John Edgar from Fenwick on stage at Retail Week Live

Fenwick CEO John Edgar has defended the idea of department stores – and highlighted what he sees as the key ingredients for success – in response to a question by Graham Soult from CannyInsights.com at industry event Retail Week Live.

Wrapping up the first day of the first in-person Retail Week Live since March 2019, Edgar was appearing on a panel with his fellow CEOs from Wickes and The Very Group, as they all reflected upon their challenges and learnings from the past year.

When the floor opened up for questions via the Slido app, Graham observed that Fenwick’s flagship Newcastle store was rightly an institution, and always innovating, yet other department stores were struggling. So, his question for John was what one tip would he give those other operators?

Remarking that “I’m fed up of being told the department store model is finished”, Edgar highlighted what he saw as the key “recipe for success”: being true to what you believe in; being differentiated; giving great service, or “hospitality” as he referred to it; offering the right product at the right price; and, citing Fenwick’s modest estate of nine stores, being “choosy where you trade”.

Noting the importance of giving the customer “other things that allow them to enjoy the place”, Edgar summed up by arguing that “the department store model that works is to offer what you can’t get anywhere else”.

Earlier in the discussions, Edgar highlighted some of the challenges that he had faced when joining the business – in the middle of lockdown – in April 2020, when all the Fenwick stores were closed and there was no active e-commerce operation either. In that scenario, his response had been to treat Fenwick as a “140-year-old start-up”.

Fenwick, of course, has not emerged from the pandemic unscathed – recently reporting a £112 million full year loss for the period most effected by enforced lockdown closures – but there are still signs that the business perhaps understands its own DNA better than many of its competitors.

Earlier, Edgar had highlighted the virtual unveiling of the Newcastle store’s Christmas windows – seen by 250,000 people online – as one of his proudest moments, and spoke at length about how Fenwick still maintained its “traditional family values”, and was “really important in its nine communities”, where it was “part of a fundamental ecosystem that relies on each other”. That’s why, he argued, the business was always investing, and talking to partners such as councils and BIDs, and cited his belief that “our economy relies on our high streets to work”.

Retail Week Live continues for its second and final day today (Thursday 14 October), where CannyInsights.com is delighted to be one of the Media Partners, and Graham Soult and Andrew Bartlett are attending and reporting from the event.

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