This week I have invited my good friend Sue Chotipong to write a guest blog. Sue’s stories about her life as a buyer for Harrods inspired Just Bea. Although I used some of the material that she shared to bring authenticity to the fictitious department store of Hartleys there was a wealth of information that I could not include. It had to be featured in a blog and who better to write that blog than my friend Sue.
Before I retired, I was the buyer responsible for Bedding, Towels and Bathshop, which had a combined turnover of about £20 million a year. A very successful and profitable area with experienced, senior sales associates, some of whom had worked in Harrods for over 20 years. Admittedly part of their day was spent in the stockroom area ironing bed linen ready to be displayed on the 20-odd beds in the department ( all super king size! ), and then re-ironing and folding the linen when it came off the beds, to be re-packaged to go back into stock.
The store was experiencing a huge increase in sales, thanks to the massive investment by Mr Al Fayed on new and re-furbished departments, to enhance our offer of the latest exclusive and often limited-edition products – just what our Middle Eastern clients were looking for. Harrods even extended its opening hours, not closing until 10pm to accommodate their shopping habits back home, as they liked to shop well into the evening.
Many of these were from the wealthy United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and included the Qatari Royal family, and in fact it was the business group Qatari Holdings that went on to buy the store in 2010. Some of these Arab families had bought second homes in central London and would come to stay for the summer months to escape the extreme heat in their own countries.
Often younger than our traditional clientele, the extremely wealthy young men would even ship their supercars to use in London and they would spend their evenings revving and roaring around Knightsbridge, much to the delight of car enthusiasts, but to the annoyance of the local residents.
Meanwhile, the women would shop. Groups of family and friends would meet and spend the whole day in Harrods, where they could get everything they wanted under one roof.
Arriving for a coffee, then shopping for luxury fashion brands, handbags, shoes. After having lunch in one of our many restaurants, shopping continued and maybe a treatment or two in the Beauty Salon.
In the afternoon a group of six or eight women would enter the Linens area. Dressed in their traditional long black robes, you might just catch a glimpse of diamond rings and watches and Swarovski encrusted mobile phone holders. On their feet you would spot the famous red soles of Louboutin shoes. They would generally be followed by their own security men, at a discrete distance. Going back a few years, their security would carry huge amounts of cash to pay for their purchases, but nowadays it is generally card transactions, so the men were mostly used to carry their purchases and keep selfie snappers away from the women.
In Linens, all 20 beds would be dressed ready for these clients. Having walked around the area, the sales staff, who would have greeted them when they entered, were now keeping a distance until one of the group stopped at a bed. Fortunately, we even had Arabic speaking staff. Like a flash, the sales associate was there.
“I’ll take that” one would say pointing at a bed. She didn’t mean just the duvet cover set, but everything that was displayed: the sheets, fitted and flat, the duvet cover and maybe six or eight pillowcases, another half a dozen decorative cushions, maybe decorated with designer logos in Swarovski crystals, a fur-trimmed bedcover, a cashmere throw – if we had draped a dressing gown and slippers on the bed, they would take those too – they would then be able to recreate exactly the way the bed was dressed when they returned home.
This would continue as all the women in the group made their selection, including sets for guest bedrooms and staff quarters (plainer, cheaper options!) These purchases could add up to many thousands of pounds. The staff, being on commission, could make a lot of money during the summer months and often would choose not to take their holidays during that period so they could reap the rewards of a busy summer.
One of the perks introduced by Mr. Al Fayed was the Millionaires Club. It was for the top 100 sales staff in the store, each of whom had taken over a million pounds worth of sales in a year. They were announced at a special cocktail party where Mr. Al Fayed would hand out Gift Vouchers, maybe a watch, (the presents changed each year), free spa treatments, extra staff discount for the year, a pass to allow them to use all store entrances instead of using the staff tunnel, oh, and a trophy!
So, commission was an important perk of the salary package. Based as a percentage of their individual sales, it could be contentious. Take the watch department. A client would be served by one sales associate who sat him or her down, showed all the options and at the end of the sale, the watch would be boxed and placed in a gorgeous ribbon -tied bag. Job done.
But in some departments, the sale could comprise of dozens of items. Some of the items might have to be taken from display, so would need re-packaging. It could take ages for all the goods to be stacked up on the counter and processed through the till. They might then have to be boxed if being delivered to a hotel. None of this was easy without the help of your colleagues but they would not share in the commission. Of course, it could be reciprocated when your colleague had a big sale and needed your help, or maybe, very unofficially, the salesperson might share some of the money.
I remember a Saturday evening one December. It was the night of the Staff Ball which was being held at the Dorchester Hotel. The staff, especially the ladies, were anxious to leave on time and get dressed and made up ready for their taxi ride to the venue. Well as Sod’s Law would have it, there was a HUGE sale going through and all hands were needed as we helped to strip beds, repackage the sold items, hand item by item to the sales associate to process at the till. There was stock and boxes everywhere and the department was wrecked. (The order was to go to an airport to the client’s private jet). Of course, we all stayed until the job was done. The staff got to the Ball, and then those who were working on the Sunday had to arrive early the following morning to recover the department, ready for trading at opening time…that’s luxury retailing for you.