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Selfridges boss: Charity shops can help save high streets


Selfridges boss’s radical plan for retail: Charity stores can help save high streets… and reduce waste

  • Anne Pitcher describes thrift stores as ‘hyperlocal’ and with ‘super circularity’
  • Her goal is for Selfridges and charities to work together to ensure more products are reused or recycled
  • Selfridges brand and marketing expertise can help inspire charities

Upscale department stores and charity shops may seem like unlikely bedfellows. Some of us might even reasonably take the endless proliferation of charity shops in the area as a sign that our high street has taken a bad turn.

But Selfridges CEO Anne Pitcher says it’s time to think again. Charity shops, she stresses, would be about to play a crucial role in helping city centers — battered by the rise of online shopping and, more recently, the pandemic — back from the brink.

The target? Working together to ensure more products are reused or recycled – not thrown away.

Inspired: Selfridges’ boss Anne Pitcher met charity leaders

“This isn’t optional,” says Pitcher, a lifelong retailer who has risen through the ranks to lead one of the most impressive retail companies in the world.

‘This stems from consumer demand. Consumers are going to make their own choices and we have seen them make those choices in recent years.

“We’re all looking for ways to bring a circular model into our businesses — recycle, resell, repair — and remember, charities have been doing that for years.”

To push the point home, Pitcher met with charity shop bosses on Friday afternoon to make a call to action that the two opposite ends of the high street should work more closely together.

Selfridges, she notes, has already cleared space for projects that would allow charity shops to operate in their stores – most recently with Oxfam.

“At Selfridges Group, we want to be part of the solution,” she told the audience.

‘Why don’t we constantly work together? We need to work together and learn from each other to reduce waste, increase circularity, bring you online and take us to local communities. There is so much potential here for us to reinvent retail together.’

There is the potential to reinvent retail

She describes charity shops – impressive for raising hundreds of millions for charities – as “hyperlocal” and “super circular” because of their ability to find homes for things many think no one wants.

Selfridges can leverage its skilled branding and marketing expertise to inspire charities to rejuvenate their approach and develop a more curated approach to share classes.

The fashion press is already busy with shoppers’ consciences. Elle recently reported that ‘if everyone in the UK didn’t buy new clothes for a day, the emissions would be equivalent to driving a car around the world 8640 times’.

Selfridges has already cleared space for projects that would allow charity shops to operate in its stores - most recently with Oxfam

Selfridges has already cleared space for projects that would allow charity shops to operate in its stores – most recently with Oxfam

Fast-growing commercial companies have jumped on the theme. Websites that offer second-hand products are not new, but trendy online companies such as Thrift.Plus make it more attractive to buy other people’s fashion items.

Others, including Rent The Runway and Hirestreet, have fashion buffs pack the best clothes for that special occasion—then send them back for someone else to try on.

Pitcher, who launched Project Earth last year to “integrate” sustainability into the business, says she doesn’t “have all the answers.” But a deep dive between the two industries is needed to develop closer ties and practical solutions.

“We have to start somewhere and that’s here somewhere,” she says. “We need to embrace new ways of thinking. It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s important to be curious about it – it’s very challenging. And very exciting by the way.’

Products should have more value in the future

Add to that the fact that the tide seems to be turning against the fashion industry – hardly a standard bearer for sustainability with 3.5 tons of clothing every five minutes in the UK alone.

She says that chains should be transparent. “In 2004 we banned fur – we made it part of our DNA. We have signed the Fashion Pact [at the G7 in 2019] and now Cop26 is coming.’

But while Selfridges products may have a life after the first few wears, what about cheap, fast fashion? Some of them also polish their “sustainability” credentials, while some of their products barely last the first night out. ‘I think products will have to have more value in the future. They will need to be worn more than once and we need to understand what that means for customer behaviour.

‘What happens is people say, ‘Yeah right, sustainability’ – in a way that says they don’t trust you [when firms make claims they cannot substantiate]. There will have to be much more regulation around claims that companies make. I think customers are very aware of whether a retailer’s claim falls within the corporate culture. This must contain authenticity and integrity. Anyway, I think the consumer decides for us.’

The owners of Selfridges are currently in talks over a potential £4bn sale – Pitcher cannot comment as the process has been wrapped up in secret. But whatever happens, it is unlikely to be one of the losers when the impact of the pandemic wears off.

Other retailers, already in the turmoil, may struggle to meet changing consumer demands.

“It has been the most difficult 18 months for many companies. It came really quickly and it really knocked those companies that might not be in the best shape to get in.”

But she adds there is a “cautious optimism” about the new season and ahead of Christmas, with parts of London looking busier last week than in 18 months.

‘People are happy to go back to work, customers like to come back to the stores.’

Anne Pitcher, 65: A shop girl at heart

Career: Started as a ‘shop girl’ at age 16: ‘That’s a core part of who I am.’ Promoted to group director three years ago.

Fashion after the lockdown: After ditching high heels for the past 18 months, Pitcher says shoppers will be swapping flat-soled shoes for something more glamorous. “People dress up. There is a renewed demand for evening wear and party wear.’

Christmas must-haves: The hurdles are expected to be great. ‘There is a lot of interest in nutrition and health and the way we live at home. And of course we all wear face coverings, so we’d like to start wearing makeup again.”



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