A window into a new world

May 3, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered all aspects of society, not least the retail sector, which has been buffeted by enforced closures and accompanying economic uncertainty. One such company to have faced those headwinds is Newcastle-based premium department store operator Fenwick. However, with its flagship outlet now open again, and its chief executive John Edgar – who joined just days after the first national lockdown had begun last year – rolling out improvements to its physical and online offering, the firm is taking steps to recover lost ground. Steven Hugill finds out more.

Fenwick’s famous Northumberland Street windows have helped tell a few stories in their long history.

From meticulously conceived year- round product displays, to the annual Christmas spectacles that have become an inter-generational institution, the premium retailer’s grand frontage is well versed in providing a backdrop for ever- changing times.

Never, though, has it told a tale like the one at present.

That routine maintenance work means those windows and therefore the majestic façade of the company’s flagship Newcastle building is shrouded – temporarily – by multi-coloured, artwork- adorned protective boards is somewhat apt.

The improvements are a regular occurrence, but this year they are more symbolic than ever, for they provide a window into an altogether altered world.

With COVID-19 meaning Fenwick could only reopen its department store in April following another Government- imposed trading hiatus, the restoration work feels like a metaphor for rebirth, and of a retailer – and the UK as a whole – taking the first steps on a long journey to recovery.

Inside the store, that feeling only intensifies.

Windows have been opened up and floors re-laid, while the revamped menswear department now includes a ‘sneaker wall’, where myriad brands and colours of footwear are illuminated against a white backdrop.

Elsewhere, its food hall is rich in produce, a great amount of which is sourced locally – a pop-up market is home to treats from operators such as bagel maker Dot, Indian food purveyors Dabbawal and Khai Khai, Durham-based sweet shop Beamish and Darlington piccalilli maker Calder’s Kitchen – while a plethora of new brands across all departments have, and continue to be, introduced with a number of them exclusive to the city centre site.

Additionally, the 139-year-old family- owned business hopes – subject to planning – to create an outdoor, rooftop restaurant to further enhance the store’s standing.

What it all represents, says chief executive John Edgar, is the evolution of an esteemed brand that is putting itself in the strongest possible position as the financial, social, physical and emotional implications of the COVID-19 pandemic slowly begin to abate.

“What we could have done is shut the doors at Christmas time, unlocked them again after the last lockdown and said, ‘it’s the same stuff, come and buy it’,” says John, who grew up in the village of Hurworth, just outside Darlington.

“But that would have been a disaster.

“Instead, what we have chosen to do – and will continue to do with the support of the family – is invest for the longevity of the business.

“We are going to be in Newcastle for the long-term; we are a mainstay.

“But for us to make that happen, we have to provide a point of difference for customers and that means being innovative and ensuring quality around products and services, as well as the hospitality we provide.

“We are majoring on the hospitality element – it’s all about going the extra mile and welcoming someone into the store just like you would to your home.

“Not many are doing that, certainly not to the same scale we are.”

John, who attended what is now Darlington’s Carmel College as a youngster, continues: “We sell things that shoppers can buy in lots of other places, but we are providing a better and safer environment.

“Added to that, we are introducing 140 new brands across all categories and will have names in Newcastle that you won’t get anywhere else, such as Trinny London, in the beauty department, and Colorful Standard, in womenswear – and there will be more.

“The food hall is constantly evolving too.

“One of the big things in all of our locations is our engagement with the community; where we can, we get local traders into our stores.

“This is particularly so in the food hall where we have lots of traders that would have ordinarily sold from places like Newcastle’s Quayside Market; we have brought them in, and a lot have stayed with us.

“Being part of the community is really important for us,” adds John of Fenwick, whose Newcastle store – which also includes the Hop & Dram bottle shop that features many locally-sourced brews – is joined by outlets in York, Bracknell, Colchester, Canterbury, Tunbridge Wells and shops in London’s Kingston and Brent Cross, as well as the city’s famous
Bond Street.

“We are not a business that is run from London on a cookie cutter basis – we have nine shops across England, so can be specific and relevant to each of the nine communities we serve.

“And that includes our Newcastle festive display, which, because of COVID-19, was held digitally last year and was viewed a million times online.”

While making strides in transforming the physical and social aspects of the business, John is making equally rapid progress with Fenwick’s online presence.

When he officially took over on April 1 last year, the retailer’s digital offering lagged somewhat behind its contemporaries, to the point that the previous hierarchy were strongly considering its permanent closure.

John, however, was quick to see the opportunity.

“Everything was closed when I joined – including online,” he says.

“Someone actually said to me, ‘forget online, it’s not worth it’ – it took me a week-and-a-half to change the situation and that part of the business is now growing at an incredible rate.

“Before I joined, it was taking very little money and was primarily a beauty site,” says John, who studied at universities in Bristol and Edinburgh.

“It did bits very well, but it wasn’t what it could be – we only had a tiny percentage of our product catalogue on there, for example.

“We have done an awful lot to improve the website, but there remains an awful lot more to do – pandemic or not, it is something we need to be doing to be credible in the marketplace and extend our reach.”

With enforced COVID-19 store closures having only further heightened the importance of retailers’ digital proposition, John says the online improvements mean Fenwick now has much greater sinuosity to meet shoppers’ fluctuating buying habits and counter any further turns in the economic landscape – all while acting as a crucial, supportive ally to its traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ offering.

He says: “It remains to be seen how many people have said, ‘I’m only ever going to shop online from now on’ following the pandemic, but there is a palpable feeling of positivity among customers shopping physically, which I think is being helped by the vaccine rollout.

“To an extent, it depends what people want.

“If I want to buy a lot of detergent, for example, I don’t need to go into a shop and experience that. But if I want to buy some children’s shoes for school, because their feet have grown over lockdown, I’d do that in store.

“We can cater for whatever people choose.”

He continues: “The website is a major part of our plans to transform the business and we will drive our online offer further, but it won’t be to the exclusion of our stores – the two of them sit side-by-side very well.

“Online will never make up for the gap in most retailers – there is a role for both; it is a symbiotic relationship.”

The progress John alludes to is made all the more remarkable when viewed through the prism of COVID-19.

Having prevented him from embarking on physical store visits and team introductions on his arrival, John’s picture of Fenwick was instead painted through countless online video calls and meetings.

“Nothing focuses the mind like a common enemy,” says John of the business, which complements in-store and online trading with concierge and call-and-collect services.

“As an organisation, we all saw that, and it was quite easy to get everyone to pull together.

“We had to keep going as best we could, and the trader mentality really came out.”

And he says such resilience, coupled with an ever-growing understanding of coronavirus and its repercussions on the retail sector and life as a whole, means Fenwick has been able to successfully begin plotting the first steps on a map to recovery.

It will, however, he cautions, be a measured journey.

“Recovery is going to be quite slow for everyone,” says John.

“I think it is going to be a number of years before we get back to a level where we are really comfortable.

“For us, comfortable means we are making decent profit.

“We’re not making profit at the moment; in my first 12 months here, we were closed for seven of the most profitable.

“It is going to be a while to get back into the black, and the reality is that we just don’t know what is going to happen over the next 12 months.

“We are, however, in a better place than we were.”

The uncertainty and market fragility John describes all mean one thing – a demanding situation.

Relief then, that he relishes a challenge – and that his is a career fashioned across two decades at some of the most well- known names in global retailing.

Having left the North East at 21, John worked briefly in Manchester before moving to London in the early 1990s, initially, he thought, for a couple of years.

His time in the capital, however, was to last much longer.

After starting at the former Burton Group, which later became Sir Philip Green’s now collapsed Arcadia Group, John worked in Topshop’s finance department.

From there, he progressed to House of Fraser, another high street bellwether of the time, and then joined Woolworths as chief financial officer, where he fought valiantly with colleagues to save the ultimately fated business.

He was subsequently approached by Selfridges to take on the same title, and helped create the Selfridges Group, before his work then caught the eye of blue-ribbon operator Harrods.

What it all helped provide, says John – who, after leaving Harrods following five- and-a-half years’ service as chief financial officer, worked for Boston Consulting Group on projects that included a large US department store chain – was the perfect background of learning and hardiness to counter his initial COVID-19- related encounters with Fenwick.

“I’ve had so many great experiences,” he says.

“Burton Group was known as the university of retail at that time because lots of people who began their careers with the business went on to bigger and better things.

“House of Fraser gave me great exposure to lots of different things and some great people too, and both Selfridges and Harrods were fantastic places to work.

“Harrods is so very unique and does what it does very well.

“In contrast, Woolworths was a very difficult time,” continues John.

“I was there for the last two years of its existence and we tried hard to save it; that was a really soul-destroying time because 35,000 people lost their jobs.

“I learned a lot around resilience and agility – and having that in the memory bank has been invaluable.”

And with all of that experience now at play in bolstering Fenwick’s progress, John says he believes the retailer is perfectly placed to help Newcastle – and therefore the wider North East – recover from COVID-19.

“I’d like to see Newcastle punch where it needs to be,” he says, “it has so much opportunity and needs to believe it can succeed.

“Businesses like ourselves can play a major role in helping Newcastle, which is one of the great cities in this country, and its community achieve increased status.

“We can play a major part in the economy, certainly the retail element, of Newcastle becoming stronger.”

He continues: “For us to do that, though, we have to keep pushing.

“Retail has never been easy and now, more than ever, we need to change and adapt faster.

“The high street will continue to exist, but there will be more polarisation between the good and the bad.

“I’ve been saying for the last 15 years there have been too many shops.

“For me, less is more, and we are in a strong position with our nine stores, but the property market has to change, and the Government must still do something about business rates too.”

John adds: “I think what we will see are more discerning high streets, rather than the bland multiples of the 1990s where, for example, you sometimes didn’t know the difference between a utilities shop, a bank and a retail outlet.

“Personality is going to be more and more important going forward, and we will be perfectly placed for that.

“We need to keep doing the right things – some of our ideas will work, and some won’t.

“Ultimately it will all be about reinvention and reinvigoration.”