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Retail Lessons From Harrods

My wife and I just returned from our first visit to London, to attend a college graduation and sightsee, and we made it over to the iconic establishment Harrods. (Click here to see to see a slideshow of some pictures.)

After entering the store one phrase crossed my mind (With apologies to Edward R. Murrow, military and civilian veterans of the World War II): “This Is London.” It is, at least, for anyone who is interested in retail.

The summer is vacation time and armies of tourists are crowding into buses, taxis and the Underground to visit centuries-old churches and other famous sites, one of them being Harrods.

My wife Marion had her own reasons to visit this landmark store, but I came to check out its electronics and appliance departments.

The iconic establishment is London’s most famous department store, if not the world’s. But the last time department stores in the U.S. were a significant force in CE sales had to be back in the early 1980s when chains like Macy’s, Montgomery Ward — heck, even Bloomingdales — were trend-setters.

But Harrods being Harrods — famous for its upscale selection and service — it had a few surprises up its collective sleeve in CE and even major appliances.

For one thing, there is a “Samsung Collection” on the second floor. The area looked like a smaller version of the Samsung Showroom that occupied an ultra-upscale retail space in New York’s Time Warner building for several years, displaying and demonstrating the company’s line to its fullest advantage.

Like the now-departed New York space, this Samsung location here has just showed the full line of the supplier’s wares –— from its Gear S smart watch to its Galaxy S6 smartphone to audio systems and speakers, highly designed and featured refrigerators, washers and dryers, along with a hefty display of its latest Ultra HD TVs, but not for sale. They instead refer customers to the Technology and the Appliance departments at Harrods.

A Samsung employee said the Showcase has been open since February, and volunteered that it would close and move from there in a few weeks. I innocently asked where in London it would be moved to he said, “Oh, another floor at Harrods,” and probably during the fourth quarter.

Also on the second floor was the Home Appliance area, and there was the Samsung WW9000 washer, Samsung WaterWall dishwasher and other products, along with a full display of Miele laundry products, as well as Big Green Egg and Napoleon upscale barbeques.

I finally made it to the third floor to the Technology department and, for you traditionalists, it was a classic audio/video/imaging floor. There had to be close to a dozen sales associates on the floor, making sales and answering questions.

Twenty-five percent of the floor was made up of TVs — Ultra HD, curved OLED sets, you name it — from not only Samsung but also LG, Sony and Panasonic.

There was the 88-inch smart 3D 4K curved LED from Samsung; the 98-inch LED 4K TV from LG Electronics with “complimentary delivery”; and a 79-inch smart 3D 4K LED TV from Sony, just to give you a hint of the selection.

Another 25 percent of the sales floor was dedicated to audio of all types. Vinyl turntables from Audio-Technica and Onkyo; vintage digital radios from Roberts; a vintage-looking but state-of-the-art juke boxes from Sound Leisure featuring Bluetooth capability and a choice of audio formats; multiroom audio systems from Sony, Pioneer and Yamaha; and cutting edge speakers and headphones from Audio-Technica, Beats, Bose, Harman-Kardon, Monster and Sennheiser — and probably a few more.

Another 25 percent of the department was dedicated to cameras. As one of the British friends of the family we were visiting noted dryly: “Harrods is for tourists, you know.” Every major camera brand seemed to be represented: Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, FujiFilm and GoPro, and a ton of all the appropriate accessories.

Aside from the “Samsung Collection,” I uncovered another surprise. The remaining 25 percent of the Technology department was made up of two “concession” areas, as one of the salespeople called it: Loewe’s and Band & Olufsen areas in which sales were handled by employees of each upscale supplier. So this isn’t just an American CE retail phenomenon.

Each manufacturer showed its best products, and B&O had something I’ve never seen in the States: a brochure with bios of the five salespeople who handle the area’s sales.

Loewe’s didn’t have bios, but it did show its line of top Ultra HD and home audio products in all of their collective glory.

If you want me to mention pricing, about all of the CE products were very similar to U.S. prices, with probably a little bit more margin than a typical American dealer. (It is Harrods, you know.) But there was a 25 percent off sale on “selected technology items” in the department the day I visited, as well as a 50 percent sale on audio products from Monster, Sony, Tivoli and Yamaha.

Given Harrods reputation for service, there was also a small area on the side of the department where consumers were able to consult with salespeople on not only delivery but installation. An associate told me that was “a good business for us.”

Granted, Harrods is a unique institution, but when it comes to CE and major appliances, it is keeping up with the latest worldwide retail trends, yet remaining true to its heritage in keeping up with its upscale product and service image. That should be a lesson for everyone.

Steve Smith is editor at large for TWICE and was its longtime editor-in-chief.