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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 August 2007, 05:24 GMT 06:24 UK
Fortnum's getting a makeover at 300
Beverley Aspinall, managing director of Fortnum & Mason
Fortnum's boss wants to keep its heritage and attract new shoppers
In the first of a series of features on the retail industry, Gavin Stamp looks at one of London's most famous shops' attempts to reinvent itself.

Fortnum & Mason, the Piccadilly institution that has catered to the tastes of kings and prime ministers, as well as explorers, soldiers and generations of foreign tourists since 1707, will mark the start of its fourth century in October.

And given that the retailer is 300 years old, it is no surprise that one of London's most famous shopping landmarks is showing a few wrinkles.

So the store is getting a well-deserved and much-needed makeover.

"The store was very well known, had tremendous brand recognition and was very well-loved by lots of its regular customers," explains its managing director Beverley Aspinall.

"But we did have a number of significant problems."

Store defects

Foremost among these was that the building, which in its current guise dates back to 1926, was "worn out".

"The fridges did not work," Ms Aspinall mentions as one example of its shortcomings.

"On a hot day we would have to move the chocolates off because we didn't have enough fridges working at the right temperature to keep them on the shop floor."

As well as day-to-day difficulties, the store faced a longer-term commercial dilemma.

People are happy to pay for the very best and that is where we aim to position ourselves
Beverley Aspinall, Fortnum & Mason managing director

While very loyal, many customers only visited a couple of times a year - at Christmas or Easter - while others ventured no further than the food hall on the ground floor.

While this helped sales of the store's teas and jams, it did little for the thousands of other products stocked on its other five floors.

"We need to have people coming in more frequently," observes Ms Aspinall. "If you are living or working in Mayfair, these are the sorts of people we want to have in more regularly."

A gift for everyone

In the past, some local residents may have been put off by Fortnum & Mason's image as a rather eccentric and expensive curiosity shop.

It still sells jars of foie gras for 120 ($240) while the most expensive hamper in this year's collection will set you back 20,000.

But while unashamedly trumpeting its position at the top end of the market, Ms Aspinall also appears to head down-market, stressing a new emphasis on "affordable luxury" that does not exclude people on more modest budgets.

A lady shops at Fortnum's in the early 1960s
1707: Royal footman William Fortnum and shopkeeper Hugh Mason open grocery store
1788: Grandson Charles Fortnum leaves royal service to run store
1855: Queen Victoria orders Fortnum's to send beef tea to wounded soldiers in the Crimea
1863: First royal warrant to supply the Prince of Wales
1925: New ladies fashion store
1998: Launches website
2001: Delists from stock market after 62 years
2004: Opens first concession store in Tokyo
2005: Begins 24m refurbishment

So Fortnum & Mason has packed hampers that go on sale for 40 and are geared to modern celebrations - such as flat warming parties - as well as more traditional social occasions.

"You can come in and buy a really nice tin of tea for 5 or a beautiful bar of soap," Ms Aspinall says.

In an effort to widen its appeal, the store decided several years ago to embark on its most comprehensive refurbishment in years.

When it unveils its new layout on 29 October, more than 25m will have been spent on creating a new floor devoted to fresh food, along with a central atrium showing off all its trading space as well as several new cafes and restaurants.

In the process, Fortnum's has endured nearly two years of serious disruption.

Although it tried to minimise the impact on its business by stopping building work in the run-up to Christmas - its busiest time - its sales have been badly hit.

"You name it, customers have had to contend with it," Ms Aspinall acknowledges.

On its travels

Growth in online orders - Fortnum's revamped its website in 2005 and has seen sales rise sharply - has compensated to some degree.

Fortnum's is also fortunate that it is just one outpost of the global retail empire run by the Weston family of Canada.

The family, which also owns Selfridges among other retailers, can afford to take a longer-term view of the store's prospects and return on investment than a public company.

A Fortnum & Mason concession store in Japan
Fortnum's Japanese cakes are made strictly to English recipes

In reality, the changes to the Piccadilly store are part of a bigger picture in which the growth of the Fortnum & Mason's brand, rather neglected in the past, has moved to centre-stage.

"It will always have limitations in how far it can grow as it is small by comparison with other department stores," Ms Aspinall says of the 64,000 square foot site.

"But [the refurbishment] is doing more than servicing local shoppers. It is also the place that people will come from Japan and the US who want to see the real thing."

Fortnum's wants to give expatriates and foreign fans a taste of the real thing nearer home.

It has raised its international ambitions in the past five years, opening 13 concession stores in Japan in partnership with local retailer Mitsukoshi.

"The link is tea," she says, explaining the Japanese connection. "Because the Japanese are huge tea drinkers, there is an enormous and natural synergy there."

Fortnum's is looking for retail sites in the US and also has high hopes for Russia, having benefited from the influx of Russian wealth into London in recent years.

"They are very keen on well-known, luxury brands," Ms Aspinall says.

From Peterborough to Piccadilly

Fortnum's boss is "ambitious" for the company's future - but what of her own ambitions?

Ms Aspinall came to Fortnum & Mason's in 2005, having crowned a 25-year career with John Lewis by managing the 100m redevelopment of flagship London store Peter Jones.

Fresh food hall at Fortnum & Mason
Fortnum's sees a wider choice of fresh food as crucial to its growth

She may be acquiring a handy reputation for managing high-profile retail developments with aplomb but she does not want to look beyond making the current project a success.

"I tend not to look ahead and think that is what I want to do next. When I was running John Lewis in Peterborough I was very, very happy doing that."

She is not underestimating the current challenge, which comes at a time when the weak dollar and global market volatility are likely to affect some regular customers.

But she says the store has adapted to upheavals in the past, not least when so many of its clients were killed in World War I and widows replaced manservants as customers.

"There have been radical changes in the past. You change the store in response to social change."

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