The retail industry faces major challenges and opportunities, and businesses must adapt their mindsets, examine the way they understand the world, and work collaboratively to disassemble and rebuild an entirely new model for retail. In September 2022, future thinkers from all across Selfridges Group came together, along with experts and thought leaders in a broad range of disciplines, to reimagine the department store of the future. The keynote speech for the festival was given by Selfridges Group MD Anne Pitcher, and here she elaborates the ideas raised in that speech by unpacking four key challenges facing an industry in flux, and proposing bold new ways of working to build a bright future for the industry, for people, and for the planet.

By → Anne Pitcher

I want to explore what the future of the department store could be – to collectively imagine a world beyond the here and now, beyond next year, to a horizon we can only imagine. In imagining and creating the future for retail, we need to change our mindsets, and that means we have to examine the way we understand the world and its possibilities. Business is often guilty of limiting its thinking by squeezing big ideas into neat little boxes. For example, through the old business mindset, something as vast and unknowable and exciting as the Internet becomes ‘e-commerce’. Connection, interaction, learning, touching, feeling and art becomes ‘experience’. Preserving life on this planet and creating a green revolution? We call that ‘sustainability’. Retail is essentially a human pursuit, but we have a very inhumane way of talking about it – we even call the varied and wonderful people that we engage with every day ‘consumers’. And I understand this mindset. When I am in a meeting, I don’t necessarily want to hear poetic language – I want to know if the numbers are going up or down, but when we are thinking about what’s next, beyond the scope of the spreadsheet in front us, or the targets for the next quarter, we need do things differently. We need to create the future in a new language, and we need to invent that language together.

There is no getting away from the context of these words. We are living through the most consequential months and years in a generation. Our industry and the people who orbit it are in a state of flux. Across the globe, humanitarian, political and financial crises loom large. The post-pandemic hedonism predicted by trend forecasters never arrived, and instead people left global cities in their droves resulting in a reverse brain drain and a decentralisation of culture and creativity. We have been forced to learn some hard lessons about our own priorities, about the state of the world we live in, we have watched the climate crisis go past the point of no return and just keep going, and we have watched the quality of life for the most needy amongst us plummet, making us aware of our own privileges in no uncertain terms. This is where we find ourselves. We need to invent something new. The classic retail model is in need of a fundamental shake up and even though we keep tacking extensions onto it, like digital or sustainability, it’s the frame itself that needs reinventing. Rebuilding that frame won’t be something any of us does on our own, it will be a collective effort – we will reinvent retail together or we won’t do it at all.

I was struck by this quote from the Dazed Studio Age of Monomass report – ‘Amidst social unrest, we’re on the brink of a re-modelling, a shift in behaviour and values. Change needs to come from governments but brands play an important role in creating that change.’ I could not agree more. But for us it is not the brands that will drive change – it is our entire industry. So in an effort to create space for that kind of thinking, I want to outline the four challenges I believe we face as an industry. I also want to sketch out what a new model for retail could look like, and how we might talk about that new model in order to create a future we want to live and work in. And throughout, I want to pose questions about the future that could be answered through collective thinking and co-creation across the retail industry.

The first challenge I think we all face is the structure of our businesses themselves. When I look into the future, I see a world where top-down leadership has lost its power and relevance.  It is an old-world way to run a business. Our industry needs to undergo fast and fundamental evolution to survive and this scale of system change required won’t be driven by individuals. This past year in the UK, the nominees of the prestigious Turner Prize were all art collectives for the first time in the prize’s history.  The winners – Array Studios, from Northern Ireland – are a multidisciplinary, cross-Sectarian group from whose work takes place on the streets, not inside pristine gallery walls. They tackle urgent social and political issues: from abortion access, to mental health and housing issues. The piece they created was a perfect replica of a Northern Irish pub, with a roof made out of protest banners and flagpoles that reference ancient Irish ceremonial sites. The piece was described as a ‘place to gather outside the sectarian divides’. Establishment art critics were horrified, with broadsheets claiming the work stretched (their) definition of art to breaking point.

In fashion, too, we are seeing the beginning of the end of the gatekeeper era. Look to something like Nishanth Chopra’s Oshadi Studio, what started as an exercise in ‘seed-to-sew’ fashion design has evolved into a fully regenerative supply chain that any brand can tap into. In 2015, Chopra partnered with famers, with artisan communities, with weavers, with natural dyers and block printers to create a supply chain that solved sustainability problems at every step of the garment creation process.  And instead of keeping that to himself, instead of building up something exclusive with the hopes of being bought by a big name, he opened it up to other businesses to use. Old world dictatorial creative directors, closed doors, and secretive practices look a bit old fashioned in comparison, don’t they?

The success of the collective is the first emerging challenge I see for our industry because it challenges everything that we understand about how to do things. We are completely convinced by the efficacy of our hierarchical structures, and the secrecy with which we guard our processes and plans. The collective shows us that there is another way to run things, a way that strikes me as more modern, more fit for purpose in the times we find ourselves in. There are three questions that the rise of collectives raises that require deep thinking. Firstly, how can our industry function more like a collective and less like competitors? Could we work together to make our supply chains more sustainable? What information could we share to make sure that we are all more successful and less wasteful? Secondly, how can we make our businesses run more like collectives? Can we get the brands that operate inside our locations to work with us and to work together? Finally, what would it look like in our own industry if we dismantled traditional hierarchical structures? What would happen if we swapped traditional organisation charts and siloed teams for an ever-evolving network that supported innovative ways of working and a ‘grass roots’ and ‘from the top’ approach to strategic change?  This would be a fundamental shift on every level, and perhaps just the kind of shift we need to meet the challenges and opportunities that we face as an industry.

Speaking of challenges, there is a central one that has to be at the core of all of our future thinking: the climate crisis. The last few years have raised a fundamental question for retail – can we really keep shopping in the face of the climate emergency? I love to shop. I believe it is an important part of the human experience.  We know that we are happy people if our external presentation feels aligned with our inner identity. We build ourselves from the things we buy, be they clothes, books, music or objects. Anyone who doesn’t believe shopping can be profoundly meaningful hasn’t sold a trans woman her very first lipstick, an excited teen her first pair of Yeezys, or a nervous young man the engagement ring he will propose with. But knowing all this, we keep trying to answer that question: can we really keep shopping in the face of the climate emergency? And the best answer that we have been able to come with as an industry has been ‘sort of?’. The options we tend to give people are ones that are less damaging, ones that assuage the guilt, not ones that fundamentally change how we do business, not options that do the serious hard work to reinvent retail. We have stop working at the edges, and invent new models that put the planet at the very centre of our future thinking for retail.

The classic retail model is in need of a fundamental shake up and even though we keep tacking extensions onto it, like digital or sustainability, it’s the frame itself that needs reinventing. Rebuilding that frame won’t be something any of us does on our own, it will be a collective effort – we will reinvent retail together or we won’t do it at all.

At Selfridges Group we believe that the future of shopping will be circular. That is why we have been putting our energy into designing a blueprint for a circular ecosystem – an infinite loop of interdependent digital and physical circular retail models that folds in rental, repair, resale, repurposing and regeneration at every level. This is how we will decouple business growth from impact and this must be the heart of how we build truly future-facing destinations. Imagine a shopping journey where when you buy a piece, you are given access to a dashboard that provides you with a live valuation of what you have just bought, adjusting that value as the piece becomes rarer or more desirable; a dashboard that includes instant access to repair and recycle services at a discount. This is not shopping as it was, this is a revolution.  It is an ecosystem of interdependent models that will reinvent retail forever. And the time has come for us to move beyond experiments and install these models directly into our businesses. Circular is the future. The challenge is how do we get there from where we are today?

As I see it, this move to circularity raises two pressing questions. Firstly, we know that circularity is the right thing to do for the environment, but how do we make sure it’s also the right thing to do for our business?  What does profitability look like in a world where ownership is essentially temporary? And how do we ensure that purpose and profit coexist? Secondly – and this is closely related to my points earlier about the collective – how do we make sure that each of us can achieve this? As individuals, teams, businesses, and as an industry? Do we share information about what works and what doesn’t? Do we make our models open source? How can we function less like competitors and more like collaborators to ensure the future health of our industry and of all life on this planet? In order to meet the most pressing challenges we face, we are going to have to rethink how we do things at every level.

The third challenge I see us facing is The Metaverse – nine letters that strike dread into the heart of every executive with a streak of grey in their hair. It doesn’t help that no one can seem to agree on what it is and whether it’s here yet or not.  But I think our collective suspicions about the Metaverse and what it means run the risk of turning something exciting and new, something full of creative potential and business opportunities, into another neat little buzzword, or of reducing a new form of interaction and communication into another way to sell.

In October of last year, Mark Zuckerberg outlined his vision for the future of Facebook. He announced that the company was rebranding as Meta and he detailed how his company aims to build a new version of the Internet. Zuckerberg went as far as saying ‘We believe the Metaverse will be the successor to mobile.’ Essentially, it’s conceived as a digital world that you can enter via Facebook’s Oculus VR headsets, where your body in space is represented by a three-dimensional avatar that navigates three-dimensional space. We won’t have a choice about being part of the Metaverse or not. But we will need to choose where we are, how we show up and what we do when they get there. When I look at what Facebook unveiled about their part of the Metaverse, all I really saw were options for work – a fancy version of Zoom. Working with Facebook, building Metaverse spaces with them, strikes me as building your flagship store on an industrial park. Instead, creative business who prioritise experience and exchange should be looking for the same kinds of spaces digitally that we would physically, working with people that understand the world like we do, who see retail as a human thing, as play, as a way to express your best self and connect with others and the world around you. Partners that understand that levity, curiosity and experimental playfulness are important whether you are in the Metaverse or not.

It’s important to think also about what happens after those spaces are created, what do we want to invite people to do in our digital spaces? Earlier this year, a large supermarket chain unveiled their first foray into the Metaverse. What they created was a replica of a physical store. You could navigate this digital space exactly like you would the physical one by pushing around the trolley, grabbing a bottle of wine off the shelves, everything that you would expect. Now these are early days for exploring the Metaverse, but that strikes me as exactly what we should not be doing. This is a space of infinite possibility, where we are not constrained by the laws of physics – a place where imaginations can run wild and we can give voice to the most unrestrained creativity. Hopping into the Metaverse can be so much more than walking up to a digital counter to buy digital clothes. It can be anything. It’s completely thrilling. Take for example Ariana Grande and Travis Scott’s recent appearance in the video game Fortnite, which can be seen as a sort of proto-Metaverse. The performers were 50 feet tall, and visitors were invited to feel through the space during the performance, with the music represented kinaesthetically. To approach these spaces with anything less than unfettered play is to miss an opportunity. But what this means for retail is that once again, our industry faces fundamental change. This is a bit more complicated than ecommerce – it’s an entirely new reality that will make the first move to digital look simple. And the Metaverse raises questions for the industry that transcend the physical-digital divide. For example, how do we keep physical retail spaces relevant when digital spaces start to compete on experience? And, what talent will we need to bring into our businesses to make the most of these new opportunities? And, even more radically, do we really want to be building our own destinations in the Metaverse according to the constraints set for us by people who don’t know our industry or share our values? Or can we work together to create a shared space? I would much rather we pool our resources and talent as an industry to create a digital retail utopia than cosy up to Zuckerberg and the rest.

This last point raises an interesting question, and brings me onto the fourth challenge I want to discuss. Control. The retail industry is completely obsessed with control, and so are all of the industries in retail’s orbit: fashion, design, architecture, even art. So many industries are governed by control and so many businesses are built to establish or maintain control. Think about the last time that you collaborated, with a brand let’s say. Months and months and months of toing and froing. Is the exclusion zone around the logo big enough? Does this brand colour clash with that brand colour? Is it ‘us x them’ or ‘them x us’? It goes on. I imagine that if I ever got to see how my time on this earth had been spent, if everything I did was tallied up, I’d be depressed by how much of it had been spent arguing about these things. But if retail is going to change, we have to change the way we relate to control. And we have no choice. If we are going to reinvent retail with all of the challenges and opportunities on the horizon – the Metaverse, circularity, collectives – we are going to have to let go.

Let’s start with the Metaverse. Let’s say that we start to sell items of clothing in that space. There is nothing stopping someone from buying something, and then changing its context until it is completely beyond recognition. You might sell a digital Prada handbag but there’s nothing stopping the person who buys it from wearing it with a Batman costume. We have to realise that when we operate in a fluid, constantly evolving digital space like that, that we have already lost control. The same can be said of circularity. If we are going to make our industry truly sustainable, it is going to require that we completely upend our current conceptions of ownership, and of what it means to be a retailer. We have to disassemble our businesses and rebuild in an entirely new shape. When outlining our vision for circularity, I used the word ecosystem, but what does that mean? Well, an ecosystem is not about control, it is about balance and harmony – it is about plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscape, working together to form a bubble of life. There is no hierarchy, or control in this context – just unburdened, flourishing life. And it will be the same for us. It will be designers, people, brands, spaces, external logistics, specialists, certifiers, customers – all of these separate but interconnected individuals and industries working together to sell and rebuy and fix and sell in a way that supports a business and doesn’t damage the planet. There’s no controlling that, and there is power and promise in letting go of the desire to do so.

In my own experience of working with collectives, I have learned that the best approach is to give them the space they need to do what they do best – create. A collective does not work for you, they work with you. Treat people with the respect that they deserve as artists, creators and thinkers, and they will use that space to create something far beyond the scope of anything you could have directed them to produce. By trying to hold onto control you are limiting the power of the collective to the limits of your own imagination. The challenge for our own hierarchical industry is how to adopt a more open, less controlling mindset when working with our own organisations and with each other.

I believe the only way for retail to thrive in this fast-shifting landscape is to discard the old ways of working. In order for us to address the expanse and complexity of the challenges we collectively face, we must tear down the boundaries between our businesses and our industry in order to share ideas and develop open-source solutions. Together, we must identify and deliver on a purpose beyond profit, we must harness the power of the collective to facilitate radical and diverse creative expression, we must experiment with completely new participatory models of retail, and through the lens of civic responsibility, we must create culture defining physical and digital spaces. Above all, we must be open – open to exploring new solutions, open to sharing our ideas and experience, and open to co-creating a new language for retail and a new way of thinking. Only then we will create a bright future for retail, for each other, and for the planet.

Managing Director of Selfridges Group, Anne Pitcher, is one of the most recognised names in British retail. Under her leadership, the famed department store has been the recipient of the Best Department Store In The World award four times and been recognised for its radical sustainably-focused retail strategy, and its future-thinking innovations. Prior to joining Selfridges in 2011, Pitcher held positions at Harrods and Harvey Nichols. In 2021, she was the winner of the Veuve Clicquot Bold Woman Award, which recognises the achievements of women leaders in business. 

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