Big Interview: Zia Zareem-Slade, Customer Experience Director, Fortnum & Mason

Fortnum & Mason made immediate orders when the telephone was invented in 1876, making it one of the world's first multichannel retailers, according to customer experience director Zia Zareem-Slade. In an exclusive chat with Retail Gazette, she explains why the business is the world's oldest start-up.

Fortnum & Mason F&M Zia Zareem-Slade customer experience profile interview
Zia Zareem-Slade joined Fortnum & Mason in 2013.

“The world might be going mad around us and there are definitely difficult and uncertain times ahead. But you know what will make that better? Tea and biscuits.”

Fortnum & Mason customer experience director Zia Zareem-Slade clearly feels confident about the retailer’s future.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, department store chains were already struggling – with many familiar high street names around the world either falling into administration or underwent major restructuring without the push of coronavirus.

Yet Zareem-Slade said that because Fortnum & Mason, which she dubbed as the “the world’s oldest start-up”, is not really a department store anymore but more of an “experiential retailer”, it had a bright future.

“We’re a place full of extraordinary food and joy, we are unique in our positioning of that and I have no reason to be concerned,” she told Retail Gazette.

Fortnum & Mason F&M Zia Zareem-Slade customer experience
Fortnum & Mason’s flagship store in Piccadilly, London.

Fortnum & Mason has been creating artisan products and keeping people employed for 313 years, Regardless of its position in the luxury, department store, or food sectors, it is seemingly continually working towards being a more relevant retailer, something that many competitors are failing to do, Zareem-Slade said.

“Some of these retailers are being constantly challenged, and many department stores have responded by dipping their toes into experiential retail,” she added.

“They thought ‘let’s all open cafes and restaurants’. Well, at Fortnum & Mason we’ve got seven.

“We already had those experiential destinations for people to go sit and share time with their loved ones and to have a glass of wine or a Knickerbocker glory.”

Zareem-Slade was aware that Fortnum & Mason is a “memory-making business”, in that customers always remember the first time they came in for an afternoon tea.

“Those connections that we create with people are incredibly powerful,” she said.

“And I take it really seriously, that is a very privileged position to be in. So how do you create more of those moments? Well, you’ve got to keep evolving and showing your personality.”

Fortnum & Mason’s heritage is often used as a selling-point. With tea being one of the first products it sold – thanks to King Edward VII requesting the “finest tea in all of the land” in 1902 – the retailer found its anchor points and continues to tell stories through short films.

Another way the retailer has continued to tell its story is by inventing a sustainable form of packaging for its hampers – those with the famous “F&M” initials on them – which Zareem-Slade said sits in homes for at least 20 to 30 years.

“It’s got our initials on it, how incredibly powerful is that?” she said.

“And then those people will put their kids’ toys in them or money. It’s an incredible thing to have a product that lasts like that in peoples’ minds.

“We ran a campaign last year Long Love where customers were able to tell us all the mad and crazy things they do with their hampers.”

Zareem-Slade believes her previous career experiences gave her a head start in acknowledging the importance of customer experience.

Before joining Fortnum & Mason in 2013, she was the head of online at luxury department store Selfridges from 2011 to 2013. It was a role that taught her the challenge between brand promise and how that is actually delivered to customers.

“Those connections that we create with people are incredibly powerful”

“As a passionate believer in usability, user experience and experience design, it’s kind of the core of what I’m used to doing in other organisations of being able to join those dots up. It allows me to be very customer-focused,” she said.

“My deep core, if I was to be described as a T-shaped person, is digital.”

In her current role, Zareen-Slade reads every bit of customer feedback that Fortnum & Mason receives.

“What you find particularly is younger people engaging with the brand in a way that they hadn’t previously, or they thought it wasn’t for them, but they’ve come to realise that the retailer has been made accessible to them,” she explained.

In January, Fortnum & Mason praised its “bricks-and-clicks” business model for allowing it to post a strong sales performance during the Christmas trading period. For the five weeks to December 29, overall sales increased by 15 per cent year-on-year.

Zareem-Slade was also part of the team that saw a website redesign – which went live last year.

“As a digital native, I felt really confident that the new bricks-and-clicks model engaged proper customer feedback – live and direct,” she explained.

“The day we took it live, calls to the call centre dropped by 22 per cent.

“And that wasn’t just because of a new bit of technology, that was just us doing our jobs really well.”

Another transformation that Zareem-Slade has been instrumental in delivering is helping Fortnum & Mason serve local customers more, rather than remain as a tourist-centric retailer.

“When you think we’re 313 years old, it probably took us 307 years to become a £50 million business, and then it’s taken the last eight years to get it to a £138 million business, that’s quite a transformation in a very short window,” she said.

“My deep core, if I was to be described as a T-shaped person, is digital”

“In order to do that, there’s been a lot of change and innovation. You get lost in this world doing the same thing and staying the same. change has to happen.

“At least 60 per cent of the money made from our Piccadilly flagship store was from tourists, that’s fit now to 60 per cent domestic. Online is 85 per cent domestic.

“All of the retailers seemed to be saying a while back that online is evil and it’s taking sales away with this big shift to online – but that’s all boring to me.

“That’s not what the evidence is saying. It’s also not what your fortune has to be. If you are as a brand creating value for customers in whichever way, then just let them access you and service them brilliantly.”

Zareem-Slade went on to acknowledge the privilege that Fortnum & Mason has in being able to focus its resources on just one flagship store, alongside a few satellite and smaller-scale sites around London and in Hong Kong. Even so, she said this was part of the retailer’s strategic approach.

“We’ve not sat there and gone, ‘right, we’re going to open on every high street’, our access points are more limited,” she explained.

“We aim to give our customers a reason to come back time and time again and really cement that affection of the brand in their hearts and minds.

“We can’t sit comfortably just yet. It would be very arrogant of me to sit here and assume that everyone knows who we are.

“There’s always a quest to ensuring that there’s something interesting and special to say about us or our product.”

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