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    Fortnum & Mason’s customer experience director on evolving a heritage brand, creating memories and the future of retail

    THE ROYAL EXCHANGE: How long have you worked at Fortnum’s, and what does your role involve?

    ZIA ZAREEM-SLADE: I’ve been the customer experience director at Fortnum’s for over seven years. My responsibility is to bring the brand to life through all customer touchpoints – be it location, channel, packaging or environment – and make the brand more relevant to more people, more often. Ensuring customers always feel that sense of wonder and excitement when they engage with us, highlighting the unforgettable experiences and joy-giving things we make. Fortnum’s has such a rich heritage and incredible personality; my role is to bring that to life – and what a privilege that is.

    TRE: What makes Fortnum’s so unique and iconic?

    ZZ-S: Fortnum’s is the world’s oldest start-up; founded by entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity and went with it. It’s lasted for over 313 years due to its innovative spirit; evolving, being responsive and having a deeply rooted passion for discovery, flavour and beauty. Fortnum’s is a food experience business like no other, and don’t take my word for it, Charles Dickens famously said in 1845: ‘Fortnum and Mason, in Piccadilly, is always a beautiful and astonishing shop, filled with the gourmandizing pleasures of the whole world.’ And we hope that is true today. It really is unique in its history, personality and spirit and therefore attracts the most wonderful talent – our people, our partners, our suppliers are absolutely second to none. As for iconic – that’s flattering and something we work hard to deserve the mantle of.

    TRE: What would you say are the main things Fortnum’s customers love about the brand and the experience of shopping with you?

    ZZ-S: Our customers tell us they love the quality of what we do and how we do it. They love the feeling of wonder, and joy; the feeling of care and attention and being able to buy into something with depth. Fortnum’s is really about making joy and creating memorable experiences for our customers – but the secret ingredient in it all is our amazing people. Our customers tell us day in and day out about the interactions they have and the memories that are made. Everything about Fortnum’s is very experiential. Our restaurants are the manifestation for that – the beautiful bar and restaurant at The Royal Exchange, the award-winning Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, people remember these experiences. People look for a little escapism and theatre, and we offer that in abundance.

    TRE: What makes British luxury so special and covetable?

    ZZ-S: British luxury has an authentic heritage that few others genuinely emulate. But British luxury has also always stayed at the forefront of innovation – and staying relevant is crucial. This is an important part of what we do at Fortnum’s. When you’re a 300-year-old brand it’s easy to rest on that history and become stuffy with age. So, we put a lot of emphasis on not only staying culturally relevant, but really leading the way in moving the retail industry forward with the times. Our delicious, organic and non-alcoholic sparkling tea is a prime example of product innovation that keeps customers engaged and returning.

    The grand and historic ambience of The Royal Exchange is a perfect fit for Fortnum’s City boutique, bar and restaurant

    TRE: Fortnum’s epitomises the wonder and magic of Christmas for many. How has Fortnum’s come to have this reputation, and what does Fortnum’s do at Christmastime that makes people associate it as a place for Christmas shopping and experiences?

    ZZ-S: After 300+ Christmas’s under our belt, we know a thing or two about how to make this occasion the most special it can be. Christmas feasting traditions were fashioned in the Victorian era, and Fortnum’s supply of the most wonderful foods from around the world made it the place to come.

    In 1910, we had an entire department dedicated to Christmas crackers, in which we sold a life-size cracker in the shape of a crocodile, as well as musical chairs – gilt chairs that played a tune when you sat on them.

    Such was the importance of the Christmas pudding, during the Great War Fortnum’s sent out 500 plum puddings to one regiment for their Christmas dinner. After that, people were less inclined to make their own Christmas puddings and cakes and demand grew – I still don’t get the concept of Stir-up Sunday – it’s feet-up Sunday for me, as nothing beats a Fortnum’s Christmas pudding.

    Over the years we’ve proudly assisted the royal household with their festive feasting, supplying woodcock pies to Edward VII and George V for many Christmases, and the Queen Mother used to insist on wrapping up her own presents in the store, oblivious to the crowds of amazed shoppers around her.  

    In the 1960s, our teams would hang up their red coats at six o’clock in the evening, spend all night making up orders, have a shower and a cup of coffee in the morning, and start all over again. And then in 1984 the Band Aid song Do They Know It’s Christmas? – another icon of this time of year – landed Fortnum’s in the national press when the staff insisted it was sold in Piccadilly, helping spread the charitable message far and wide.

    For many of our customers – over the centuries, across the generations and the miles ­­– Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Fortnum & Mason, from the wonderful window displays to the best mince pies in the world. It is a huge privilege, and quite a responsibility, to be such a historically important part of Christmas for people all over the world.

    TRE: Why are Fortnum’s and The Royal Exchange a perfect match?

    ZZ-S: Like Fortnum’s, The Royal Exchange has so much heritage as an iconic part of the fabric of London for hundreds of years. When you walk into the courtyard with that soaring ceiling, you really get an immediate sense of the beauty, grandeur and history of the place. It makes dining there an unforgettable experience.

    Fortnum’s iconic afternoon tea is a delicious and memory-making experience, especially when enjoyed in The Royal Exchange’s magnificent central courtyard

    TRE: What is unique about the Fortnum’s experience at The Royal Exchange? 

    ZZ-S: There is something special about dining under the glass roof of The Royal Exchange, you really do feel the history surrounding you. It’s why we chose the venue as one of the first-ever external outputs of Fortnum & Mason. We always aim to bring exceptional dining experiences and delicious products for those visiting, working, and living in the City.

    TRE: 2020 has been an exceptionally difficult year for retail. How has Fortnum’s responded to the challenges of the pandemic, and kept customers feeling connected to the brand during the lockdowns?

    ZZ-S: Naturally it’s a challenging time for all and a big part of how we’ve managed has been capturing the magic of Fortnum’s remotely. We’ve been fortunate enough to stay connected to customers with initiatives like our Hungry Minds podcast, and our website was re-launched this year in order to recreate a little of that in-store pleasure. Our bar and restaurant at The Royal Exchange, as well as 45 Jermyn St., adapted through delivery services – so our customers have been able to enjoy Fortnum’s hospitality at home.

    TRE: On both a personal and a professional level, what have the challenges of the past year taught you?

    ZZ-S: Working from home for the majority of the year has certainly had its highs and lows. When you are a close-knit team, used to working together in the way that we are, it takes a lot of adjustment and adaptation to suddenly work remotely. We knew we had to continue to serve customers with the very highest standards they have come to expect from Fortnum’s, so ensuring a seamless transition into remote working was something we had to master with urgency.

    TRE: Looking forward to 2021, what can customers expect from Fortnum’s in the new year? Will retail look different in a post-pandemic age? 

    ZZ-S: We expect that there will still be an emphasis on digital events and online trading, particularly from those who don’t live close to our stores. We’re constantly evolving as a business and will continue to deliver unforgettable experiences to our customers, whether that be products or events, in person or remotely.

    TRE: How do you see the relationship between digital and physical retail evolving? Is there a place for both and are the customers different people, or do you see the same people engaging with the brand in both ways?

    ZZ-S: There is certainly an appetite for both and it’s clear already that brands are working hard to make the two sides of the retail experience as seamless as possible. Digital has evolved to become more experiential, allowing customers to feel like they’re actually in a store, while physical shopping increasingly includes digital elements, such as QR codes or options to pay remotely.

    Customers will pick what is the most enjoyable and convenient experience for them at that time; and brands need to be ready to provide both services well. At Fortnum’s, we see a lot of customers researching our extensive online selection of Christmas decorations, beauty products or candles, for example, but then opting to come into the store and make payment. Certain senses, such as scent or touch, aren’t as easily replicated online and so need a physical space.

    TRE: What are you most looking forward to about 2021?

    ZZ-S: We are just so thrilled to be able to welcome people back to our restaurants and shops – to hear the din of a busy restaurant, to turn out 2,000 warm fresh scones, to pour a perfect pot of tea or glass of sparkling – having people come and create memories with us is what it is all about, and we can’t wait.

    Zia Zareem-Slade is the customer experience director at Fortnum & Mason. Visit The Royal Exchange to discover the wonder and magic of a Fortnum’s experience at the boutique, bar or restaurant. For further information about Fortnum’s at The Royal Exchange, please visit our boutique and dining pages

    A conversation with… is a monthly series that invites today’s leading minds to discuss current topics, exchange points of view and explore new ideas with The Royal Exchange

    For Christmas gift guides, festive giveaways and seasonal activities, explore The Royal Exchange’s guide to Christmas: Seek And Ye Shall Find