Selfridges: retail is both sustainability and innovation or it isn’t

Michele Caprini
19 Nov 2020

Selfridges is considered a symbol of international retail. It began trading in 1909 and now runs four department stores for almost 2 billion pounds in revenues with 3000 employees. Its flagship store in Oxford Street competes with its biggest rival Harrods in Brompton Road: a sort of Sparta and Athens of commerce in one of the capitals of the world.

Selfridges’ offering is mainly aimed at the high end of the market. Just looking at fashion, it carries, among others, brands and boutique labels such as Tiffany, Bulgari, Emporio Armani, Moncler, Boss, Versace, Burberry, Stella McCartney. However, the excellence of the brands it exhibits covers every sector, from food to electronics, of the historic English brand, now owned by the Canadian Weston Group.  

A century long innovation

On 2 October 1925, John Logie Baird, the television pioneer, gave the world’s first demonstration of a true television system at Selfridges. In the 1930s, public toilets were installed for the store’s shoppers, anticipating a very current concept of shopping journey: increased customers’ stay time and higher average customer purchase value.

This is a simple demonstration of the connatural trend towards innovation which has played a key role in the establishment of the brand over the decades. Coming to the present day for example, the presence and active collaboration with social media is regarded as extremely important. With half a million followers on Facebook, and twice as many on Instagram, a year ago Selfridges teamed up with Instagram to launch its first pop-up store in Oxford Street, marked by the enthusiasm of the retailer: “We are the first in the UK to offer our customers the best of the collections on sale on the social network. Instagram is a constant reference for our Selfridges community in the field in fashion, beauty and lifestyle”.

Building on this approach, there also had to be a strong grocerant initiative. From the next few days, in fact, customers of the famous London store will be able to combine their usual shopping with lunch or dinner in a refined restaurant that will serve exclusive menus based all around honey. There is, however, a characteristic note that will never be different over time: Selfridges’ yellow shopping bag, which identifies its customers without any possibility of mistake.

Project Earth

Today, in Oxford Street, a huge slogan stands out in large letters on the side of the store: “Let’s change the way we shop”. It is not a simple advertising message, but the summary of the strategic direction declared last August by Alannah Weston, Selfridges Group chairman: “Project Earth marks a new chapter in Selfridges’ history – the start of a challenging yet essential journey to completely change the way we shop and put sustainability at the heart of everything we do. We want to reinvent retail”.

With these words, the property didn’t just want to express its commitment to sustainable fashion. For the retailer, the real goal, instead, is to restructure, with the involvement of all brand partners, the entire supply chain in an eco-sustainable way, adding a particular offer that was previously unthinkable for a brand of this level. Selfridges will in fact offer a repair, rental and resale service for clothes and accessories.

The retailer will make the shopping experience easier and more eco-conscious for its customers, detailing the ecological credentials of thousands of garments from 350 different brands. From 2025, only products meeting the new supply requirements will be purchased. The wide range of fibres and materials involved includes cotton, feathers, leather and other derivative fabrics such as viscose rayon, modal and lyocell.

Among its brand partners, Prada was the first to join the project, presenting a new collection of garments and accessories made of regenerated fabric, in support of campaigns for the protection of oceans.  

The strategic plan? Sustainability.

Sustainability is our business plan, with five-year commitments” said Anne Pitcher, Selfridges Group managing director. “We are putting people and planet at the heart of our thinking, which will transform the way we do business and the way we shop over the next five years.”

To give even greater credibility to this commitment, the high street brand launched Resellfridges, which will see it as a protagonist in the second-hand trade. The new initiative adds to the list of efforts so far made by Selfridges, which includes the partnership with Vestiaire Collective and the collaboration with HURR Collective, a rental service for designer clothing and accessories.

Moreover, the pandemic has led to significant changes in consumer spending habits and priorities. Whether it is a matter of daily commuting or the way of spending or the way in which waste is disposed of, the need for sustainability is among them and involves a strong boost to the growth of the preloved market. Brands having at their disposal customers, technology platforms and logistical resources will have to support the circular economy and, indeed, aim at creating their own circuit.

 In addition, spending capacity will generally be lower due to the economic impact of COVID-19 and, as a result, retailers will have to adapt their offerings. Pricing will be important, but so will the quality of products or some additional benefits. Choosing the right packaging is the first step to create a specification for the demand and add value to products.


Change requires a collective effort, greater than just a single retailer, regardless of its strength, or a group of consumers. Innovation is not a choice, it is a necessity which has in technology its enabling tool and awareness is the common priority.