Whiff of Brexit poses challenge to scent of success at Harrods

If British retail landscape is indicator, delux store will be lucky to keep profits growing

“This year’s results for Harrods have yet to be published, but if the rest of the retail landscape in Britain is anything to go by, Harrods will be very lucky to show another increase in profits.” File photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

“This year’s results for Harrods have yet to be published, but if the rest of the retail landscape in Britain is anything to go by, Harrods will be very lucky to show another increase in profits.” File photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

 

Walk into Harrods from the corner of Hans Crescent and the Brompton Road and you can find your way around with your eyes closed, just by following your nose. The buttery, powdery aroma of cosmetics gives way after a few paces to the sweet polish of expensive leather bags, or “luxury accessories” as they are called here.

A left turn brings some excitement as a tumult of lavender, geranium, oak moss, patchouli, oranges and lemons fills the perfume hall. Press on and you’ll smell more fruit, this time next to vegetables and herbs in the food hall, with blasts of hot bread and roasted coffee wafting in from the new bakery in the next room.

Before you reach the bakery, a new, insistent smell, sharp and ripe, means you’re at the “fromagerie”, where the cheeses defy the plastic wrapping designed to imprison their odour. Years ago, when it was still called the cheese counter and the cheese stank to its heart’s content, this was the domain of Mr Trebbick, cheesemonger to the stars.

A burly man in late middle age, he came to work each day in full theatrical make-up, cheeks rouged, eyebrows plucked and eyelashes thick with mascara. His straw boater sat atop a nest of platinum curls, the product of an hour’s painful soaking in peroxide every Thursday night.

All around him, the big brands employed young men and women chosen for their beauty, their guile and their avarice

Lauren Bacall was among the film stars who made a beeline for the cheese counter whenever they came to Harrods, partly because Mr Trebbick remembered more about their careers than they did themselves. Valerie Hobson, who starred in such British classics as Great Expectations and Kind Hearts and Coronets in the 1940s would listen to him reciting her own lines to her from half a century ago.

“Oh David, you have such a memory. But now my cheese order, please!”

Loved the attention

The stars loved the attention but ordinary customers could be alarmed when Mr Trebbick did one of his impromptu turns as Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter: “Oh dear! I’m feeling quite faint, quite overcome, really rather upset!”

I came in a few times a week to see my friend James, who sold expensive scent from a small island in the middle of the perfume hall. All around him, the big brands employed young men and women chosen for their beauty, their guile and their avarice, for whom no stratagem was too low or exploitative to secure the commission on a sale.

James had his own technique, a kind of courtship ritual, to ensnare the shy shopper. Avoiding eye contact at first, he would spray a sample card and push it across the counter. If that broke the ice, he would go on to insult some of the merchandise, telling the woman that he would not allow her to buy it.

He had one more gambit for the toughest cases, when he would look up, shake his head sadly and say:

Dreadful, isn’t it?”

“What?”

Everything!”

Figures published on Thursday showed that retail sales in Britain fell year-on-year for the first time since 2013

It never failed, and after 10 minutes complaining about everything that was wrong with the world and other people, they would leave with a small bottle, £200 poorer.

Shrine in basement

Harrods survived 15 years under the control of Mohamed Al-Fayed, who installed a shrine in the basement to his son Dodi and Princess Diana after their deaths. Owned since 2010 by the state of Qatar, the shop has shown steadily rising profits, up to last year. This year’s results have yet to be published, but if the rest of the retail landscape in Britain is anything to go by, Harrods will be very lucky to show another increase in profits.

Figures published on Thursday showed that retail sales in Britain fell year-on-year for the first time since 2013. Analysts said an unusually warm autumn hit clothing sales and Storms Brian and Ophelia kept shoppers at home.

But rising prices are also dampening demand as inflation continues to outpace wage rises, leaving many British households worse off. The fall in sterling which followed last year’s EU referendum is partly to blame for rising inflation, giving Remainers yet another reason to denounce Brexit.

The pound took a hit this week following reports from Brussels that the EU was unwilling to give Britain a good deal after Brexit. Failure to move on to trade talks after next month’s EU summit is likely to depress the currency further. That’s when Mr Trebbick’s successors on the sales staff at Harrods will need to call on all their charm and wiles to keep the tills ringing.

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