Retail Confessions: Harrods
"Rules don’t apply to people who have money like that."
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For the last installment of this column, I spoke to two former employees of Saks Fifth Avenue. If you’ve worked in fashion or beauty retail and want to share your experiences anonymously for future posts, you can reach out to me by replying to this email or sending me a DM. If you don’t have retail experience but there are stores you want to hear about, please let me know. I always love hearing from readers.
For this second installment of “Retail Confessions,” I spoke to a personal shopper employed in the aughts at fancy department store and London landmark Harrods. It was owned at the time by Mohamed al-Fayed, father of Dodi, Princess Diana’s boyfriend who died in the car crash with her in 1997. (Al-Fayed sold Harrods in 2010 for $2.4 billion.) It’s long been a destination for tourists, but of course, as the former personal shopper reveals, those weren’t the people who had real money. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you end up at Harrods?
I had finished university and I had worked in retail before but it wasn’t to this intensity. Where I’m from, you didn’t have that kind of proximity to luxury. So for me to work at a store that carried all the major brands that I only saw in the pages of Vogue was so beyond everything that I ever imagined.
Was it hard to get the job?
You have to go through several interview phases. So you go through an initial interview with the HR people, then you go on to a group interview, and after you do that, you have to do your training period. And if you don’t pass probation, they let you go. I can’t remember if it’s one or three months but it wasn’t like a two-week probation.
What was the probation period for?
To see if you were professional, to see if you were the kind of person they wanted representing the company. So if you were late or didn’t dress according to dress code — if you had a hair color that was unacceptable or visible piercings, that was against dress code. Or if you spoke to customers in a way that wasn’t up to Harrods standards. Or most importantly if you didn’t meet your sales goals — you were out.
What were the customers like?
If you wanted something edgy you’d go next door to Harvey Nichols. People who shopped at Harrods tended to be old school English people who lived next door and had generational money from centuries ago. At the time there were a lot of newly rich people from Russia who had [moved to] the area, and you also had a lot of really rich people from the Middle East shopping there. You wouldn’t get anyone necessarily young unless they were shopping with their mom or their grandma.
Did you feel like you had to sell really hard all the time when you were working?
Every single day, every single hour that I’m on the shop floor, I feel pressure. You have ebb and flow, and you knew if you had a slow day you had to make it up. Although Harrods clientele was quite jet set, you get a whole bunch of tourists, and you know you’re not going to make your goal [with them] because tourists mainly shop in the food hall. They bought a lot of handbags and shoes, but they’re not going to come in for me to dress them.
They had encased the last glass that Princess Diana drank out of with Dodi al-Fayed. People loved it. It just looked like two champagne flutes with some lipstick. It was on the first staircase, and it was just really weird, but everyone came and everyone paid their respects to Diana there.
That’s definitely unique to Harrods. What else was unique about working there?
Mohamed al-Fayed [backed] a Scottish bagpipe band and so every day at 11 in the morning, the bagpipe band would come and do their round on the floor. And you would just sit there, and it’s really loud, right? And they’re dressed in their tartans and stuff, and if you have someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, everyone stops and turns to look at the bagpipe player.
They were really quirky because they also had their own fire brigade and their own police department. In the 80s, the IRA [set off a car bomb outside], so that’s why outside of Harrods there are no garbage cans, because they’re afraid of bombs. So during training they teach you what to do if you’re bombed.
What were people buying at the time?
You had a lot of people coming in for Dior. Those were the Galliano days — everyone wanted a saddle bag, everyone wanted the accessories with the monogram. Shoes and bags are always popular, and obviously they had Hermès, they had Vuitton, they had Fendi, which at the time was doing alright. A lot of English people came in to buy sporting wear — hunting stuff, Barbour jackets and Wellies and things like that. And then Pucci was really popular but only with a really specific subset of people. And Gucci. Those were the Tom Ford years.
Did you worry about returns?
If it was within the 30 days, most likely we would take it back. Tom Ford did a series of bikinis that were quite slim — a lot had a thong back — and there were some that came back with stuff back there. As well as shoes with stuff on there. Oh my god, we had shoes that had, like, literal shit on the bottom. People would be like, “We didn’t like it, it’s really uncomfortable.” In theory, we said we had to be able to resell it, so if they’re going away for a quick little holiday and they wanted to look really hot…
Wait — so you took that item back?
The Tom Ford stuff, you couldn’t keep it on the shelves. Most of it didn’t make it to sale because it sold out so quickly. If you have good clients, you hold it back — it doesn’t hit the shop floor because you know the client wants it, and you know they’re going to pay for it. So it never sees other shoppers. But if that comes back and it has something stuck to it, you wash it and retag it and put it back on the floor.
The amount of people who would buy and return was ridiculous. If people would buy and return and [the item] smelled like last night — this is when you could still smoke in the clubs — you would just steam it and put it back on the shop floor.
What did they do with unsold goods? Someone told me one Saks store discarded a dumpster’s worth or more a day.
They’re very protective over their garbage. So if there was any dumping going on, it would not be anything that anyone would be privy to.
Protective because of the bombing?
Partly because of the bombing and partly because they didn’t want anyone knowing what they were doing. I didn’t see it personally but you do the math, how much goes in and goes out. I had access to other people’s sales and I don’t think all the inventory was sold. A lot of luxury brands, they don’t allow you to put it in the Harrods sale — you have to send it back.
Everyone working in luxury retail stores seems to have stories about mistresses.
You got to know generations of families. Especially with someone who worked as closely as I did with some of the families, you definitely knew the wife wasn’t going to be wearing that. Sometimes it would be nod nod, wink wink, female friend kind of thing. Sometimes they would bring her in and it was obvious.
And what was that like?
You see such a different side of the man when he’s with his family versus when he’s with his mistress. He may disapprove of his partner or child dressing [a certain way] — those rules did not apply to the mistress. It wasn’t like she came in and bought sexy lingerie — if you wanted that, you wouldn’t come to Harrods — but you watched them being really coquettish. And you’re the bystander and they’re drinking champagne, and the more they drink, the more they buy. And you know he’s out to spoil her, he wants to give her an experience. And she’s usually someone who’s not used to this kind of lifestyle, and I can see it — every pair of shoes [she tries on], she’s dancing. I don’t know, maybe it’s a form of foreplay for them. They weren’t allowed to be in the fitting room together. Sometimes they come in and they don’t have the right undergarments, so I’d get them and tell the man, “Just sit here, she’ll be out in two seconds.”
And sometimes it was really creepy, too — there were particular people who would proposition the staff. A lot of men felt that because you worked in a shop and you’re a woman, you’re not their equal, and so you can be bought off, you can be treated a certain way. [One of my colleagues] got groped, [she] got shoved in a corner — she wasn’t allowed to work by herself because she got attacked so many times.
What would happen when someone was harassed or assaulted while working?
There was always an investigation.
How did customers treat you?
[Some] gave me diapers, they would ask me to change their kid — they were so rude to me. Others [who didn’t speak English] couldn’t communicate, and they would point, but at least they didn’t treat me like shit or throw a diaper at me or ask me to wipe a kid’s butt.
How did you respond when that happened?
“I’m here to help you pick out some clothes or gifts, but if you need help with your child, I’m sorry but that’s not what I’m here to do.” It was such a weird situation because you got the older English crowd who would say things that were super passive aggressive, like, “Oh we don’t do that in this country,” And I’m like, I just asked you to to tell me how you like to tie your scarf.
There were girls 12, 14, 16 [years old] like, “We’re going on holiday and we need to have a trunk of clothes sent to this resort.” And they would have credit cards on file.
How did that job affect your perception of luxury shoppers?
When you have that much money, you’re in a whole different world. Sometimes, I realized, it’s extremely lonely. I used to have this one girl who was wonderful, I loved her, this blond woman from some small town in Alabama or Georgia, she reminded me of apple pie, head-to-toe decked out in Chanel. And I would say, “I have nothing else to sell you.” And she would be like, “Can we just hang out?” And she would say, “I really want you to meet my husband.” And he came in, and I don’t know what happened because I turned around to grab something, and he just ripped into her, just yelling to the point where she could not even look up to meet my eyes, just had her eyes to the ground, crying. She was embarrassed. And I looked at her in her Chanel suit, her Chanel boots, and I just thought, Oh my god, you don’t even have the respect of your husband.
That’s so sad.
You know what I realized working there? They live by different rules. Rules don’t apply to people who have money like that, because money gives them a certain kind of freedom and a certain kind of audacity that people who are middle class like you and me wouldn’t be able to fathom. Some people loved to pull the champagne out, some people liked to hear they look amazing. A lot of people loved when you tell them, “You look great. You got this in your wardrobe last season, this is how you put it together.” They loved that attention. Everyone wants to feel like a superstar.
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