“You have to hold true to your vision”
We spoke to April Preston, Executive Head of Food Innovation at Harrods, about innovation, experiential shopping, and the store’s exciting new food hall.
What does innovation mean to you?
It means different things in different businesses. For Harrods it’s about inspiration: creating products and concepts that inspire our customers, and that they didn’t know they wanted until they saw them. Sometimes people take innovation to mean something you’ve never seen before, but it can also be about seeing something in a new context. For example in our new food hall we’ve got a baker on the shop floor, and one of our most successful lines is a two kilogram sourdough that you can personalise with your initials. It’s a loaf of bread, but the fact that it’s baked in-store by experts and you can personalise it, makes it new and innovative.
You’ve recently revamped your food hall. What’s the vision behind that?
We have a fantastically diverse customer base, with a lot of tourists and international customers, but we wanted to attract the local London foodie customer back to the food hall, so this is partly about appealing to them. The food hall has four rooms that hadn’t really been touched for 30 years, so we’ve begun a rolling programme where we renovate one, open it and move on to next one. We were very conscious we wanted it to play to all the senses. Harrods has always been experiential, but where we’ve moved on is with this multisensorial element. We’re so lucky to have a Grade II listed building, which is such a wonderful canvas to create the world’s greatest food hall. It still feels like Harrods, but Harrods 2018.
Tell us about how you created that sensory experience you wanted to achieve?
The first thing we’ve done is to get music in there, which we haven’t had before. We’ve spent a huge amount of time getting the lighting spot on, we’ve got a master roaster who sources beans and roasts them, and has retrained all our baristas, and we bake bread all day, every day from scratch, which is unique for a department store. We’ve got a board saying what’s coming out of the oven when, and a bell that rings every half hour when something is fresh. And obviously you get the smell. You can see when the croissants come out of the oven, and the baker will bring them over to this beautiful coffee bar in the middle, and you can enjoy a croissant that’s just been baked, and a coffee that’s just been roasted two metres away.
How are customers’ needs changing when it comes to food shopping and eating out?
I call it the polarisation of how people want to shop. At one end you’ve got a customer need which is to do my essential shopping: get in, get out, don’t think about it. The other end is where people want shopping to be more of a leisure activity and an experience – which is very much where Harrods is positioned. We’ve got people who stay all day, do some shopping, have a coffee, do a bit more shopping, get some lunch, maybe go to a beauty parlour… Every category has got something that’s over and above just products on shelves. Another key feature that has been really successful for us is the personalisation. As well as the personalised loaves, we’ve got an amazing tea tailor who’ll personalise your blend of tea.
Quality and value for money are absolutely fundamental to people at the moment. Even in a store like Harrods, we measure ourselves by: are customers saying this is well worth the money I paid for it? It’s not about being cheapest, it’s about being the best value for money.
What lessons have you learned about innovation that you would share with others?
When you work in innovation and you’re quite a visual person, it takes a while to get to that shared vision. It’s important to have that determination and hold true to your original vision. There’s this analogy of an enormous liner heading off to a point on the horizon. If the point on the horizon moves even an inch, by the time you get there, you’re miles off course.
When you’re of an innovative mindset, there are some people who can doubt, so it can get lonely at times. I was fortunate that my boss held fast and made difficult decisions, and when you visit the new room, it really comes through. It’s a fantastic result.