise on the immediate interest the takeover has generated. 

In terms of strengthening its customer base, communicating in a positive and honest way that the stores are going to achieve the vision of becoming the Harrods of the High Street, gives the group an opportunity to invite people to share their thoughts about what they would like to see in House of Fraser. 

Of course not all ideas can be adopted, but from the outset letting people be a part of this new chapter in House of Fraser’s history will help increase interest, and can even be used to help increase footfall and sales ahead of the changes. 

The choice of brands will be of critical importance, and this itself needs to aligned to clearly defined target customers to ensure that the group can sell what people are buying. Although, this is also where department stores have traditionally done something special, that has been lost for quite some time. They used to be places of wonder, delight and surprise. You’d get to see things you’d not see elsewhere. 

In terms of product this is where for example the £2,000 handbags come into play. In a department store environment these types of products, that are out of reach for the vast majority of customers, establish the range authority and most importantly give customers something amazing to look at. They also create a halo effect for the whole range, alter perceptions around price, and suddenly the £300 handbags don’t seem so expensive. 

Of course you don’t fill the stockroom with £2,000 handbags, but making sure you have some on sale, and their equivalents in clothing and accessories would certainly help the group achieve its new ambition, and transform the House of Fraser experience.  

At this level retail also has to deliver exceptional customer service. Customers should expect to feel special and get the opportunity to interact with staff who are passionate about the brands they are selling and who naturally share this enthusiasm. This does require having the right staff on board, with the right training and even the right remuneration to ensure they become the proud sales ambassadors for House of Fraser.

Get the brands right, showcase amazing products and provide exceptional customer service, and yet there’s still more to do to win custom. This is because people have too much choice these days, and of course there’s the small matter of the ultimate competitor: online shopping to contend with.

This is why increasingly the word “experience” keeps popping-up, John Lewis are working on it and Debenhams are developing gyms for their stores. Yet this is nothing new, department stores were always about experience. As a child I remember my grandmother taking me into Howells in Cardiff for a Lego building competition - I didn’t win, but we did have lunch in the restaurant afterwards. Kind of makes the point! 

Even small experiences make a difference, importantly:

  • You can’t get them on the internet
  • They drive footfall
  • They can be very social media friendly
  • They strengthen the brand
  • They increase sales.

From my experience I know Head Offices can be a bit wary of “experience” activity, it’s a cost and at times can be difficult to measure. However, look at the High Street today, the only incentive being used (and very much overused) is the word Sale. It’s become meaningless, and for House of Fraser to become the Harrods of the High Street creating the right sort of experiences, delivered with conviction will be essential.

The good news is you can trial experiences in selected locations and rollout the ones that fly. Is there demand for Superman and Wonderwoman workshops where customers can spend time with stylists to improve their look? It could be fun, and sometimes you only find out by trying. Is the in-store fashion show a thing of the past, or all set for a comeback to launch each new season? Should celebrity appearances become commonplace again? Choirs at Christmas? Charity customer shopping evenings? Making space to put the latest Aston Martin on display? This activity takes time and effort, but the right in-store experiences work to drive footfall and increase sales. 

There’s a further, highly valuable opportunity that’s increasingly overlooked, and that’s to allow for a degree of local marketing activity. This again is a cost, but with many of House of Fraser’s stores being icons in their respective locations it makes sense to allow them to develop and capitalise on local marketing opportunities. 

Here’s a really timely example, on 9th August, Geraint Thomas the first Welshman to win the Tour de France was given a hero’s welcome in Cardiff, his home city. This involved him cycling through the city to the Castle. Thousands of people lined the streets and he cycled past, you’ve guessed it, House of Fraser. 

Of course, given the timing, the store was in no position to proactively become a part of this celebration. However, in an ideal world you’d have seen a number of the shop windows turned yellow to acknowledge his yellow jersey, along with congratulations messages etc. You could say why bother making the effort? Well, with the right graphics at the very least you’ve created the perfect selfie opportunity for House of Fraser, linked to big news event on your doorstep. 
Importantly, it would also show the store to be connected to the City and its people. 

To work well this type of activity needs to be resourced, managed and underpinned by a planned programme, whilst still allowing for ad hoc opportunities to be taken advantage of. However, initially and to help make this cost effective, it’s something that could start in flagship stores, and once the benefits are seen rolled-out to other stores. 
From experience I know that getting local marketing right can be difficult and it does hinge on having the right people in the right locations who, whilst knowing how to capitalise on local opportunities, can do so in a way that’s consistent with the overall brand, and delivers measurable results. 

I truly hope House of Fraser does become the Harrods of the High Street. It will be a challenge, however there seems to be strong public support for the stores which is always a good starting point. I do believe that with the right product offer, a genuine focus on customer service and experience, and by embracing innovative local and instore marketing activity House of Fraser could just make the magic happen again.