LONDON, United Kingdom — In the middle of Mayfair, London’s luxury mecca, only a stone’s throw away from a set of gleaming megastores erected by the likes of Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Dior, stands something of an anomaly. The fusty British department store Fenwick proudly occupies the corner of New Bond Street, a major luxury avenue, and Brook Street, home to the famed Claridges Hotel. Yet the Fenwick brand remains relatively unknown.
While London’s luxury consumers (and the millions of global shoppers who descend on the city each year) are almost hard-wired to read yellow and black as ‘Selfridges’ and purple as ‘Liberty,’ few are well-versed in the bottle green lettering of Fenwick.
So how is the store still quietly sitting on some of the most expensive retail real estate in the world?
Launched in the 19th century by Mr John James Fenwick, the company was set up as the concept of the modern department store, first conceived in France, came to Britain in the form of luxury emporiums like Harvey Nichols, Harrods and Liberty. But while these stores were born of London, Fenwick was founded in Newcastle, where the company’s headquarters and the biggest of its eleven stores is based. (Fenwick, still fully owned by its founders, currently operates stores in a range of British towns and cities, including Canterbury, Colchester, York and Windsor. Its stores are all independently run and target different demographics with different product and marketing strategies).
“When I first joined Fenwick two years ago, I thought, ‘Come on, we need to turn the volume up a little bit here.’ But then I started to enjoy the quiet and the peaceful environment,” said David Walker-Smith, managing director of Fenwick Bond Street, which has a more upmarket offering than Fenwick’s other stores. “Sometimes you wake up and you want to go shopping in a shopping mall. Other times, you want to come to a space where you can exist for longer. We’re not harmful to your senses here. We’re not loud, we’re not noisy. We’ll connect with you.”
Walker-Smith came to Fenwick in early 2013, having spent 16 years as buying and merchandising director of beauty, menswear, home and technology at Selfridges. According to the retail veteran, Fenwicks’ non-ostentatious presence is expertly tailored to their customer.
“The lady that shops with us, we celebrate the fact that she’s 40, 50, 60 years of age. And she’s been forgotten about,” he said. “The space that we're developing and the architecture; everything is aimed at a 40 to 50 year old woman. The level of service and the people that we employ to help our customers aren’t kids or graduates; they’re of an ilk.”
The store is certainly calm. Unlike Selfridges or Harrods, Fenwick Bond Street is a modest and minimal affair. The walls of its clothing department are clean white, with garments displayed on simple rails. Much is unpretentious. On the third floor, silver pipes in the low ceiling are exposed, while downstairs, a snow-covered tree is a hangover from Christmas that Walker-Smith “couldn’t bear to get rid of.”
The busiest part of the store is its ‘Shoe Corner,’ which, last July, had a £1 million renovation. A warm, golden space in which curvaceous cream leather chairs offer customers in-built stands their phones and hooks for their handbags, it feels serene and secure. The shoes most prominently displayed are comfortable low heels, while Ascot-friendly hats reign in the accessories department.
“I don’t doubt that it has a loyal following amongst people who live close by in those areas,” said Tamara Sender, senior retail analyst at Mintel, referring to Fenwick’s eleven stores. “But I think of Fenwick as struggling.” In the year ending January 2014, Fenwick’s pre-tax profits fell from £36 to £35 million, though turnover inched upwards from £289.7 million to £295.8 million, according to data from Companies House. “They’ve got to play catch up now with the [department stores] that are really outperforming,” added Sender. According to Fenwick, while the group's overall pre-tax profits did indeed fall in the year ending January 2014, retail profits, in fact, rose 3.2 percent on a like for like basis.
However, by focusing so closely on its traditional clientele, Fenwick’s London store may be missing the boat on the high net worth shoppers, including affluent visitors from the Middle East and Asia, who have flooded London’s Mayfair neighbourhood in recent years. According to Walker-Smith, tax-free shopping (enjoyed by non-EU residents) at Fenwick Bond Street has increased by six percent since he took over. But Sender was skeptical: “I’d imagine Fenwick Bond Street is not attracting your high-net-worth foreigners.” While the store does, in fact, attract some high net worth foreigners, it has not become a high-traffic destination for affluent tourists like Harrods or Selfridges.
What's more, Fenwick currently lacks e-commerce, having shuttered its existing website last year. “We did that quite proudly, because it wasn’t living the values of what we wanted for our consumer,” said Walker-Smith. Yet over 70 percent of over-50s in Britain have shopped online, according to a 2013 survey by Age UK. “It is essential in today’s world. You need a seamless multi-channel offer,” said Sender, noting that London’s top performing department stores have invested heavily in digital sales. “The fact that Fenwick are really underdeveloped online must have a huge impact.”
According to Walker-Smith, change is afoot.
“We’ve got a big steering group talking about what e-commerce for Fenwick means — because we’ve got 11 different stores, so what does online look like? We’ll answer that when we know.”
What's more, the Bond Street store is set for major transformations. In recent seasons, the store has added energetic brands like T by Alexander Wang and House of Holland, as well as Charlotte Tilbury Beauty. And, this year, Fenwick Bond Street will unveil a new jewellery and beauty concept on its ground floor, as part of an ongoing multi-million pound renovation that will see the store launch MAC cosmetics in July, becoming the brand’s first-ever Bond Street retailer. “Beauty is very important for Bond Street because there is no competition, so we are the destination for beauty,” he claimed. “If you look at the way that beauty is advertised, historically it has been with a very young girl and it’s not talking to these women in their 40s and 50s.”
Fenwick Bond Street has also begun to host more events, including a charity “shop with the stars” evening that saw British national treasures Joanna Lumley and Dame Judi Dench manning store tills. And Walker-Smith is working on ways for the store to generate exposure and excitement by support emerging fashion talent through NewGen, a scheme created by the British Fashion Council to support young design talent.
The push comes ahead of the 2018 opening of Crossrail, a major new London transport line that will push 20,000 more people out of Bond Street station — and, hopefully, past the doors of Fenwick — every day.
Will it be enough?
Said Tamara Sender, “I think they’ve got a lot to do.”
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 25 January, 2014, to reflect additional information provided by Fenwick.