Bruce Langlands, director of food at Harrods, reveals to food industry expert Jane Milton* how he plans to turn the celebrated Food Hall at Harrods’ luxury Knightsbridge store into the best in the world by tapping into his previous retail experience and using inspiration from all corners of the globe
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first get into retailing?
Bruce Langlands (BL): Retail was in my blood from an early age. My grandparents had a fishing fleet and my great aunts were all fishwives. My parents also owned a shop. The food industry is in my blood but I didn’t know food was what I wanted to get into [for my career]. Then as a teenager I had to get a job at Russell & Bromley and I caught the retail bug. I was fortunate to join Marks & Spencer‘s (M&S) management training programme and I worked in their Manchester food hall. The pace was fast. You had to make quick decisions. I liked that.
Was there a category within food that you liked best?
BL: The great thing for me when you started in food retail in the 1980s was that it was the time of the ready meal. At that time it was an emerging market. Fresh ready meals were growing while it was the death of the frozen ready meal.
What three things did you learn from your time at M&S?
BL: It doesn’t matter where you are [in retail], these three lessons still apply: 1) commerciality; which is about understanding your sales and how to lay out your store, 2) understanding the customer and what they want, and 3) innovation and quality. M&S was the first company to bring avocados to the UK – you have to constantly find new things.
You also worked for some time in Ireland at Superquinn [now part of the Musgrave Group], what did you learn there?
BL: I was surprised by the lack of the big supermarkets in Ireland. Tesco was there but there was no Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons etc. It was a very high-end retailing environment and it was very different. There was a proper butcher in store [at Superquinn] and there was a full-scale bakery which was the first thing you walked into rather than the usual fruit and vegetable aisle. That [type of retailing] wasn’t really available in the UK.
The convenience market was also huge in Ireland, much bigger than the UK. There was real innovation in terms of store formats and layout. There were food to go stations throughout the day and even an afternoon tea offer.
Ireland also had a phenomenal supply base and artisan suppliers too. People were taking a dairy farm that wasn’t making much money and turning it into a yogurt business, for instance.
In the five years that you’ve been at Harrods, what’s changed and what have you achieved?
BL: One of the first things I did was to ask who were our customers. From being the only food retailer in Knightsbridge, the store had moved on quite a bit with Waitrose, M&S and Harvey Nichols opening up locally and offering food too.
Today we have four key customer types and although the regulars buy their loo roll and toiletries from Sainsbury’s they come to Harrods for products like the best beef (whether that’s Kobe, wagyu or Scottish) and the freshest fish (we have fresh deliveries every day) and our bread that’s baked fresh in store each day.
Harrods is now a tea merchant so we offer 150 different types of tea. We’ve invested a lot in our food to go area too. We’ve created our own salads and sandwiches. 25% of our chilled range is made fresh in store every day. Nine floors beneath the ground floor (which is lower than the Piccadilly Line!) we have our product kitchens where our 120 chefs work through the night on sandwiches and patisserie to serve our five food halls and 27 restaurants.
So, what are the different customer types at Harrods?
BL: There are four key customers:
The tourist; this segment is huge since Harrods is the second-biggest tourist destination in London after Buckingham Palace.
The sales débutée; this is a different type of customer that comes for the sales so the need a different offer.
The quality seeker; these are the real foodies.
The jet set; they are probably what Harrods is known for best. 70% of our customers come from outside of the UK, whether that’s China, the Middle East, Russia or Thailand.
We work hard to get exclusive brands for the jet set. For example, we stock Delice chocolate from the Middle East [a Dubai-based luxury chocolate and confectionery brand] and this makes Harrods a destination because no one else has it.
You have to understand who your customer is and what they want and then it’s all down to commerciality.
From where do you get your inspiration?
BL: The one thing I’ll never scrimp on is travel. We do it constantly and extensively to look at the trends and where they start. We also go to a number of shows like the Fancy Food Show in New York or San Francisco and Gulfood in Dubai. It also depends on the product. For patisserie for instance, there’s no better place than Paris. But one thing we’ve seen increasingly is that London is an amazing hub for food. And it’s not just Borough Market now – there are a number of markets.
How far ahead do you plan?
BL: Generally 18-24 months ahead. We’ve not launched our Christmas 2015 range yet but we’re already looking at Christmas 2016. You have to do it in order to get good prices on things like packaging. We are also planning a number of new things and countries for our Food from the World concept but I can’t tell you more than that right now.
How do you use social media?
BL: We use the hashtag #HarrodsFood and we get over 1,000 likes a minute. We have over 464,000 followers on Twitter. It’s a huge way to communicate but I’ll admit it’s not something we’re good at. We need to use social media in a better and more proactive way. It’s a fantastic lifeline to understand the trends both in and outside of London. It’s the most amazing, free resource to get fantastic customer feedback on your products too. That may be quite untapped but people are starting to look at this more.
How do your pop-up events fit into your strategy? Is it about creating a short-term buzz or are you testing the market?
BL: With the restaurant events we did it to get customers and Londoners to see us as a food destination. We have 27 restaurants at Harrods and shoppers will stay in the store for three to four hours on average so it’s my job to extend that time by encouraging them to stay for lunch or afternoon tea etc.
We’ve done three pop-up restaurants now. Between September 2014 and January 2015 we introduced to Harrods [basement floor] Stelle di Stelle [a modern pop-up dining room] which saw five famous Italian restaurants (with 13 Michelin stars between them) take residency in the store to demonstrate that Harrods is passionate about food.
We have a Chef of the Season who stays in the store for three months to do our prepared food range. We’ve had Anna Hansen, Michael Caines, Tom Aikens. In May we’ll bring in a rising star who represents what Harrods is all about. People won’t be expecting it but he’ll bring a completely different customer profile into the store.
For anyone looking to supply food to Harrods, what one thing would you say to them?
BL: In today’s climate without a doubt it’s innovation. Harrods was the first to bring Krispy Kreme and Häagen-Dazs to UK consumers. So if you’ve got something really innovative, really new or a different ingredient in something existing or different packaging that’s what we’re looking for. It doesn’t always have to be a great new product.
What’s Harrods’ signature food brand all about?
BL: For us, it’s incredibly important. We have one of the best brands in the world – we stand for quality and innovation. Some 70% of the food in Harrods is sold under our own label and we’re incredibly proud of that. The remaining 30% of our offer is branded or concessionary and that’s when we can’t do it ourselves or someone else does it better. For instance, there are elements of our chocolate offer which we don’t do. But we have 120 chefs producing for us every day plus we work in partnership with suppliers to bring in other products.
Who do you think has the best food brand in the world?
BL: KaDeWe in Berlin, Germany, does a brilliant job. But if I’m being really honest, there’s no best food hall in the world that’s under one roof, although that is what we’re trying to create at Harrods.
Is there one big lesson that you’ve learnt that sets you apart from the rest?
BL: There are two but they’re interconnected. Firstly, without knowing your customer you can’t do anything, and secondly, if you’re struggling with a decision look at the figures. The figures don’t lie, plus it always comes down bit of gut instinct too.
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* Langlands was speaking to Milton, a partner at Fresh Banter – Thought Leadership for Food Businesses, at the IFE food and drink exhibition in London