Dear Mike Ashley, here are four ways to win public support for House of Fraser as “Harrods of the high street”

Following the revelation Sports Direct, which is owned by billionaire businessman Mike Ashley, will acquire House of Fraser – not everyone is convinced of the deal. So here’s an open letter to Mike on how he can appease consumers

Dear Mike Ashley

“House of Lonsdale”, “from selling Gucci to selling Slazenger,” “HoF giant mugs” – the public’s Twitter responses to your House of Fraser rescue doesn’t bode well. And with the ailing retailer owing creditors close to £1 billionHouse of Fraser concession Mulberry is poised to lose £3m,  you’ll have your work cut out restoring the brand to profitability let alone transforming it into the “Harrods of the high street“.

It’s not just House of Fraser’s woes though that you’ll need to consider. Recent criticism of your treatment of Sports Direct staff is going to make getting the public and House of Fraser employees on side even tougher.

So, if your plans for House of Fraser are to stand a chance, you’ll need to raise the bar both in terms of retail experience and workplace culture. Here are four ways you could do that:

(1) From veteran to vanguard: House of Fraser must deliver a radical retail experience

The UK high street isn’t all about selling any more – to survive and thrive, it needs to offer a highly compelling blend of entertainment and shopping. To date, House of Fraser’s over-indexing towards concessions has held it back from becoming a highly curated lifestyle destination. So how can it move in that direction? 

As a starting point House of Fraser has some of the best real estate in the cities it’s present in. Imagine if this could be used to help lead the rebirth of the British high street, a place where high fashion, culinary events and meet-ups coincide with brands, lifestyle services and good old-fashioned shopping. 

After all, you already have the requisite expertise in house: House of Fraser’s current CEO Alex Williamson successfully diversified the Goodwood Estate’s customer experience by overseeing the brand’s expansion including a new restaurant and a luxury hotel and the addition of an extra day to the Festival of Speed, helping to double turnover. Why not use his experiential skills to bring about a similar transformation of House of Fraser’s customer experience?

(2) A stand-out employee experience 

Whether it’s paying workers less than the minimum wage or criticism over the gender pay gap, Sports Direct’s reputation when it comes to its people is less than stellar, a fact unlikely to reassure House of Fraser staff. A recent study by RHR, the UK’s largest retail recruitment consultancy, found over a quarter of employees in the sector are planning to change or have already changed job as a result of poor working conditions. I’d like to see an Ashley-owned House of Fraser take a more progressive approach and embrace an equivalent “Harrods of the high street” ambition for employee experience.

That could include giving real decision-making powers to people on the shop floor, offering innovative schemes to help new parents balance childcare and their careers or developing a stand-out apprenticeship scheme to help would-be designers and developers engage with emerging technologies in the retail space. Take a leaf out of Ikea’s book: having invested in parental leave and paying above the minimum wage, the retailer was recently named one of the world’s best places to work.

(3)Make luxury accessible to the masses

Your “Harrods of the high street” ambition shows you understand the growing trend towards the democratisation of luxury – interestingly Harrods’ MD Michael Ward broadly supports your aspirational vision for House of Fraser, while maintaining there is only one Harrods, naturally. Personalisation is likely to play a key role in this: the rise of online personal shopping services such as lookiero provide a good example. If House of Fraser 2.0 can use lifestyle as an anchor to sell by offering ordinary consumers an ongoing opportunity to experience luxury/personalised service, you stand a chance of turning your ambition into a reality.

(4) Dream global, think local

Rather than a purveyor of elite international brands, could House of Fraser tap into growing consumer demand for locally-produced brands and become a hub for supporting local businesses? Nielsen’s Global Brand Origin Survey reports that 55% of UK respondents prefer buying local brands because they support local businesses and help the economy. Building on its “House of” heritage, House of Fraser could become a showcase for the best of local artists and fashion producers. Just look at what House of Bruar is doing in Perthshire, bringing together the best of luxury food, clothes and art from Scotland. Could House of Fraser allow each of its stores to champion the best of the local region?

Successfully rescuing House of Fraser, let alone turning it into a luxury destination is a mammoth undertaking even for a shrewd retail player like you. If you can take this opportunity to do something radical, then you’ve a chance of making Harrods of the High Street more than just a soundbite. The whole high street will be watching and waiting to see if you can pull it off. 

John Oswald
John Oswald

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